We spoke to the immensely talented actor on the phone as he took a lunch break on set out in Los Angeles to discuss The Butler, where he plays radical son to our protagonist, Louis Gaines. Oyelowo discusses having Oprah as his on-screen mother, learning about the intensity of historical, American racism through film, working with Chris Nolan on Interstellar, and divulges as much information as he can about the rumours linking him to Jurassic World.
Of course you worked with Lee Daniels on The Paperboy – what was it about him as a director which lured you back in for another project?
The thing about Lee is, the material he picks and his vision as a director are so unique and that’s what I’m always looking for as an actor. It’s so easy and most of what is out there is pedestrian, and you don’t become a better actor, or indeed a better artist by just doing sub-standard material or roles and that’s the challenge that Lee definitely sets himself. I always love working with him because I feel like I’ve grown as an actor alongside him.
I think I speak on behalf of everyone in saying that I’m immensely jealous that Oprah played your mum. What was that experience like?
It was incredible actually, and yes, if you had a top three people on planet Earth that you’d want to play your mum, I imagine Oprah would be in a lot of people’s lists. The amazing thing about her is that she is just an incredible human being, she didn’t bring any of her notoriety or celebrity or whatever you want to call it to the set, or indeed to her relationship with me both on and off camera. She just came on and was Gloria Gaines and I was so full of admiration for her because in many ways she had the toughest job in the film.
As for your own character – you have to play Louis across decades. That must have been quite a challenge for you to present the subtle differences in people as they get older?
Yeah, and that’s one of the reasons why I love working with Lee. He has such attention to detail and I need that in order to play that role, you know, you couldn’t get away with lazy choices like a hunchback or anything like that, anything that would draw the audience’s eye. So as you say, subtlety was the key. Also just getting to play a guy from the age of 17 through to 58, is that you not only see physical change but you’re seeing personality change, and all of those things contribute to the subtleties in how we grow as human beings, so to be able to chart that is a real gift for an actor really. The kind of gift you only get in the theatre, normally.
The Butler really casts an eye over modern American history – but do you think there’s enough in here for British audiences as well?
I do, I do. Because whether you are interested in American history or not, the film is very much grounded by the experience of a family and you know, the film is being viewed through the eyes of the butler and his family. I think that the relationship I have with my father in the film, anyone who has been a parent or someone’s child, will be able to relate to the generational gap, the fact that when you grow older you start to form your own ideas and have your own point of view – and often it clashes with the older generation, i.e. your parents – and that’s one of the main threads through the film. But also, America, whether you like it or not, is a huge part of world history and world politics and world culture and you really get to see those middle decades of the 20th century that effectively have shaped the America that now exists. We definitely would not have Barack Obama as president without what happened in the 50s and 60s, and in terms of what changed socio-politically at that time. I truly believe it’s a film that should have crossover appeal.
What with The Butler, 12 Years a Slave and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom – it seems there are a few films at the moment tapping in to the struggles and mistreatment of black people across the course of history. Do you think there is any particular reason as to why these themes have to come to light in recent films?
I think the biggest shift in all of those films you’re talking about, is that there have been films that have tackled those issues but they’ve always been from a white perspective. If you look at films that have covered Mandela, that have covered the slave experience or indeed civil rights – they have all been through the eyes of white characters. I think that’s the big shift, that you now have black protagonists at the heart of their own story, and it has more poignancy as a result. That’s why these films film more potent than what have come before, because Hollywood directors and writers have finally attained the level of bravery to tackle these subject matters through the eyes of the people they’re actually about.
Do you think that by taking roles such as this in The Butler, or in Red Tails, for example – does it give you more of an insight into what people had to go through? Is this whole process for you almost a way of learning about these horrific events and realising exactly what it must have been like?
It’s certainly an education for me in terms of what racism is and has been in America, but I know exactly what racism is like in the UK. The reason there may be a thought that it doesn’t exist in the same way, is that history isn’t told in the same way in the UK, where the history of racism is very real and very ripe. You only have to ask people to emigrated to Britain at the end of the 50s and 60s. There aren’t stories of people being lynched – but you know of Britons racial monstrosities happen on foreign soil and that’s the big difference, and that’s the big difference between America and Great Britain – they both have a fairly bloody history, but Britain’s bloody history mostly takes place on different continents.
As for yourself, you’re becoming one of the most dependable stars in Hollywood – was it always your intention to eventually make the across to the US?
For me, I’m very much material driven. I had a very wonderful career in the UK both in theatre and TV, but America is a bigger country and therefore they have a bigger market and they tell bigger stories in a bigger way. You know, I’m an ambitious person and I wanted to play with the big boys, so to speak. So it more driven by that. I loved being in the UK and working in the UK, but it was purely a desire to be in bigger and broader films – and films in particular, as opposed to TV. I do think we produce the best theatre and TV in the world, but with films, it’s pretty tough to compete with the scale and the budget that you are afforded here in America.
One of those big scale productions we’re very much looking forward to is Interstellar – how is that one coming along?
That was an amazing experience, an amazing, amazing experience. Chris Nolan is one of the best directors in the world, probably one of the best directors of all time, and that’s what I look for. I just want to work with the best so that I can constantly improve as an actor, and to be under his gaze as a director was incredible because you’re very aware and it becomes very apparent that you are dealing with a master.
I’m not quite sure why I’d expect you to confirm anything here with me today – but there are obviously lots of rumours about you being in Jurassic World. Can you comment on that at all?
[Laughs] I can’t really, but there are lots of rumours about a lot of films I’m meant to be involved with. But hey, I’m just very happy to be in the conversation on all of these films, that is the big difference. When you’re in the mix in Hollywood, great filmmakers and great material comes along your way and films like The Butler being successful help to be part of that conversation. So nothing is confirmed, and I can’t confirm anything, but lovely conversations are being had.
Well I had to give it a go. Anyway, my final question is that your character in The Butler sports a rather dashing see through top. I was wondering if you were allowed to keep it?
[Laughs] Um, even if I was allowed to keep it I don’t think I’d want to. In fact, I think I would have literally burnt it if they handed it to me. But yeah that was one of my more flamboyant moments on film to date. They had some flair those Black Panthers, so I had to do my bit.
The Butler is released on November 15, and our review can be found here.