David Oyelowo knows what racist internet hate feels like. The British actor, best known for playing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 2014 biographical drama Selma, weathered a backlash for playing one-half of a mixed-race couple in the fairy tale Come Away. It imagines what would happen if Angelina Jolie and Oyelowo’s fictional children — Peter Pan and his sister, Alice — were to embark on mythical adventures in Neverland and Wonderland, in a dreamy mash-up of two seminal stories. In his case, user-generated “reviews” on sites like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes trashed the movie, without actual humans actually having seen it.
“It’s the same reason they targeted John Boyega for playing a Stormtrooper in Star Wars. They are people who are fundamentally against progress. As the election shows and these films show, progress is inexorable,” says Oyelowo. “People want to see themselves reflected in these movies. Why shouldn’t a stormtrooper be represented by different kinds of people? But actually, I like that it’s being aired that these people are out there and we know about them.”
Oyelowo, who has four kids, talks to Fatherly about why representation matters, wanting to be the next Matt Damon, and how Angelina Jolie came to play his wife.
Wow. How about that election, huh? Were you celebrating along with the rest of the world?
I was and I am. What a nerve-racking ride that was. But yeah. I’ve gotta say — when Kamala Harris said that “every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities” — I’ve tried to live that way in my work for so long. On so many levels, it feels like a great moment. It was really interesting to watch my 8-year-old daughter who looks like a smaller younger version of Kamala Harris, dancing in front of the TV spontaneously. She has no concern with politics. She doesn’t care about the news. But that captivated her. Images matter. Representation does matter.
It feels like your movie is perfectly timed for this moment, as we deal with the trauma of COVID-19, a contested election, and a world in turmoil.
It was so creative and inventive to have Alice and Peter as brother and sister. It’s an idea that works so unexpectedly and organically. Not discounting the fact that in casting me, I knew that Alice and Peter would look like me. The film doesn’t patronize young people by denying challenges and familiar situations. Kids often retreat into their imaginations. They teach their parents, in our film, to do the same.
You play one-half of a mixed-race couple, and there’s absolutely no big deal made about it. It’s just how it is. Which is great to see.
It’s how I live my life. My wife is white. I have four interracial kids. I recently lost my dad — in the last month — he lived with us for the past four years. My kids loved him deeply. We are literally in the midst of dealing with loss right now. We recognize love and laughter is part of the way to heal.
What values do you try to teach your children?
Oh gosh, compassion, kindness, tolerance. For them to be good people in the true sense. When I say good people, it’s putting other people before yourself. That’s the greatest quality in humanity. That’s what love looks like. That’s something I try to live out.
Your movies always have a message. What makes you decide that a project is the right fit?
For me personally, it’s very important that it has something to say. I don’t mind entertainment that is mindless and a bit fluffy. For me personally, it costs me too much to leave home and the work I put into the roles I do. I don’t want it to just wash over people. It’s important to me that the film has something to say.
So Angelina plays your wife. Did you throw her a bone there, helping her out a bit since she has no career and isn’t remotely famous?
Angie and I have been friends for a long time. We met at a birthday party talking about our kids. She has six and I have four and we were talking about the challenges of raising them, not to mention raising them in Los Angeles. It was very seamless for us. You want a costar you like and trust. Those go a long way. That was something we had with each other.
As we became closer and closer as friends, I showed her my film Nightingale and she said no one offers her independent films. When we were on this set, I said, ‘Look at you in an independent film playing a mother,’ which she hasn’t been able to do for whatever reason. She plays a mother lovingly at home with her kids which is what she spends so much of her time doing.
Is there a dream project you’ve had in your back pocket?
I loved the Jason Bourne trilogy. I loved the fact that it was an espionage film with a brain. It didn’t patronize the audience. Those are the kinds of films I love to watch. I haven’t been able to do as much of that. To find the equivalent of that film or franchise — I’d love to be a part of that.
What’s been the most rewarding part of fatherhood for you?
What a great question — I think the fact that kids give you the gift of taking your eyes off yourself. Early on, as an actor, that’s an occupational hazard to be self-obsessed. Your kids come along. Your job is to look out for them. That’s a releasing thing. It’s a freeing thing to look beyond yourself. They see the adulation and they see you at home on the toilet, and it’s like OK. There’s reality.
Come Away is scheduled to be released on November 13, 2020.