David Oyelowo flew in to New York from South Africa to attend a special screening of “Nightingale” at ArtBeam.
The single-character drama starring Golden Globe nominee David Oyelowo debuted on HBO on Friday, May 29. Directed by Elliott Lester from a screenplay by Frederick Mensch, the film is a provocative drama that probes the darkest corners of a disturbed mind, as a war veteran begins to unravel thread by thread. This searing story of solitude and isolation offers a poignant look at how life has failed one man. Read what David and Elliot told us on the red carpet:
What attracted you to the project?
David Oyelowo: The fact that is was intriguing. Most scripts you read feel like well trodden territory. You’ve seen it before. You’ve heard it before. You’ve been in it before. This was none of those. I simply had never read a script quite like it, certainly not for the screen. The character was so compelling to me…terrifying really. I really felt I wanted to do it as a dare to myself. Could I engage with this in the way that you have to. You have to be fully exposed as an actor and I decided to dive in.
Can you talk about collaborating with Elliot Lester and his vision?
David: What I loved about Elliot is talking to him early on, he was just as terrified but also as excited by it as myself. We very much went into it with a feeling of fearlessness really; and I mean fearless in a sense that if we fail, let’s fail forward. There’s no guarantee with a film like this that it’s going to be successful. That it’s going to be well realized because so many of the tools that you normally have aren’t there. You don’t have other characters. You don’t have multiple locations. You don’t have a car chase and you don’t even have a love interest. It’s just one guy in a house. So can that work cinematically? We live in an age where you have seen it all before. Let’s try to do something that you haven’t seen it before.
What’s the challenge when it’s just you with no co-workers, and one location as you mentioned?
DO: It’s very lonely. Thankfully the character is a very lonely guy. He’s someone who’s very solitary and doesn’t particularly like going out. He’s someone who has cultivated a wall of lies around him in order to be able to survive. Any loneliness I felt lent itself to the character. Thankfully it was only a three week shoot. Anything much longer than that, I would have actually gone a bit mad like Peter Snowden.
You seem to be working all the time. When do you catch a break?
DO: I think I use my time off wisely. If I’m not on a set, I’m with my wife and kids and that’s about it. I love being with them and they travel with me all the time. I’m doing a film at the moment. I flew in from South Africa last night. They have been with me. We were in Uganda. My wife and I have a two week rule that we’re never apart for more than two weeks. Even though I stayed in character for the three weeks that we shot this, I stole away for half a day to see my family. I’m having a great moment right now and it doesn’t promise to stay forever, so while it’s around, I’m going to try and put as much as a dent in thing as I can.
You worked with Ava DuVernay on ‘Selma’ and you’re about to work with Amma Asante on ‘A United Kingdom.’ Can you talk about working with these Black female directors?
DO: In talking about Ava, and in talking about Amma, one of the things I’m adamant about is that I want to see and hear voices of others. Others who are not being represented. Female directors, actresses, people of color, people who are underrepresented on film. I deliberately pursued Ava to direct ‘Selma.’ I deliberately pursued Amma to direct ‘A United Kingom’ because I think these are underrepresented voices in film; and I think that when you are an artist, who you are is tied in to what you do. If 50% of the population is female and yet a minuscule of percentage of directors are female, something’s off. Something’s wrong and therefore the films we’re seeing are skewed in a way that doesn’t represent the world I live in. Both in terms in women and of people of color. That’s why I wanted to do ‘Nightingale.’ We don’t get to play characters like this that are not rooted in race, sports, music, and civil rights. It has nothing to do with that. It’s just a very complex character. I want to use whatever notoriety I have to get those voices out there because I do think it shapes culture.
We spoke with Elliott Lester about the film:
How did you first get involved with the project?
The project was given to me by my producing partner, Josh Weinstock, on a Wednesday, we optioned it on a Monday, and we were in pre-production maybe a month later.
How did David Oyelowo get involved?
Well, the material went out to the town and we had a huge influx of actors that wanted to play Peter Snowden. David came in; he was incredibly honest, he said, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to be doing here, I’m slightly terrified,’ and ultimately it was about him wanting to pursue the truth, and it was kind of a no-brainer after that.
Besides David, what’s the sell?
One man, one house, ninety minutes. Enjoy the ride.
Speak about the challenges of working with one set and one actor.
Actually, for me, not too many. But for the actor, for David, he’s got no one to act opposite. Effectively I’m his acting partner. You’re in a house, and you’re always looking for a new angle to shoot from. In terms of from the crew point of view, it’s quite easy, because you’re not having to cover additional coverage. But from the actor’s point of view, it’s immensely difficult. There’s very few actors, I think, that could pull it off, and David does it beautifully.
Speak about watching him transform into this character.
David is Peter Snowden. Watching him transform was quite incredible. When he was on the set he was Peter Snowden, he was not David Oyelowo. It was a true method immersion into that character.
This is a one man, one set show. Could you see it be put on stage?
Actually, that’s a great question. Originally, Frederick the writer had written it as a play. And I think he’d given up on it a little bit. But, I think, as an actor, if you want to stretch, this is probably the toughest material you can do.
Photo Credit: Dorothy Hong