SANTA MONICA, Calif. — When he decided to become an actor, David Oyelowo enlisted two co-conspirators. The man who played Martin Luther King in Selma, and costarred in The Help, The Butler and TV's MI-5, sneaked into drama school with the help of his teacher.
"I had a great teacher who just said, 'I wouldn't say this to everyone because it's a precarious profession, but I really think you can make a living doing this.' So she helped me secretly apply to drama school because my Nigerian parents at that time were not partial to the idea of going into anything to do with the arts," he says in his genteel English accent.
"They're far more academically minded. But I got a scholarship to go to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts."
The other ally in his corner was God. "At the age of 16 I became a Christian," he says. "My parents were (Christians) but actually I ran in a different direction. Because my parents were, I was like, 'This is a load of BS. What am I doing in church?' I made a mistake of striking a deal with God. I said, 'If you're real, you need to turn up for me in three months. And if you don't, I'm out.'"
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Evidently God seized the challenge. "I had a very, very dramatic spiritual experience where God infiltrated in my life in a way that I couldn't deny," says Oyelowo.
For 23 years Oyelowo, 39, has never wavered, either in his calling or his faith. Though he's occasionally taught acting, he's never held a job outside the field of acting since he began.
He says he never frets over the roles he chooses, though they can be risky. The most daring so far is his role as the psychologically twisted young man in Nightingale. It's a tour-de-force part in which Oyelowo is the only character.
"Some of the most scary things I've ever done have had to do with acting," he says. "To play in this film is a very scary thing. To be the only actor in a film for 90 minutes and to try to express the emotional truth of that is very exposing. And if you fail, you fail alone. At least if it's a group of actors then, 'OK, we tried.' With this, it's me and me and me and me."
While he relishes his work, it's not his raison d'etre. The father of four, Oyelowo says it is his family that guides and sustains him.
He says the day he and his wife brought their first-born son home, he felt overwhelmed by the sense of responsibility for another life. "It gave me the greatest gift as an actor because it was the point beyond which I never looked inwardly anymore. I constantly had someone else on my mind. He gave me the gift of selflessness."
Nightingale also airs on Sunday and June 2, 4, 6, 9, 15 and 17.