David Oyelowo, Nightingale

Screen International, June 26, 2014 | Go to article overview

David Oyelowo, Nightingale


Having starred in films like Jack Reacher and Lee Daniels' The Butler, UK-born David Oyelowo talks to Elbert Wyche about his lead role in Nightingale, which premiered at the LA Film Festival in June.

Elliott Lester directed from Frederick Mensch's Black List screenplay about a man called Peter Snowden and his obsession with an old Army friend named Edward. The film follows Peter as he records his private thoughts and feelings - his nightingale song - in the days leading up to his planned reunion with Edward. WME Global handles US rights.

Oyelowo discusses his first immersion in method acting to properly represent mental illness on film and talks about why he had to temporarily move away from his family during production. He stars later this year as Martin Luther King Jr in Selma and will also be seen in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar and JC Chandor's A Most Violent Year.

How did the script for Nightingale make its way to you?

It was a very orthodox way. It came through my agent. I realised very quickly that it was a very unique piece. I was aware that a few other high-profile actors had toyed with the idea of doing it and for whatever reason it didn't work for them. When it came to me it became evident that this was a do-or-die situation. It was a big risk to take because it was 98 pages of dialogue for one actor. I had to ask if it could be done when I first read it. It had a very visceral impact on me, partly because of my stage work. It just felt like it was a beautiful marriage of what you're demanded to do on stage as an actor and the possibilities that can open up cinematically.

How did you research the role?

Anyone that sees the film will be able to tell very quickly that Peter Snowden, the character that I play, is a very disturbed individual. He is mentally unbalanced, so to speak. So I spent a lot of time talking to a psychiatrist about the specifics of Peter's condition. I guess the old way of speaking about it would be multiple personality disorder. He's a guy who is very fragmented. He has dealt with a lot of trauma in his life. The way he deals with it is to embody different aspects of his personality to deal with situations that arise. This is a very real condition that plagues a lot of people all over the world. For me, I didn't want to just portray a clichéd version of that so a lot of my time was spent talking to the psychiatrist.

Was it difficult playing to the camera and how is that different from playing to another actor?

It was initially quite difficult. Even the phone calls that we have in the film, a lot of them to my sister, some to my mother's friend and to an individual that Peter is obsessed with, as well as [the individual's] wife - there's no-one on the other end of the line as we shot those. That was a very deliberate choice of ours because there's also the question in Peter of, 'Is he actually talking to someone or is he talking to someone of his own making?' We largely wanted that to remain an open question. But I was constantly reacting, whether to a real voice or a voice inside my own head. It presented the added task of not only knowing what my character was doing in any given moment but also knowing what I was reacting to. …

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