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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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."