“He was so much more than that speech”: David Oyelowo on playing Martin Luther King in upcoming blockbuster Selma

Martin Luther King’s historic struggle to secure voting rights for African-Americans is to be explored in a new film produced by Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt. Here, we speak to Selma’s lead actor, David Oyelowo, about playing one of the most famous men in history

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma - credit Pathé

In the spring of 1965, some 600 demonstrators embarked on a 54-mile-march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the ongoing exclusion of African-Americans from the electoral process. Attacked by state and local police, the epic march and the two others that followed galvanized American public opinion, and persuaded President Johnson to introduce the Voting Rights Act within six months – a landmark piece of legislation that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. 

The 50th anniversary of the march will see the release of a new film charting this pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. David Oyelowo, famed for his performances in Lincoln, The Butler and television drama Spooks, takes on the role of King. In an interview with History Extra, he spoke of how Selma will unveil the man behind the iconography…

Q: How did it feel to be playing one of the most famous men in history?

A: I was incredibly honoured because in my mind King is not only a very well known person, but someone who did such incredible things for black people and people around the world generally.

He did not have a personal or political agenda, and that’s the thing that I admire most about him.

Even President Johnson wanted King to work with him in the White House, but he refused to let himself be ‘boxed in’ like that – he knew that if he became a political figure he would be discredited.

And he did what he did at huge cost to himself – physically, emotionally and financially.

I feel proud to have depicted him.

Q: Were you daunted by the prospect of playing such a revered individual?

A: As an actor, every time you get to play a big role you are plagued by the idea that this is the one where you’re going to get ‘found out’! But I think that being British really helped me: I’ve always understood the significance of Martin Luther King, but I did not exactly grow up with people who people who went on the march [who are more emotionally attached to MLK] – this helped me to find the man behind the figure.

Q: While filming, did you learn anything about Martin Luther King that surprised you?

A: The thing that surprised me most was the fact that he felt such guilt about the people who were harmed and killed for the cause – and by ‘the cause’ I mean the way the civil rights movement gained success, which was by showing the degree of violence black people were being subjected to. Campaigners made sure the cameras were rolling at the right time, to expose the discrimination.

Three people died during the three-month campaign, and that really plagued King.

Q: How did you go about preparing for the role? Did you carry out your own research?

A: I moved to LA in May 2007, and read the script for Selma that June. I just knew in my spirit that I was going to play this character.

It took seven years – the initial directors didn’t see me as King – but having just felt such an affinity for him, the work started there.

The greatest asset was rare, unseen footage of King that I was allowed access to. So much of what you see is King in a press situation, or speaking publicly, where he is ‘on display’. I was able to see other sides of him.

Q: We understand you had to change your appearance for the film – can you tell us about that?

A: Well Martin Luther King did not look like someone who spent time at the gym, so because I regularly work out I had to make some changes! I had to gain two-and-a-half stone, shave my hairline back, and study how he moved.

It was not at all fun – it was quite painful, actually! I was forcing myself to eat lasagne at 11pm to try to pile on the calories!

Q: How would you best describe the film? Is it primarily about the marches, or about King as a person?

A: There are three strands – the first is the struggle itself. In Selma, Alabama in 1961 only two per cent of eligible black voters were registered, despite the fact that more than 50 per cent of the population was black. The film focuses on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, also known as ‘Bloody Sunday’, and the two marches that followed, which led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The second strand is King himself – the film focuses on his wife, and the cost to his family of him being engaged in this campaign.

And the third is the civil rights movement – about how people with disparate views on how to fight the campaign came together, and by August 1965, just five months after the Selma to Montgomery marches, the Voting Rights Act was passed.

Q: How does this role compare to others you’ve taken on in the past?

A: Nothing really compares to this, because of how much playing King means to me. I have never had to fight so hard to get a film made, and to get a role right. And I have never been under the microscope so much. I’m a British person playing Martin Luther King – there’s a very significant pressure.

But it does not phase me because I know I did everything I humanly could have done [to get it right]. This is a very big moment for me as a man, not just an actor.

Q: What do you hope the film will achieve? Will it change people’s perspective of King?

A: It will give a glimpse of the man behind the iconography. It is a huge shame that someone who made such an incredible difference to the lives of people being oppressed has been reduced to a catchphrase, ‘I have a dream’.

He was so much more than that speech – he was a strategist, a father, a son, a friend, and he was a flawed man. I believe the film shows that.

Selma will be released in UK cinemas on 6 February 2015.

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