David Oyelowo on Commanding the Screen Solo for 90 Minutes in HBO’s ‘Nightingale’

“I knew if it failed it would be glaringly obvious whose fault it was,” actor tells TheWrap

Last Updated: May 29, 2015 @ 4:53 PM

Before he became Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Selma,” David Oyelowo took on one of his most challenging roles yet, as a man descending into madness in “Nightingale.” It was his first lead role in a film, and it required him to carry the drama solo for the entire 90 minute duration.

“I knew it would be very exposing, I knew if it failed it would be glaringly obvious whose fault it was,” the actor told TheWrap.

“Nightingale,” which premieres Friday on HBO, was written by Frederick Mensch and directed by Elliot Lester.  Oyelowo plays a disturbed war veteran who suffers from multiple personality disorder. As the film begins, he’s just committed a heinous crime. The drama then follows Oyelowo’s character Peter as he descends into madness.

Though “Nightingale” is only now premiering on HBO, Oyelowo actually shot the film in 2013, before “Selma,” the award-winning project that would propel him to another level of fame.

In the interview below, Oyelowo discusses going method for the first time and whether he would have signed up for the film at this point in his career.

TheWrap: How did you feel when you first read the script, especially about being the only actor present?
David Oyelowo: When I first read the script, the thing that struck me was that I hadn’t read anything quite like it as far as a screenplay goes, and that’s a pretty big thing to be able to say about a screenplay. That obviously got my attention. On top of that, it was so unusual but, it felt like it could work as a film. You can read something that feels audacious and brave and original, but it feels like a bit of a reach. This didn’t feel like that to me. It felt cinematic. It wasn’t until the end of the script that I went, “Oh my goodness, it’s only one guy in the film.”

As it pertains to me, being the only actor, I just felt it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I knew it would be very exposing, I knew if I failed it would be glaringly obvious whose fault it was. But it was a tiny little movie. We made it for not a lot of money at all, it was a three-week shoot, it was just something I thought, at the very least, I’ll be a better, hopefully braver actor at the end of this exercise, and if that’s the only thing we achieve, great. I certainly did not expect HBO and this kind of rollout.

How much of Peter was on script, and how much did you shape him?
It was very, very well realized on the page, but what I had to do in terms of playing him was to root this specific individual in specificity. He has done this hideous thing, he is clearly someone who is mentally unbalanced, to do what he has done and believe what he believes and behave the way he does. I spoke to psychiatrists about it and had the psychiatrists read the script and ask, “What kind of person is this? Have you ever encountered someone like this?” What he has is, according to the guy I spoke to, is what is now called Dissociative Identity Disorder. It’s someone who, through trauma, has split themselves into variations, “alters,” as they call them, in order to deal with certain circumstances. So he basically has multiple personality disorder and that has enabled him to survive. It allowed him to be in denial about who he is, what he is, what he’s done, in given situations, in order to go through life feeling like everything’s okay.

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Peter is a pretty mysterious character. How much of his story did you flesh out?
I always have fairly fleshed-out notion of who the characters I’m playing are. That’s just something I do by way of exercise regardless of whether that is hugely important for the audience or not. But in relation to Peter, I felt that it was very important to have that but also the specific histories of the each of the variations of him. In order to believe what he believes about Edward, the man he’s infatuated with, there’s a specific history he’s built in his head to enable him to feel that way. There’s a specific history he has with his mother, in order to live with the choices he’s made in relation to her. And so all those different variations of him have their own specific histories. So even though he’s a very unreliable narrator for the movie, he’s living his own truth in any given moment. Even if he’s telling a lie, it’s a lie that allows him to survive, or a lie he’s able to justify because he has his own endgame.

“Nightingale” ended up on HBO but it wasn’t necessarily intended for the medium. Are you open to doing more TV?
I really don’t discriminate when it comes to the medium. It’s all about the material, the character, the people involved, and the auspices under which we’re going to do it. I’m a family man as well, so sometimes TV is prohibitive, six months in Vancouver, that’s really not going to work for me. But that’s because of my family, not for any other reason. So yeah, I am very open. I am always going to look for characters that are going to challenge me and put me around people who are better than me so I can grow.

“Nightingale” premieres Friday, May 29, at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.