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David Oyelowo on 'Playing Human' in HBO's Nightingale

David Oyelowo on 'Playing Human' in HBO's Nightingale

David Oyelowo Nightingale

The actor focuses on all the layers of a complex role


While David Oyelowo has garnered critical acclaim for his portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, it's his upcoming one-man performance in the HBO film, Nightingale--which he filmed prior to the biopic--that is a true revelation.

In the film, Oyelowo appears on screen alone for most of the 83 minutes. The actor plays Peter Snowden, an isolated military veteran crippled by mental disorder and his own fears about who he truly is.

The challenge in bringing the role to life on screen was not only realizing the full spectrum of shifting emotions but also incorporating all of Peter's layers. "He's not one thing," Oyelowo says. "His sexual orientation, the religious world in which he's been brought up, even the color of his skin by much in the fact that I played him, you know all of these are part of the richness of who this very layered, complex human being is."

Part of the complexity comes from Peter's feelings for a longtime friend, Edward, who he talks to but audiences never see on screen. "He's in a very weird place mentally in relationship with his sexual orientation, which manifests in this obsession with an old army friend," the actor says of Peter, who often complains about his one-sided "friendship" with the other man. "He's so uncomfortable in his own skin he's had to create this wall of lies to be able to live with who he actually is."

Knowing that Peter is dealing with his sexuality, Oyelowo was careful not to play gay in terms of leading the audience or holding onto one particular aspect of the character but rather letting it unfold naturally as it is revealed in the story.

"I personally think it would be both mostly offensive to gay people and I think it would diminish the complexity of the character to make him the one thing in relationship to who he is and what he goes on to do," he says, adding, "I'm not just black, I'm also a father, I'm also a husband, I'm also a Christian, I'm also an actor, I'm also a friend. I'm all these things, all of which go into making me. So I didn't want to play up whatever would be perceived as his gayness because it was just an element of a very complex human being is."

His effort to play a fully realized character, that "never feels indulgent," works on screen and will likely garner the attention of Emmy voters. But for Oyelowo it was about discovering something within--the unteachable force that defines the true talent of an actor.

"As an actor you never really know until you do it as to whether you're going to have enough going on in yourself to engage an audience for an entire movie," Oyelowo says. "I don't even mean in a film like Nightingale, I just mean generally. You're the protagonist in a film; you have to be the actor who an audience can go on a journey with."

"It's just something that is or isn't."

Nightingale premieres on HBO tonight, Friday May 29, at 9PM.

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