On a cold London morning, David Oyelowo ponders what would have become of his career had he not left Britain in 2007. “You can see exactly what would have happened. I would have been here, complaining about the fact I wasn’t being given opportunities that reflect the talent I think I have.”
Now, eight years after exporting himself to Los Angeles, 38-year-old Oyelowo has secured his biggest role yet. In Selma he plays Martin Luther King, caught at a pivotal moment in the civil rights struggle.
A slightly built Englishman of Nigerian heritage with a calm, professional manner, Oyelowo wears a smart jacket and pressed shirt. As he describes his reasons for leaving, his accent is cut-glass. “There’s a string of black British actors passing through where I live now in LA. We don’t have Downton Abbey, or Call the Midwife, or Peaky Blinders, or the 50th iteration of Pride and Prejudice. We’re not in those. And it’s frustrating, because it doesn’t have to be that way. I shouldn’t have to feel like I have to move to America to have a notable career.”
His early 20s were spent as a leading light of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Then he starred as MI5 agent Danny Hunter in TV’s hugely successful Spooks (below). The show opened doors. By 2007, he seemed poised to become a mainstay of British film and TV. Instead, he left, frustrated.
“We make period dramas here, but there are almost never black people in them, even though we’ve been on these shores for hundreds of years.” He smiles a little thinly. “I remember taking a historical drama with a black figure at its centre to a British executive with greenlight power, and what they said was that if it’s not Jane Austen or Dickens, the audience don’t understand. And I thought ‘OK — you are stopping people having a context for the country they live in and you are marginalising me. I can’t live with that. So I’ve got to get out.’”
Since doing so, he’s flourished. This year alone, aside from Selma, there have been roles in sci-fi blockbuster Interstellar and New York drama A Most Violent Year. Life is good, on screen and off. He met his wife Jessica when they were both drama student and they now have three sons and a daughter.
“Please,” he says, “do me the favour when you’re writing this, not to give a sense of me as simply moaning.” He takes pains to praise the “phenomenal talent” in Britain, to point out he’s come home to make high-end TV projects (spy thriller Complicit, postwar drama Small Island). Hollywood is just bigger, “whether you’re black, white, green or blue. It’s the most fertile ground for me to plant myself in.”
He mentions other black British actors – “People as talented as me if not more so, who chose to stay and aren’t getting the opportunities worthy of them. And I can’t say the same of my white peers.”