David Oyelowo on Captive, His Co-Star Kate Mara, and Race in America

It's been some time now since David Oyelowo was nominated for a number of awards for his performance as Martin Luther King Jr.–- and snubbed at the Oscars — but the actor shows no signs of stopping. Last year, alongside Selma, he was featured in films like A Most Violent Year, Interstellar, and the HBO movie Nightingale, for which he was nominated for an Emmy. 

His most recent project, Captive, which Oyelowo co-produced and stars in, places the actor in a role that might be unfamiliar to those who have encountered him over the last few years. In this true-story film, Oyelowo plays Brian Nichols, a mentally ill man who escapes prison, murders multiple people on his way out, and ends up taking a woman hostage in her own home. The woman, Ashley Smith (played by Kate Mara), was a struggling drug addict who survived the ordeal with what many would call the power of faith.

As the film hits theaters on Friday, September 18, New Times had the chance to attend a round-table with David Oyelowo, in which he discussed making the film, getting into the character, and how the story of these two people might have worked out in different situations.

New Times: One of the things that I immediately drew parallels from was Nightingale. It's really interesting to see you take on two characters who are not bad people, but they do bad things. Captive and Nightingale are both films that touch upon the subject of mental illness within characters and you don't see that very often, so I'd like to hear about how you approached that facet of both of these characters.
David Oyelowo: Well, yeah, that's a good question. For both roles, I sat down with a clinical psychologist to figure out what's going on in the mind of Brian, who kills four people in one day, and Peter Snowden, who kills his own mother and is in complete denial about it. These are syndromes that exist on the mental illness scale. With Snowden, he has dissociative identity disorder, what we used to call multiple personality disorder, there are seven voices going on in that character's head, all shaped and formed to deal with traumas of the past, so he can deny things and basically shapeshift around events.

It's more subtle with Brian Nichols. He has maintained his innocence for the rape he was on trial for, but even in talking to his mother, something in him snapped. He went into a fugue state that wasn't stopped until he met face to face with the compassion in Ashley Smith's eyes, and that's basically how I read those events. The fact of something being off in both characters is undeniable, and so that's a scary thing when it comes to these particular events, I think especially for Peter Snowden.

I think that's a case whereby there's a situation that's gone unchecked that leads to something grander. Even Brian's mother says, "I can't believe my son is the one who did that, I can't believe this is my life." There is still a blank spot over how someone who makes six figures, who is educated, who wasn't some street urchin who was deprived and had a litany of criminal activity. It's still a head scratcher as to why he did what he did.

How did you come across Captive as an actor and co-producer?
Well, for me, I wanted to be a part of producing it because it’s a story that could very easily have been given a movie of the week treatment, or from the faith side of things be sort of preachy, and I wasn’t really interested in that version of the film. To me, what’s really amazing about the story is the fact that this is a murderer and a meth addict that were holed up together in an apartment together for seven hours and somehow an element of faith did impact the story, but it was in a very integral sense, and not an imposed part of the story.

So there was that and also I felt that so inspired by what Ashley Smith has gone on to make of her life. You know, she was a meth addict she lost custody of her daughter, her life was in a downward spiral, and she was a very young widow as well. Her husband had been murdered in a drug-related incident, so the fact that it took this to wake her up to a new life of purpose and hope is kind of an inspiring thing. And those kinds of movies are tough to get made so I wanted to do everything I could to push it along.

To play a character like Brian Nichols, I feel like you would have to find some kind of humanity in him to be able to play that role. How do you go about finding that, like a character who is a rapist and a murderer, holding someone captive?
Well, that’s the job of the actor. If you’re going to play a role, you have to find what it is about that them that makes them do what they do and do that from a place that lacks judgment; otherwise, you are doing what the audience is likely to do, which is form an opinion from an outside point of view. You can’t tell the truth unless you can fully inhabit a character unless you can find their own truth, and Brian’s truth on that given day was that he didn’t commit the rape. I have my own opinion on whether he did or not, but he wanted to break out because of that factor.

He had recently found out he had a new son that was a motivating factor for him to break out. These were reasons for him to justify why he did what he did, and for me as an actor, the tricky thing is to place myself under those circumstances, to tell the truth for the character. That’s not to say that it’s easy. It was one of the trickier roles I’ve had to play.

Working alongside someone like Kate Mara, how was the relationship you built on set, and how was it playing these roles that are essentially two people facing off in a tense situation?
You know one of the great things about Kate is that she’s one of my best friends. I’ve known her for a long time, and I actually directed her in a short film. I was very adamant that she was the one to play Ashley Smith, partly because she’s an actress who we haven’t yet seen how far and deep and wide her talent goes. And it’s tough for actresses, especially if you’re beautiful. Hollywood is very keen on keeping you in that sort of pretty girl arm candy kind of space, and she’s so much more than that.

Our friendship meant that we could really push it because we really trust each other, and we enjoy being in each others’ company. She knows I’m not gonna hurt her even when I’m roughing her up and you know I really, really respect her talent. It’s like playing tennis; you always want to be playing with someone who’s better than you, and at the end of the day I seriously seek out directors, actors, practitioners, who are bringing something that I don’t have.

I know her talent is incredible, and that mutual respect helped while we were on set. And we were both inspired by the story, we’re both not interested in preaching to an audience, we both wanted to keep it real and as raw as it could be. and you know, I had so much, not fun, but I got a lot of pleasure out of it.

Was there a portion of the film you were nervous or excited to film once you read it?
Nothing about playing Brian Nichols was exciting to me, I’ll be honest about that. But I was excited about the film. I was excited about the story. More than excitement, I had trepidation. There was a very real danger that you have a guy — ex-football player, big guy — I had to really bulk up to play him. On that day, I wore suit with no shirt on, and he’s got two guns, running across the street. These are cinematic images we associate with hero of the movie.

There’s the badass action dude who, you know, the thing we really had to work hard at is to not glamorize it, to make it feel as cold- blooded as it was. We needed to make him feel like the monster he was on that day and then have something about his interaction with Ashley Smith bring out his humanity. And it was tough, it was really tough. Even that day in courthouse, shooting the judge, we had to make it so raw and factual and just don’t shoot at him in any way that hints at what you would do in an action movie or anything like that. Just make it almost like a documentary like a camera, cinema verite, of just being there, so that it’s shocking in the way that it must have been on that day.

And watching the ending, as Nichols being taken into custody, I couldn't help but think of the recent violence, in terms of police- involved killings of African-Americans and my first thought was that this is from another era, because if this had happened in 2015, Nichols would not be alive. He would have been shot in a hail of bullets and my question is: What has changed in the last decade?
Well, in my opinion, nothing has changed. I think the reason he wasn’t killed is because of Ashley Smith, who went to the cops and they were floored that this man let her go. And just the fact that this man let her go, they were able to connect to some degree of humanity he must have had to do that. I think the reason black men are cut down in the streets of America is because they are being dehumanized, so when cops encounter them, they don’t see a human being, they see a threat.

The fact that Ashley Smith was let go by this threat is why there was a pause taken, you know. Black people have been killed in this country for millennia. It’s in the news more now because we have more cameras, we have more social media, and that means some of these stories can’t be buried in the same way they were in the past.

I generally don’t think things are suddenly way worse, I think we’re just more aware than we were ten years ago, and I think that exchange between Brian and Ashley is why Brian was treated with a degree of humanity.