With a noble and impressive body of stage and screen work boosting his reputation, British actor David Oyelowo would seem an unlikely choice to play a dangerous, cold-blooded killer.
However, the true story of Brian Nichols fascinated him to such an extent that he not only signed on to portray the convicted murderer in “Captive,” but produced the movie as well.
The dramatic fact-based tale of redemption opened in theaters Friday. The gracious and gifted Oyelowo spoke about his passion project with local media recently in St. Louis.
In 2005, Ashley Smith (Kate Mara), a recovering crystal meth addict, was taken hostage in her own apartment by a fugitive on the run after killing four people and fleeing from the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta. What transpires during the tense time together is life-changing for both souls in need of saving.
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Smith was present on the set and influential in making sure the film was as authentic as possible. Oyelowo said he was drawn to the story, inspired by Smith, and the remarkable events that March day.
“It was one of those stories where there is no need to embellish anything. Literally, it played like a movie. When you think about the fact that Brian Nichols killed those people, then it was a 45-minute drive to Duluth to go to this apartment complex, and he found his way specifically into her apartment, you couldn’t write that. So for us, it was about sticking to the true story,” he said. “She remembers it like it was yesterday.”
He was drawn to the story, but did not want to condone the crimes Nichols had committed. This type of role is more of an emotional cost, he said, because unlike playing Martin Luther King, whom he admires and was honored to play, he couldn’t sympathize with Nichols, and that preparation was different.
“One of the toughest things for me was to make sure that not in any way was this supposed to feel like an exoneration of what he did on that day,” he said.
“My job as an actor is to fully inhabit the character. You can’t phone that in,” he said. “The job of an actor is to not judge the character. You have to understand what they do and why they’re doing it, so you have to function as a three-dimensional human being that people can believe.”
It was Smith’s story that inspired him to tackle the challenge of playing Nichols.
“Ashley Smith attributes him with part of why she gained her life back. When he held a gun to her head and told her to take the meth, a drug that she had been a slave to for so long, and she said no. The way she describes it is that she felt God took over Brian Nichols and said, ‘Do you want to live or do you want to die? Turn away from this thing and take hold of life,’” he said.
“So, regardless if you’re coming from a faith point of view or not, something miraculous happened there. Something that on paper shouldn’t have. That is something that can only happen, I think, when a degree of humanity is shared between these two people,” he said.
Oyelowo said he worked hard to find the humanity in Nichols, in order to realistically portray him. He was unable to meet with Nichols, who is serving multiple life sentences in prison and is in solitary confinement. But he did meet with his mother, which he described as intense.
“One of the things I really struggled with was that you have a guy with no shirt on, a very muscular man, with two guns running around Atlanta. This is the kind of guy we normally think of as an action hero in movies, so the toughest thing was how to make him not seem like Jason Statham or Jason Bourne or James Bond,” he said.
The job of an actor is to not judge the character. You have to understand what they do and why they’re doing it, so you have to function as a three-dimensional human being that people can believe.
David Oyelowo on playing a murderer
“I wouldn’t want to see him as a human being, especially if he did what he did to someone in my family. So my job is to imbue him with a degree of humanity, and take a look at these two people,” he said. “You could have empathy, even if you were repelled by him. He had a baby, and wanted to see his son. Something snapped, goes off for him. This is why it is a tough role to play. You have to manage to get in his head.”
Smith had lost custody of her daughter, and her husband died in a drug-related incident.
“She was someone you could discard to the scrapheap. But seeing these two broken people together, making choices that took them away from the deadly path that they were both on — that can only be born out of humanity,” he said.
The actor had worked with Kate Mara (“House of Cards”), who played Smith. He was grateful they had a good connection already.
“To me, she is an untapped talent, until recently. She has incredible vulnerability, but also strength,” he said. “It helped us to dig deep, and be awful to each other, be predator and prey, because we had that level of trust.”
Oyelowo, a Christian, had read “The Purpose-Driven Life” by Rick Warren, which figures prominently into the story, and affects both people, for Ashley reads it to Brian.
“It had been a very meaningful book to me personally as a Christian. The thing I got from it is that God’s purpose for my life is way bigger than my purpose for my own life. And that is an extraordinary thing, especially for a pretty ambitious guy like me, with big dreams,” he said.
The actor is open about his faith, and is not concerned with it affecting his opportunities in Hollywood.
“I don’t worry about that because I think the only time you should worry is if you are inauthentic,” he said. “I think if you go up and get awards and thank the Lord when you’re doing it, and then the next moment you’re getting a DUI. Then I think that’s when it’s just intolerable.”
“I try to be authentic in terms of what I do and who I am, and ultimately, I try to let the work do the talking. I haven’t found it to be something that people resist,” he said. “I’m sure there are people that know I’m a person of faith, and that may make them feel like they don’t want to work with me, and that’s fine as well. There are plenty of people who do.”
Smith escaped death and Nichols escaped the death penalty, lessons that resound with Oyelowo.
“I’m a believer in life beyond this life. I think that Brian’s purpose is to embrace the fact that he has run out of credit here on earth, but beyond this life there is hope for him. I believe that God is a redemptive God, a God of forgiveness,” he said.
Smith regained custody of her daughter, remarried and has a couple more children. She is a spokesman for Celebrate Recovery, helping people with the same addiction she had.
“Ashley was stopped in her journey just before it was the point of no return. But here we are talking about a movie based on her life. That is purpose that came out of that very dark situation,” he said. “She stopped him in his tracks.”
Age: 39; born in Oxford, England
Family: Married to actress Jessica Oyelowo since 1998; they have four children and live in Los Angeles.
Movies: “Selma,” “The Butler,” “Lincoln,” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Middle of Nowhere,” “A Most Violent Year,” “Jack Reacher” and “Last King of Scotland.”
Emmy nomination: HBO movie “Nightingale.”
Theater: Best known for being first black actor to play “Henry VI” for Royal Shakespeare Company in London, at age 24, in 2001.