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David Oyelowo’s gripping performance powers HBO movie ‘Nightingale’; he relishes a challenge

By Lynn Elber



LOS ANGELES _ HBO’s “Nightingale” is a small film with an indelibly big performance by David Oyelowo, who plays an emotionally damaged man losing himself further after a spasm of off-camera violence.

The demands of the one-character drama gave him pause, the British actor said. But he doesn’t shy away from a challenge, as he proved by his performance as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma,” a widely acclaimed turn despite being overlooked by the Academy Awards this year.

“The minute I feel like there is a degree of impossibility, I’m there,” Oyelowo said.

“Nightingale” (9 p.m. EDT Friday) was written by Frederick Mensch, directed by Elliott Lester and is presented by HBO Films and Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment company _ a producer on “Selma” and key to the airing of “Nightingale,” Oyelowo said.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, he discussed the film, playdates with the Pitt-Angelina Jolie family and diversity in Hollywood.

AP: Did you draw on anyone you’ve known or encountered for the “Nightingale” character of Peter Snowden?

Oyelowo: I’ve gone to supermarkets not far from where I live in LA, and you see people … roaming the aisles. You register them, and you go about your day. People like that are wallflowers and you don’t invest much time in why they seem to be talking to themselves, or why they seem to be a bit more angry than your average person, or why eye contact is something that almost seems you’re pouring acid on them. … For me, the film is about those people. Those people in society who, to be perfectly honest, we’d rather not deal with because it’s difficult, it’s uncomfortable.

AP: What was Brad Pitt’s involvement in the film?

Oyelowo: Brad is a very good friend of mine. We sort of know each other more as dads of lots of children. I have four kids (with wife Jessica Oyelowo, an actress), he has six, and you can only imagine the amount of noise and activity that’s generated when we are all together. Not until ‘Selma’ did we get into a creative relationship. (When Pitt saw ‘Nightingale’) he flipped for it. For him, as a great actor, he was just completely drawn in by the nature of a singular character going through a film. … I’ve been a huge beneficiary of advocacy. ‘Selma’ would not have happened without Oprah Winfrey (among its producers). ‘Nightingale’ would not be on HBO without Brad seeing the film and championing it. It’s good to have friends who can truly make a difference.

AP: Snowden seems to be a virtually colorblind role. Is that important?

Oyelowo: He wasn’t written as African-American. Other actors who circled the project were all white, and we didn’t change a single stage direction or line to accommodate the fact that I’m a black actor playing that role. To me that’s fantastic. … Playing (Martin Luther King) was about who he was ethnically but even more who he was as a human being. With Peter Snowden, to get to play this role, of course it’s significant because those kind of opportunities don’t come along a lot for black actors. … Generally speaking, there must be more in order to genuinely move the so-called diversity conversation forward.

AP: Do you think you make more headway as a black actor in Hollywood in part because you are English?

Oyelowo: An English accent is a great sweetener for perceived militancy. That accent opens a lot of doors, there’s no question. But above and beyond anything one individual has to say, the work has to do the talking. I think excellence is the best weapon against prejudice. … Anything that anyone has to say around or about ‘Selma,’ the quality of the film is undeniable and the artistry and production values are undeniable. Films are for life, not just awards season. … The truth will withstand all the rest, all the noise.


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