David Oyelowo has long been one of the great British actors, with outstanding performances in Selma, Spooks, A United Kingdom, and a great variety of more over the years. Among these is his role as Agent Kallus in Star Wars: Rebels, a show that continues to have a lasting legacy within fandom. As the Imperial Officer turned Rebel, Oyelowo played a key part in a series that brought the original trilogy to the forefront of the collective consciousness of new and old Star Wars fans alike. Now that The Mandalorian is doing something similar with the live-action debuts of Bo-Katan and Ahsoka Tano, the influence of Rebels continues to grow.
Like many fantastic actors, however, Oyelowo is pivoting. After premiering at TIFF this year, Oyelowo’s directorial debut The Water Man received rave reviews. A throwback to the films of Amblin Entertaintment, as he tells us far below, The Water Man follows the story of a child who searches for a mythical beast that can possibly cure his mother’s illness. Oyelowo stars alongside the likes of Rosario Dawson and Alfred Molina while Oprah Winfrey serves as executive producer. The final result assures that he will likely follow in the footsteps of many fantastic actor-directors.
We were lucky enough to sit down with David Oyelowo and discuss Star Wars along with his first steps into the world of directing. All the talk of sci-fi and fantasy even lead him to bring up his time working on George Clooney’s new space epic, The Midnight Sky due next month on Netflix. After being submerged in Star Wars and sci-fi beyond, his personal take on the genre may surprise you.
To start on a timely note, you’ve been quite outspoken in the past about social issues in Hollywood and in the UK film industry, as well as playing civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. Going from that, how do you see the role of non-white actors in speaking out on social issues?
DO: For me personally, that ship has kind of sailed. I found for a few years that I got stuck in a hamster wheel of virtually every project I did getting politicized, by virtue of the fact that I’m a black person in a film. I am pivoting quite hard away from that because, you know, it’s just not what I signed up to do as an actor or a content creator. I will always reflect the truth of what I believe and what I want to put out into the world through my work. But I actually think it’s a pothole. It’s a trap. It’s a cul-de-sac out of which you’ve just got to navigate away from because, ultimately, it kind of takes away from the work you’re trying to do.
Absolutely. Now to change gears, your role as Agent Kallus in Star Wars: Rebels, how was the experience of jumping into that universe? Were you well-versed in Star Wars beforehand?
DO: My journey to play Agent Kallus in Star Wars: Rebels was very unique. I had done Red Tails, which George Lucas produced. In all honesty, I had not seen the Star Wars movies even though I am of the generation who should have been obsessed with it. When I was younger, for whatever reason, I had sort of sidestepped it. And so my first real interaction with Star Wars was sitting on a set with George Lucas in Northern California and him explaining to me why he had to invent blue screen out of necessity because of how little money they had to make Star Wars.
I ended up having these amazing conversations with the guy who invented Star Wars of so much of the technology that our industry now uses. And it was curiosity born out of those conversations that made me go and visit those films. I could really appreciate them in a very unique way having had these discussions with George. So to later on be asked to come on to Rebels, I sort of felt like a fraud. I felt like I should be a big fan coming into this really. But thankfully, I had those interactions with George that gave me a little bit of ownership before stepping into the Star Wars universe.
Are you a big fan now, taking in all the content? Or are you sort of still a bit removed from the whole thing?
DO: I am removed from it if I’m honest. My kids love it and are entertained by it. My brand of sci-fi… it’s weird. I prefer grounded sci-fi, you know? I like sci-fi akin to Gravity or The Martian, where there’s enough plausibility that keeps me hooked to the characters in an identifiable way as opposed to pure escapism and fantasy. But having done Rebels and the sheer amount of brownie points it has earned me with my children, and the massive and rabid fan base, I have to say, my love for Star Wars has definitely increased, having been a participant.
So despite ending at season four, Rebels has had a significant legacy. What are your thoughts on how this series, and your role, will have left a lasting impact on Star Wars?
DO: It’s been a really interesting journey playing Kallus because he starts out as a sort of classic baddie in the Star Wars tradition. And then, I don’t know what it was… I don’t know if it was my reading of it or what, but it was never to my knowledge conceived that he was going to flip and go over to the other side as it were. And then this sort of unexpected segue to him being known by certain parts of the internet as “Hot Kallus” because, you know, he grew his hair out and with the sideburns, he was in some ways a poor man’s Wolverine for some time there.
I mean, the amount of mail and love I got! You know, I go into a studio here in LA about once every three months to do this recording. Through my voice, I had sort of pseuo-become a sex symbol! It was kind of a weird and unexpected segue. But the embrace of the fans of that character, especially considering where he started was really, I think, unexpected for all of us.
As you mentioned, Kallus’ story is one of the most beloved parts of Rebels. How was it to voice that character, as part of the Empire and the Rebellion, and how did you try to differentiate between the two in your performance?
DO: The unique thing about doing Rebels, or even just things to do with Star Wars, is that there’s so much secrecy. Secrecy because of the fans and how much they want the information. So I didn’t know what the plot was until I got to the studio. And literally, I’m not allowed to have scripts in my possession in case they get into the wrong hands. So I’m discovering what’s about to happen in real time, and I had to really rely on Dave Filoni to get me where I needed to go. Normally as an actor, you get the scripts earlier on, you prepare, you kind of make some decisions as to how you’re going to do it. Then you’re guided by the director. This was very guided by Dave and the other creators of the show because you just didn’t have time to prepare.
You mentioned earlier about the brand of sci-fi that you really enjoy and you have a film coming out alongside George Clooney, who’s also directing, called The Midnight Sky. How was the experience of working with George on that film?
DO: It was very unique because you’re working with a guy who has done it so much between Solaris and Gravity. He has the technical side of it completely down, but he’s also obviously an actor. So he’s incredibly sympathetic to some of the real discomfort you find yourself in when wearing space suits for 12 hours a day as well as having to do Zero G work, which we had to do a bunch of on his film.
So in many ways, it was a bit like doing a gangster film directed by Robert De Niro. You felt in very good and experienced hands, working with George [Clooney]. But also the premise of the film, which I can’t say too much about, is just incredibly thought-provoking. It’s exactly, again, the kind of sci-fi that I love. Yes, it has action. Yes, it’s got that beloved genre of sci-fi, but it’s also asking really deep philosophical questions that are universal to the human race. When that script came my way, there was just nothing about it that didn’t appeal to me, between George and the other actors, the premise, and getting to do a film of that scale and size.
Speaking of an actor transitioning to directing and how that gives a very different perspective, did you take any of that into your directorial debut, The Water Man?
DO: Well, The Water Man is a film akin to the ones I grew up watching. It’s the kind of film that Amblin [Entertainment] used to make back in the day. You know, it sort of takes a leaf out of the book of Stand By Me and E.T. It’s about an 11-year-old boy who is on a hunt to find this mythical creature, who he believes can save his mom from her illness because the Water Man has the gift of being able to cheat death. I have been very fortunate to work with a number of really amazing directors and also to know some great actors who’ve directed. Joel Edgerton who’s also a friend of mine is a great actor, but also directs wonderful films.
Because I’m in The Water Man as well as directing, it’s sort of a very unique thing. Which by the way, I wouldn’t advise everyone to do. You have to be good at spinning a lot of plates, but those guys all individually gave me great pieces of advice. The pretty unanimous advice was: Make sure you know what your vision for the film is. You know how to articulate it in a concise way and you hire people who you can therefore entrust with that vision to go and execute. You mustn’t micromanage, mustn’t sort of try and do everything because you’re already wearing more hats than virtually anyone else who normally directs. And I was producing this one as well! So that was a phenomenal piece of advice.
Practically speaking, one of the best pieces of advice I got was from Joel Edgerton. He said If you’re in a scene with an actor or actress, you cannot help but be in the scene and also be seeing things that you know aren’t quite right and therefore you need to go again. But the thing you mustn’t do is call cut and then start directing that person right away. Because before you know it, the other actor realizes that you’re not really in the scene with them. You’re kind of observing them in the scene and that’s not the idea when you’re acting with someone. So, you know, the trick is to leave the scene, even if you’re pretending to go and look at the monitor momentarily, come back and give the direction. It’s almost like you’ve got to take off your actor hat, go put your director hat on and come back and direct the actor. That advice was invaluable because I definitely would have fallen into the trap of mixing the two
You’ve spoken before about the big influence she has had and the friendship you continue to have with Oprah Winfrey. How important was it for you to have her an executive producer on The Water Man?
DO: Anything I have done with her has been incredibly important to me in different ways because she is such a huge advocate and supporter of mine. So the things that we work on together, whether it be The Butler in which we played mother and son or Selma on which, if she hadn’t been a producer, I don’t know that the film actually gets made. On The Water Man, I found the script, it was a very competitive bidding situation with another studio. I know that me showing her [Oprah] and her company this script definitely helped with me being able to obtain it. She has just been a staunch supporter of mine. She basically consistently encourages me that anything I put my hand to, if I work hard enough, I can achieve. And she’s the living embodiment of that. It’s like having the best cheerleader in the world at your corner.
So as a Brit, I would feel amiss if I didn’t ask about this. I and many others first saw you on Spooks quite a while ago and you were fantastic. With that being your first sort of breakout role and The Water Man being your directorial debut, how do you feel about your career coming full circle from that to now?
DO: Oh wow! Well, I love the fact that in the, gosh, 18 years since I was doing Spooks, that I’m continuing to find ways to challenge myself and still have firsts in my career. You know, it is a creative medium. The thing I love the most about being in the entertainment industry is how creative and challenging it is. I loved directing, but it was incredibly challenging. I loved doing Spooks and that was also challenging in different ways. It was my first real TV show and at that time, there weren’t that many young people who were being allowed to head up TV shows. It was all Robson Green and Sarah Lancashire, it was the era of that generation of TV stars. So we were very much an outlier at the time. So yeah, I hope to keep on setting myself new hurdles to overcome. That’s the hope going forward.
Perfect. So to end off, what advice do you have to aspiring filmmakers who are struggling during quarantine?
DO: I would say that you must take your focus off the struggle and realize what an incredible opportunity this is. I think a lot of what was no longer working about the entertainment industry is going to fall away. And whenever that has happened historically, whether it was in the 70s that gave birth to the new wave, which was Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas, and Coppola, what happened is that the studios, not dissimilar to now, were going through a very tough time and needed an injection of new blood. The audience wanted something new. We are in an era of a similar shaking and those who will rise like the Phoenix from it are going to be those who recognize the opportunity, and right now are working dog-hard to be the tip of the spear of what is going to be the new wave of talent, the new wave of storytelling.
Especially in an era where we have so many different avenues and platforms on which to tell stories. We have broken out of the 90 minute movie, the one hour TV episode, or the half-hour comedy, you can completely do whatever. You can have a three minute episode, a 27 minute episode, that three hour movie which is actually a mini series. The rules have completely been taken away in an era where we are binging television in the way that people would read a novel. The opportunity is seismic, I would say. My advice to anyone looking to make headway is to get on with it because it’s gold rush time.