As an aspiring young actor, David Oyelowo was worried the profession was too unpredictable to make a living. But having landed parts in some highly acclaimed productions straight out of drama school, he realised he really could make money while having fun. As part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s acclaimed This England histories cycle in 2000, in which he also appeared in Richard III, Oyelowo became the first black man to play the King of England, when he took the title role Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3. The performance won him the 2001 Ian Charleson Award for young actors in classical roles.
Oyelowo’s other stage credits have included Aeschylus’ The Suppliants at the Gate, Brave New World’s production of Coriolanus, Yellow Sky’s Love of the Nightingale, Oroonoko and with the RSC, and The God Botherers at the Bush.
On television, Oyelowo is probably best known for his role as Danny in the BBC spy drama Spooks. Other notable TV appearances include Maisie Raine, Brothers and Sisters and As Time Goes By, in which he played Judi Dench’s stepson. On film, his credits include Dog Eat Dog, Tomorrow La Scala, A Sound of Thunder and The Spice of Life, as well as forthcoming releases Derailed, The Best Man and Kenneth Branagh’s As You Like It.
This month, Oyelowo has returned to the stage, and to Greek dramatist Aeschylus, to take the title role of Prometheus Bound at Leicester Square’s new Sound Theatre, where he debates the big issues of life, death, destiny and spirituality - while tied to a post.
Date & place of birth
Born 1 April 1976 in Oxford.
Lives now in…
I live in Hove. I’ve lived there with my wife for about five years with our two boys. The oldest is nearly four, he’ll be four in October, and the youngest is six months.
London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA).
First big break
Definitely The Suppliants which I did with James Kerr, the director for Prometheus Bound. That’s also Aeschylus so it’s exciting to be working again in a production with the same writer and the same director. I was seen doing Suppliants by the RSC. That’s the play they first saw me in and the one from which they first asked me to go there.
Favourite productions to date
Henry VI is undoubtedly my favourite out of all the ones I’ve been in. To get to play the part three times in a day with the RSC was just an amazing opportunity, and we were doing that along with Richard III as well. It was fantastic.
Judi Dench is my absolute favourite actor ever. She is such a generous, talented, gifted and lovely human being. When I worked with her in As Time Goes By, I just completely fell in love with her. I was playing her supposed stepson in that - so you can guess where most of the comedy came from!
James Kerr because he is one of my best friends and he just completely understands theatre. He also understands me, which makes it a lot easier for us working together. I also like Michael Boyd. It was so exiting working with him in Henry VI and Richard III and I think that was a time when he was at the red hot age of his genius.
It has to be Shakespeare. No one else can ever create characters so right, there has never been a writer before or since who is so able to sum up the human condition. He also writes for all ages. With Romeo and Juliet you have first love, and with Antony and Cleopatra it’s all about love at a later age. He’s such a fantastic writer for actors as well because all his characters are landmark roles. You feel as though, if you missed out on Romeo, there’s always Hamlet, and if you missed playing Hamlet, there’s always King Lear.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Prometheus is actually my ideal because it’s one of those great roles, like Hamlet, that’s about a man confused about his own humanity. It’s all about humanity and about taking up both small and enormous challenges. Of course, Prometheus is both a man and a god so that makes it even more of a complex role. It is theatre at its most exciting.
Do you prefer working on stage or screen?
I like both for different reasons. I love the time it takes to work on a role with theatre, and then I love the fact that when it’s performance time there’s no editor - we have just got to have done our preparation. And then with film I love the quick turn-around of it and the fact that, even though it has been done quickly, it lives on forever because it’s captured on tape - which is wonderful, particularly if it’s a role you’re very proud of.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally? I was all set to become a lawyer, mainly because that’s what my father wanted me to do. He had three boys and, being a typical Nigerian father, he wanted a lawyer, a doctor and an engineer. Instead, he got an actor and two artists - but I think he’s proud really! I had done some youth theatre and enjoyed it, but never really thought of acting as a profession. It was one of those things you did for fun but didn’t expect to take seriously. When I realised I actually could get paid having this much fun being in shows, I decided to go for it! My father thought it was a trivial and precarious profession really, but I think the turning point was when he came to the RSC. He saw his son playing the King of England in Henry VI with such a respected company and started to believe in it a bit more.
Do you think there are more opportunities for black artists than there used to be?
Actually, I think theatre is way ahead of film and television in that sense, and yes I do think there are more opportunities than there used to be. “Colour blind” casting is much more of a reality in theatre than it is in film and television. I think it’s because theatre directors are so much more daring. I played the King of England for the RSC, but there’s no way I’d be allowed to do it on film. Film directors just don’t want to take the risk. They need to be braver. We live in a multi-cultural society and TV and film should reflect that.
What was the last stage production you saw that had a big impact?
I watched Nicholas Hytner’s Henry IV at the National, which I thought was amazing. One of my best friends, Matthew MacFadyen, was in it. I think my favourite show I’ve ever seen was Complicite’s The Street of Crocodiles. I couldn’t believe how transported I was by a piece of theatre. I also loved Terry Johnson’s Hysteria at the Royal Court. I think the thing I like most about all those productions is that they are fundamentally theatre. Theatre fills a gap that film and television can’t by being so dramatic and full of big ideas.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Give us more money and support it! It seems ridiculous because people come from all over the world to see British theatre as it’s supposed to be some of the best in the world. Britain has a reputation as a good place for theatre, and yet the government just doesn’t seem to support it much at all. On the continent, they seem to give film and theatre much more respect and credibility than they do here.
Favourite after-show haunts
I don’t really have any. I live in Hove so I leave the theatre as soon as I can to get home and see my babies. It’s not such a bad commute, but it takes about an hour on the train.
The Bible is my favourite book. I read it a lot, and actually I think my love of Shakespeare has come from my love of The Bible because of the massive issues and ideas they both deal with. I have always read The Bible from a very young age. I was brought up as a Christian.
Favourite holiday destinations
Prague is a very beautiful city. And my wife and I went to Malaysia, which is one of the most beautiful places in the world.
What made you want to accept your role in Prometheus Bound?
Five or six years ago, James gave me the play to read. I am usually a very slow reader, but I got through it in about 40 minutes. It just zips along and is full of such big ideas. It is like Hamlet, Coriolanus, Macbeth and Oedipus Rex all rolled into one play. The most challenging thing about it is being tied to a post for an hour and a half and having to talk a lot. It’s a new thing for me to not be able to move while acting so the physicality of it is very challenging. I have to act just with the words and convey all the emotions and the big decisions Prometheus - which is more difficult than it seems!
Why do you think ancient Greek drama remains so relevant today?
I am a fan of Greek drama. I think it deals with so many big ideas such as god, destiny, spirituality, revenge, love, arrogance and humility, and these things never go out of fashion because they are part of everyone’s life. Greek drama is so much more than “kitchen sink” dramas to me, because, you know, I’m living the kitchen sink! I know what that’s all about and I like plays that deal with larger issues and ideas about humanity. Also, with the recent bombs in London, I think we’re looking to god and spirituality and questioning our own reality more than ever.
What’s your favourite line from Prometheus Bound?
I think my favourite is “It is a tyrant’s disease to have no faith in friendship” because that’s what being a tyrant is all about. It is very insightful. Powerful people don’t trust anyone because they think everyone wants something from them - and to an extent they are right, but then they become bitter. Tyrants are born out of their own power.
What do you think of the new Sound Theatre as a performance space?
I think it is fantastic to have a 200-seater, sound-proof, black box in the middle of Leicester Square. It has to be regarded as a West End theatre by virtue of its location, and I think it will do very well. It’s a wonderful opportunity. Its programming will complement the originality of the space and be new and exciting. I’m very glad to be involved with it at this early stage in its development.
What are your plans for the future?
I’ve got a few films coming out. I recently finished filming for Kenneth Branagh’s As You Like It, I play Orlando in that. I’m also in a film called Last King of Scotland about the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, and a film called The Best Man. I’ve also co-written a drama for the BBC called Graham and Alice. It’s about these two loners living in London who decide to rob a betting shop, but instead of gaining money to make them happier, they gain each other. That starts filming very shortly. The other thing I’m doing is directing John Webster’s The White Devil in Brighton.
- David Oyelowo was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Prometheus Bound continues at Leicester Square’s Sound Theatre until 13 September 2005.