David Oyelowo (“Red Tails”) plays the son of the title character in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” Louis is a rebellious young man who becomes deeply involved in the 1960’s and 70’s struggle for equal rights, first through sit-ins and voter registration and then with the Black Panthers. His estrangement and reconciliation with his father, a White House butler, is the heart of the film.
Your character aged over decades and you seemed very specific about the choices you made in showing that the character was getting older.
When Lee Daniels approached me about playing the role I was very clear that I really wanted the opportunity to play it all the way through. Early on, he was thinking about splitting it with a younger actor. But I had played Henry VI on stage, and he goes from age 14 to his sixties. I learned just how much you can depict through the eyes, the body movement, what’s going on emotionally. Even moreso on film than in the theater because you have the eyes, the small gestures that indicate a wealth of experience or a lack of that. I had to employ more technical aspects over the three month shoot. I would sleep for 10 hours the night before I had to play a teenager and I’d sleep four or five hours when I had to play older. I’d go to the gym to shed weight very quickly to play the younger character and I’d eat a lot of salty food and drink a lot of water that bloats me out to play the older character. All of those things help as well. But when you have a good script that goes to the heart of what a character’s going through at any time that helps with the details.
How did you and Forest Whitaker, who plays your character’s father, work together to develop that relationship?
We didn’t spend a lot of time talking through it as that was appropriate because what you’re seeing for a lot of the movie is a disconnect. The generational divide manifests because they are both products of their environment. He grew up in the South and grew up with lynching and saw his father shot before his eyes. That’s entirely different to my character’s experience, a middle-class upbringing, and my life by comparison is a lot nicer. But the inequality that we both suffered, the injustice that is intrinsic to American society is undeniable and something that we both feel a need to fight but in very different ways. We both felt a need to just trust that as we go on very separate paths, the payoff is going to be at the end of the movie, a shared appreciation of each other’s journey toward what was effectively the same goal. It was that butting of heads internally that led to the combustive elements that led to bringing about irrevocable change, that internal argument about what it is to be a man, a woman, a human being in America regardless of the color of your skin.
You are from Great Britain and much of this happened before you were born. What did you do to research the era?
You name it, “Eyes on the Prize,” many books. One of the great things about the era is that it is in living memory for lots of people who are able to be very articulate about it. The resources personally for me as an actor were infinite. Can one person really go through all those things? Yes, there are people who were at the sit-ins and rode on the bus and went into politics. My character is a composite but he represents the experience of real people.