NAACP Image Award winner and Golden Globe nominee David Oyelowo premiered his powerful, single character, single set drama, Nightingale, on May 29 at the Art Beam in Manhattan. In the film directed by Elliott Lester, Oyelowo portrays a lonely military veteran whose isolation and depression reveals the insanity of his assorted conflicted multiple personalities, leading to his own destruction.
In an Q&A session following the screening, Oyelowo, who won NAACP Image Awards for his roles in Selma and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, explained that the script presented a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“It was so bold, so bodacious,” he told the invitation only crowd. The English born actor starred in the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he yearned for more roles that would challenge him. “I wanted an experience like in the theater,” he said. “Hollywood roles don’t allow you to stretch, unless you are the lead. Something like this (Nightingale) never happens.”
In the film, Oyelowo’s character, Peter Snowden, tell his story of suicidal solitude through phone calls and videotaped conversations with himself in one location, the home he shares with his mother. His resentment of her since childhood has culminated in her demise, and he attempts to hide her death while continuing his work as a grocery store clerk. His only hope for happiness lies in his delusional pursuit of a romance with an army buddy, Edward, who is married with a wife and children.
Oyelowo is now one of the most sought after actors, however he is usually disappointed in the quality of roles offered. He recalled recently changing booking agencies, and giving his “Sidney Poitier” speech to a room filled with 20 agents meeting him for the first time.
“I said, ‘Why did Sidney Poitier get to play the roles he played? Why can’t you give me Sidney Poitier roles?'”
“Don’t box me into Black roles,” he demands. “So many of the black roles are limited to stereotypes.” However, he was pleasantly surprised with the depth of his character in ‘Nightingale.”
“This satisfied my thirst,” Oyelowo stated with a smile.
The veteran actor appeared in Lincoln starring Daniel-Day Lewis, and The Last King of Scotland starring Forest Whitaker. Lewis and Whitaker both won Academy Awards for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. Oyelowo remembers how each of them remained in character throughout the entire production. For the first time in his career, he adopted that same approach to Nightingale, as his character displayed seven different distinct personalities.
Nightingale was shot prior to Oyelowo’s award winning performance in Selma, and Lester revealed the reaction to his casting is evidence of Hollywood’s reluctance to promote films with black stars.
“I was told if you put a black man in the lead, you won’t be successful,” he stated. “My reaction was, if you don’t try, nothing will change.”
Oyelowo added, “This film took so long to make for the same reason why Selma took so long to make. The gatekeepers are still trying to stop us from seeing a diversified world.” On the positive side, he added, “Those people are diminishing, I’m glad to say.”
He mentioned that Nightingale was rejected by film festivals and distributors, however it was saved by a “gatekeeper” who was one of the executive producers for Selma, Brad Pitt.
“Selma would not have happened without Oprah Winfrey,” Oyelowo expressed with gratitude, “and Nightingale would not have happened without Brad Pitt.”
Oyelowow’s association with Pitt on Selma led to the famed actor/producer screening Nightingale. “Two weeks after he watched it,” recalls Lester, “we were meeting with HBO.”
When asked what is next in his career, Oyelowo replied, “I want to present dimensionalized representations of life. To go beyond what we’ve seen so far. Different kinds of people (especially female directors) telling stories with different characters.”
Oyelowo offered this ray of hope to the aspiring filmmakers and actors in the audience.
“If you put your heart into the work, buck the system, and be daring, believe your work will find its place.”
Nightingale debuts May 29 at 9 p.m. on HBO.