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29 October 2014
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Born Equal 
David Oyelowo in Born Equal

Born Equal

David Oyelowo plays Yemi

When he first walked into the B&B that forms the backdrop to Born Equal, David Oyelowo almost believed someone had turned back the clock. Seventeen years earlier, he and his family had lived in a similar hostel in London after leaving their native Nigeria. It was, he reveals, just one of the many reasons why Dominic Savage's hard-hitting drama affected him so deeply.


One of Britain's finest young actors, Oyelowo plays Yemi, a Nigerian journalist who winds up in the hostel having fled his home with his wife (played by Nikki Amuka-Bird) and young daughter after writing controversial articles about the situation in the troubled north of his country.


"The story stems from the problems in the northern states of Nigeria," explains the 30-year-old actor, who was born in Oxford but grew up in Lagos.


"There's a lot of oppression of Christians there and Yemi's father is a pastor who has suffered a great deal in the conflict, so you can see where the impetus came from for him to write these articles.


"When Yemi is threatened, he feels he has to take his family out of the country for their safety. But then he finds out that, because of his articles, his father and his father's congregation are being persecuted.


"So there are a lot of things going on with him. He has this acute guilt for having displaced his immediate family, and the guilt about what's happening to his father.


"But he also feels that he's done the right thing: if he doesn't speak out, who will? So there's a lot of conflict going on in the man's head and heart."


To research the role, Oyelowo talked to two Nigerians whose real-life experiences were brought together in Yemi's story.


"One of the people I met is a journalist who is seeking asylum in this country. His parents are Christians and they live in Nigeria, and he had written some controversial articles that meant that he'd been forced into hiding. He lost contact with his family and ended up having to come here to seek asylum," he says.


"We talked about the nightmares he'd experienced. When I last spoke to him, his request for asylum had been turned down twice and he was applying again."


Oyelowo also spoke to a Nigerian pastor who is caught up in the problems in the north.


"He's had his church shot at several times, he's seen Christians killed and his life has been threatened, but his view is that it's his calling from God to be there and he's not going to leave."


The actor was profoundly affected by what both men had been through.


"It had a huge affect on me, not least because I am Nigerian. I left in 1989 and have been back sporadically since then, and it was really shocking to me that this was happening. And I'm a Christian myself, so there was a double resonance for me," he says.


"But also, as an actor, you feel a need to be very true to what's going on – I knew that I had a job, a responsibility, to tell the story well because we were very much borrowing these people's stories for the film and everything we talk about actually happened to them."


Being truthful, he adds, is at the core of director Dominic Savage's approach to film-making. This approach relies heavily on improvisation, which Oyelowo describes as "the acting equivalent of extreme sports".


"You literally throw yourself at the wall and see what happens," he smiles.


"As an actor, you're constantly looking for new challenges, things that are going to shake you up.


"And I'm kind of an all-or-nothing actor – I like throwing myself completely and wholeheartedly into things – and so I found it creatively very stimulating.


"The only things you have to draw on are your emotions and your understanding of the character at that particular point in time."


Oyelowo was also able to draw on his own memories of living in a hostel back in 1989. At that time, he and his family had lived in Nigeria for seven years but made the decision to return to Britain during a period of intense political unrest in West Africa.


"When we arrived in London, my mum and my two brothers and I had to live in a place not dissimilar to the one Yemi and his family find themselves in, so I have first-hand experience of that and what's in the film is very accurate," says Oyelowo, who was just 14 at the time.


"Yes, it is a frightening place to find yourself but there are an awful lot of people, not necessarily impoverished, who just find themselves in that situation.


"Looking back to that time was, in a way, kind of wonderful for me because I thought: 'Wow, we've come a long way!'"


He certainly has. Though his father wanted him to become a lawyer, Oyelowo won a scholarship to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and never looked back.


In 2000, he made headlines when he became the first black actor to play an English monarch for the Royal Shakespeare Company, in the title role of Henry VI. The performance won him an Ian Charleson award and set him firmly on the road to success.


Since then, he has starred in three series of the popular TV spy drama Spooks, Hollywood film Derailed and the provocative BBC Two drama Shoot The Messenger, in which he played a young teacher who goes on a painful journey of self-discovery that challenges his attitudes towards his own community.


Cinema audiences will see him in the lead role in Kenneth Branagh's As You Like It and in The Last King Of Scotland, Kevin Macdonald's new film about the tyrannical reign of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, which will open the London Film Festival this autumn.


He is married to fellow actor Jessica Oyelowo and the couple have two sons. They live in Hove, Sussex, just streets away from Oyelowo's close friend and Born Equal co-star Nikki Amuka-Bird, who is godmother to his boys.


Musing on his recent roles, Oyelowo says that what gets him going as both a viewer and an actor is "work that really has something to say".


"That's why I was so keen to get involved in Born Equal. It's not dissimilar to Shoot The Messenger – it ticks the same sort of boxes," he says, adding that he believes Savage's film brilliantly captures what he calls "the syndrome of the city".


"The syndrome of the city is loneliness – the weird dichotomy of being surrounded by people but completely alone – and I think that's what Born Equal very much illustrates.


"Everyone's busy, buzzing around, doing their own thing and often we don't see or even recognise the people who've slipped through the cracks of society. That's a real indictment of our culture and our cities, in a way. But I think this film will really make us take a look at ourselves."






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