David Oyelowo is having a great year. With several movie projects slated for release in 2012, the star of the George Lucas produced vehicle “Red Tails” is fast earning an estimable reputation as one of the most versatile character actors of his generation. In a decade, he has marked the screen playing memorable characters from Muddy Waters in “Who Do You Love,” to Preacher Green in “The Help.”
The first black actor to play an English king for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the U.K., Oyelowo, who hails from Nigerian heritage, graduated from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) with the Scholarship for Excellence. With roles in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” the independent drama “Middle of Nowhere,” and several upcoming features including a Steven Spielberg directed project and the action movie “One Shot” with Tom Cruise, it’s fair to say he is becoming the breakout actor of 2012.
David Oyelowo as Joe “Lightning” Little. Photo: Jiri Hanzi
“I have been an actor for 13 years and I’ve had great opportunities in film, all of which have cumulatively led to getting to work with more and more of my heroes,” says Oyelowo. “What I do will always be writing driven. If the writing is good and it’s a project with people I admire, and if continues to be the stuff that people want to watch or want to see me in, then all the better.”
In “Red Tails,” a film inspired by the heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen (the first black military aviators in the United States armed forces), Oyelowo plays a reckless and cocky war veteran called Joe ‘Lightning’ Little.
David Oyelowo and Nate Parker. Photo: Jiri Hanzi
“The thing I love about Joe is that there is such a richness in him,” shares the actor. “He has a real problem with authority, but he believes very strongly in being part of the military and I was passionate about this guy from day one,” continues Oyelowo, who for several months had to inhabit the physically demanding role of his character. “What I also loved about him is that he exuded the confidence and invincibility that you feel when you are a young man. There’s something about that feeling of immortality that you have when you are in your early 20s, that gets eroded as you get older. For me, Lighting was the embodiment of it. That was why I really fought for that role, because I felt that he was the absolute representation of what the real Tuskegee Airmen stood for.”
Oyelowo’s character and that of his cast members, who include Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard and Ne-Yo are composites of real life heroes, who were awarded the opportunity to fight for the Allied forces during the second World War.
“It was a huge accomplishment, as they went on to be part of the desegregation of the military in the Southern parts of America, which led into the civil rights movement,” continues Oyelowo.
The history of these Tuskegee Airmen began when 13 cadets were selected to participate in an experiment at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which was aimed at training “colored personnel” to become combat pilots for service in the Army Air Corps.
Flying escort for heavy bombers, they earned an impressive combat record and were nicknamed “Red Tails” because of the distinctive crimson paint applied on the tail section of their P-51 Mustang planes.
“Having some of the actual Tuskegee Airmen while we shot the film was very helpful for us. It was a constant reminder of the fact that this wasn’t just any old acting gig,” adds the actor. “There was a very steep learning curve of the technology involved and in shooting various planes sequences. They were very fit military men, had a certain shape to them, and had to be able to fit into those planes. So there was not only the physical, but the historical research also. We had quite an extensive period of training for the film and that involved just getting very, very fit.”
In addition, training flights were also taken on actual P-51s by the cast at the Planes of Fame in Chino, CA, an essential experience required in order to perform realistically when in the simulated cockpit of a P-51 Mustang. “It was the most exhilarating experience of my life in terms of the speed and the acrobatics that these things are able to perform,” Oyelowo continues, “I didn’t know there were black fighting pilots in the Second World War, and it was great to be part of getting that story to a broader audience.”
Elijah Kelly, David Oyelowo, Leslie Odom Jr., Nate Parker, Michael B. Jordan, Kevin Phillips. Photo: Lucas Film
Directed by Anthony Hemingway (The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, True Blood), John Ridley (U-Turn, Three Kings) and Aaron McGruder (Boondocks) serve as screenwriters on this action adventure.
“One of things I was most impressed by with Anthony is just how young he is. He was in his mid-30s, maybe early 30s when we shot the film, and it was his ability to take on information that impressed me. There was a lot going on technologically in terms of what we were trying to achieve with the film and it was a big cast. Some of the crew there didn’t speak English, so we were all very much outside of our comfort zone.”
Oyelowo spent several months filming in central Europe with cast members who include Elijah Kelley and Nate Parker on the outskirts of Prague in sparsely furnished military style tents with only small heaters, just like the original Tuskegee Airmen lived in during the war. A Red Tails Boot Camp, it was designed to show the actors what it felt like to serve in the military and get them acclimated to the World War II era. An experience that ensued camaraderie between the actor and his fellow cast members.
“Nate has become one of my best friends in the world,” he says. “I admire him so much as an actor and as a man and as a father to his kids. We have very similar outlooks and very similar work ethics and it was just good to do scenes with him, as we work in a very similar way as actors. It’s like playing tennis, for when you are playing with someone who is a great player, it just helps your game and he was definitely that for me.”
Although Oyelowo, a married father of three kids and a devout Christian has played memorable characters, including donning accents of different nationalities, there are certainly limitations to the type of roles he will play.
David Oyelowo as Joe ‘Lightining’ Little Photo: Jiri Hanzi
“I am a Christian and a lot of my choices are driven by that. I have a very clear moral compass. I pray about the roles I should or shouldn’t take and as it turns out, God has very good taste. He helps me make decisions that have served me well. There are definitely roles that I wouldn’t take, especially if I feel that they were morally reprehensible. I don’t mind playing a dark character, so long as they are not being projected as the way to be, but I have a set of checks and balances that I go through before taking on a role.”
An action-packed movie, which places viewers in the cockpits of nimble fighter planes in the thick of aerial combat, “Red Tails” stands as a stirring tribute to real heroes.
Samantha Ofole-Prince is a journalist and movie critic who covers industry-specific news that includes television and film. She serves as the Entertainment Editor for Trendy Africa.
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