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Monday 22 Sep 2014

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Small Island: David Oyelowo plays Gilbert

David Oyelowo plays Gilbert

Andrea Levy's multi-award-winning novel Small Island was first brought to the attention of David Oyelowo by actress Nikki Amuka-Bird, who also features in the stellar cast of BBC One's adaptation of the modern classic.

"Quite a few years ago, when the book first came out, a friend of mine, Nikki Amuka-Bird [who plays the character of Celia in the BBC drama] told me about an amazing book that should be made into a film. When I eventually read the book, it just blew me away. I had never read anything like it and, thankfully, I was one of the people being considered for the role I ended up playing. It ticked a lot of boxes for me.

"I found the adaptation to be very, very true and very good for crystallising everything that was great about the book, so I just had to be a part of it."

Set against the backdrop of the Second World War, David plays Gilbert Joseph, a Jamaican volunteer in the RAF who has returned to Britain after discovering there are no opportunities for him back home. While in Jamaica, he meets prim school teacher Hortense, played by Naomie Harris, who has long-harboured a dream to go to England, and agrees to marry her and accept her offer to pay for him to travel to England on the SS Empire Windrush. Once he has settled in London, he is to send for his wife to join him.

Gilbert sees going to England to fight for the Allies as an escape from the impoverished and destitute life that he's living. Having encountered bouts of racism throughout his stay in London, however, Gilbert has few illusions left about the wonders of the "mother country".

"Gilbert is a truly honourable man," explains David. "His marriage to Hortense is one of convenience but he absolutely believes in the sanctity of marriage and having made certain promises, he sticks by them and that is something I try to aspire to in my life, so I loved that quality about him.

"He could easily have gone off gallivanting while his wife was stuck in Jamaica, but he doesn't. He remains true. I think that's the overriding quality of Gilbert – he is rough around the edges but a very true individual. What you see is what you get with him, and that was wonderful to play."

As Gilbert is Jamaican, and David born and bred in the UK to Nigerian parents, was it difficult to maintain the accent?

"It wasn't difficult, but it was definitely something that I had to work hard on before starting the drama," explains David. "The Jamaican accent is a tough one, but a modern-day Jamaican accent is quite different to the Jamaican accent about 60 years ago, because the way Jamaicans spoke in the Forties is far more aspirational – the Queen's English was something people aspired to emulate, whereas now the influence on Jamaica is far more American.

"We actually shot the Jamaican sequences in Jamaica and it was very clear that we were having to do a kind of Jamaican that was different to what we were hearing on the street. We watched a lot of archival footage and, if you hear Jamaicans that are very old now but were sort of in their prime in the Forties and Fifties, they talk quite differently, so that was something that was quite tricky to maintain."

As far as David is aware, he doesn't know of any relatives who were involved in the Second World War, certainly not in the same way the Jamaicans were.

"My origin is Nigerian and so I very much had to bring myself entirely to this experience. I'm sure my Jamaican contemporaries, or black Brits who have their ancestry in Jamaica, would probably be able to pinpoint uncles or grandfathers, but I had to come to it with new eyes because it's very much outside of my experience."

Having already seen some of his scenes in Small Island, David has no qualms when it comes to watching himself on screen and divorces the self-criticism from actually seeing it for what it is.

"I personally have no problem," says David. "I seem to be able to disassociate my insecurities. I know a lot of actors – some of the best actors in the world – can't bear to watch themselves and I have to say I can't relate to that."

David cites working with director John Alexander as one of the highlights of his Small Island experience.

"I thought John was fantastic," says David. "I really enjoyed working with him and he's a very collaborative director. It was wonderful to go to work knowing that your opinions and your creative inputs would be acknowledged and, more often than not, implemented.

"Getting to do what I think was my fifth BBC drama with Nikki Amuka-Bird – we've done Shoot The Messenger, Five Days, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Born Equal and now Small Island – was another highlight for me. And filming in Jamaica was great, too.

"One of the things the BBC does better than anyone is period drama," says David. "However, this is a period drama with an entirely different slant – you have all the great costumes and that great period to look at, but it's from a perspective that I haven't seen on the BBC before. It contextualises so much of modern-day cultural Britain by showing you one of the big influxes of one of the now indigenous populations of Great Britain – the Jamaicans.

"And for a lot of people, including me, it was something I didn't know, so not only do you have the entertainment value of this adaptation of an unbelievably great book and great characterisations, but also just a different period drama than I think people have seen before."

Small Island is the second job David did back-to-back with Naomie Harris, who stars as Hortense.

"We did a BBC Two drama called Blood And Oil," he says. "So we literally went from that to Small Island. I adore her as a person and an actress as well, so it was great to work with her again."

One of David's early TV roles was as Danny Hunter in BBC One's spy drama Spooks, who met a rather untimely demise. He has a rather impressive list of other film and TV credits, too, including The Last King of Scotland, Derailed, Five Days, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Shoot the Messenger and As Time Goes By.

In 2000, David became the first black actor to portray an English monarch for the Royal Shakespeare Company when he played the title role in a production of Henry VI Parts I, II and III – a role which won him the Ian Charleson Award in 2001 for outstanding performance by a young actor in a classical theatre role.

Immediately after filming Small Island, David started work on a film called Red Tails, which charts the story of the Tuskegee Airmen – the first black fighter pilots for America in the Second World War. As opposed to playing someone in the RAF, David plays a US Air Force pilot.

"It's George Lucas produced," says David. "However, unlike Gilbert, who never fulfilled his dream of flying, my character actually gets to fly a lot in this!"

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