Q&A with David Oyelowo: ‘For me, Jesus is my denomination’
Actor David Oyelowo, who played the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma,” turns to a dramatically different role in “Captive,” where he portrays Atlanta murderer and kidnapper Brian Nichols. In the movie, which premieres Friday (Sept. 18) and is based on a true story, Nichols’ captive reads him portions of Rick Warren’s book “The Purpose Driven Life.”
Oyelowo, 39, a British-born son of Nigerian parents, talked to Religion News Service about his Christian faith and his varied acting roles.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You spoke of feeling called to portray the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma.” How do you compare saying yes to that role and accepting the role of murderer and kidnapper Brian Nichols?
A: One is a man who is about peace and who is about justice. The other is about a man who has committed a heinous injustice against other people. But the reason I felt called to both is that both films, both characters in a sense, show the power of the grace of God. In terms of Dr. King, this is a man who professed love in the face of hatred, and in terms of Brian Nichols, this is a man that, even though he operates in a very dark way, God still used him, especially in the life of Ashley Smith, who partly attributes her salvation from drugs and a very dark life to Brian Nichols, who took her hostage that night.
Q: Smith read her captor portions of “The Purpose Driven Life.” Before you worked on the movie, were you familiar with it or had you read it?
A: I read it years before I even knew of the Ashley Smith story. When I came across this story that in a very, very powerful way shows how that book was used — miraculously really — that was, of course, one of the elements that made me really interested in telling the story.
Q: Is there a particular message from the book that struck you personally?
A: The thing that I felt having read the book is that my plans, my ambitions, my hopes for my life actually don’t match up to what God’s plans are. Once I started opening my mind up to just how desirous God is for me to enter into the calling he has for me, I was able to just look beyond what I had seen for myself.
Q: In the movie, Nichols asks Smith if she thinks she can forgive criminals — a topic that came up after the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shootings in Charleston, S.C. Do you think it is appropriate or possible to forgive people who commit such violent and deadly acts?
A. It’s a very, very good question and that’s why in the film … Brian Nichols says, “If I were the one who killed your husband, could you forgive me?” And she says, “I don’t know but maybe God can.” I think in those two phrases — “I don’t know” and the word “maybe” — is the fact that Ashley Smith isn’t God. I am not God. We have a limited capacity in relation to God’s ability to forgive. What was so incredible about the Charleston situation was how immediate those people’s ability to forgive was, and I think that that really impacted a lot of people.
It’s a question you don’t really know how to answer until you’re faced with a very real prospect of our own family members being affected. I have four children and, as close as I am to God, I know that if anyone touched a hair on their head that would be a big, big struggle for me.
Q: Do you have a particular denominational affiliation and has that changed over time?
A: I was raised Baptist. My parents are both Baptists but having become born again at the age of 16, I gravitated toward nondenominational churches just as a personal preference, not for any sort of grand reason. So I describe myself as a born-again Christian and my family and I, my wife and my kids, happen to go to a nondenominational church. For me, Jesus is my denomination.
Q: Given your busy acting schedule, are you able to find time to worship?
A: The wheels would fall off my life if that went away. If I’m not at church here in L.A. where I live, wherever I’m shooting, I will find a church. It’s challenging because movies, just because of the way they are done, sometimes they’re shooting on a Sunday. But any time and every time I can, I’m in church on a Sunday and I certainly am a man of prayer.