This story first appeared in the Movies and Limited Series issue of TheWrap Emmy magazine.
David Oyelowo is a well-known and well-respected actor these days, thanks in no small part to his Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice and Independent Spirit-nominated performance as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in last year’s Oscar-nominated “Selma.” But it’s Elliott Lester’s “Nightingale,” an HBO movie that premiered in May, that prepared him to play such an iconic figure.
The “Nightingale” role of a mentally unbalanced veteran was to be Oyelowo’s first film lead when he signed on in 2013. The film was also, crucially, the first time he decided to try method acting.
That decision to stay in character for the duration of the shoot, he told TheWrap, was necessitated by the story of “Nightingale,” in which his character Peter, a war veteran who commits a heinous act and suffers from delusions and split personalities, is the only person on screen for the entire film.
“I’d never done [method acting] before, partly because I was concerned about coming off as a pretentious actor,” Oyelowo said with a laugh. “I’d been around actors who did it to great effect, some of those being Forest Whitaker in ‘The Last King of Scotland’ and Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘Lincoln.’ The results are undeniable. I think I just never had a role where it felt necessary to use it.
“But when I learned that there were various versions of Peter in the same human being, I realized that to have David in there as well was just going to be too much. To be on set and interacting with people as myself and then have to get into character — I just didn’t feel like I would be able to immerse myself as much as I would like.”
Oyelowo typically prepares extensively for his roles, but “Nightingale” required even more prep than usual, despite the fact that the character remains mostly mysterious to the audience.
“I always have a fairly fleshed-out notion of who the characters I’m playing are,” he said. “That’s just something I do regardless of whether that is hugely important for the audience or not. But for Peter, I felt that it was very important to have the histories of 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.”
Oyelowo went on to use method acting to play King in “Selma,” and credits his experience on the HBO film for the decision. “I don’t know that I would have made that choice if I didn’t do ‘Nightingale’ first and feel the effect,” he said.
And even though he’s now in a very different place than he was a few years ago when he took the job on “Nightingale,” he would still take the role all over again. “I think I would have taken ‘Nightingale’ at any point in my career,” he said. “It’s the kind of role that every actor who is looking to push themselves would read and then think, ‘Wow, okay, let me take a breath here before I dive in.’
“Which is what I will always look for, I hope, in my career.”