David Oyelowo (‘Complicit’) interview

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David Oyelowo (Spooks) stars as a British MI5 agent in Channel 4’s new one-off drama, Complicit, airing at 9pm on Sunday 17 February.

Edward (David Oyelowo), a British MI5 agent, has been monitoring a suspected terrorist in the UK for three years. He is convinced that Waleed Ahmed (Arsher Ali) is planning an imminent atrocity in the UK involving a ricin attack and is racing against the clock to prove it. When Waleed is tracked down and arrested in Cairo, Edward’s relief is tempered by Waleed’s claims that he is an innocent British citizen who has been brutally interrogated by the local police. Edward travels to Cairo to face Waleed, confident that he has enough evidence to tie him to the ricin plot. But Waleed knows his rights.

As a result, Edward is forced to follow instructions and wait. Meanwhile, his superiors begin to doubt the case against Waleed. The information Edward has of Waleed’s intentions is starting to appear based on supposition, instinct and the flimsiest evidence. Time is running out for Edward, but such is his conviction and determination to protect his country, he finds himself entering into an uncomfortable alliance with the local security service, headed by Colonel Hazem Ashraf (Makram Khoury) who is prepared to secure the proof he needs by whatever means necessary.

You get offered a lot of roles. What was it about this one that interested you?

“Well, what actually happened was I’d done a film called Blood and Oil with Guy Hibbert about four or five years ago. The piece really spoke to me – it was about how oil companies are ravaging the delta area of Nigeria. So Guy and I got quite friendly during the course of that project. Then about a year-and-a-half ago, he sent me this piece called Complicit, and he said “I’ve just literally typed ‘The End’ on this, take a look and see what you think.” I thought he was just sending it to me as a friend, just to look at a piece of writing.

“Obviously as an actor, you’re always looking for a good role, and the role of Edward absolutely leapt off the page for me. Not only was it a great character, it was a bullseye in terms of the kind of material I look for. So that was my first interaction with it, but you never know if it’s going to get commissioned, or if anyone’s going to finance it. But lo and behold about a year later it got the green light and I badgered my way through the door.”

Edward’s something of an outsider in the security services, isn’t he?

“Yes and that again is something that I really enjoyed about the script and about the role. I’d done Spooks, which was centred on MI5, but with Spooks, one of the challenges was doing a one-hour movie each episode. You had to set up that there was a baddie and then get the baddie within that episode. That left less time for getting into the psychology of the characters – it was sort of Bond for the telly, really.

“Whereas with this, both Guy and Neil kept on saying “This is less about the terror and the terrorist, and more about the man.” We all, to a certain degree, feel like outsiders, and it was just more overt with this man – socio-economically, culturally, even within MI5, so it was really interesting territory to explore.”

Did you do much in the way of research for the role?

“I did, yeah. I have to say, I came in pretty well-equipped, because I’d done a bunch of research during the course of Spooks – sitting down with MI5 officers during the three years that I was on that show. So often the scripts were based on true cases that we then dramatized.

“So I came in pretty well-equipped from that point of view, but Guy had done exhaustive research, and so he was a big help to me, as was Neil. So between the three of us, we came in with quite a bit of knowledge. And actually there’s a lot online. You’d think with a secret service organisation there wouldn’t be so much available, but there’s an MI5 website that you can get a lot of information from.”

Some of the filming took place in Morocco – how did you find that experience?

“It was perfect, for me as an actor. Even though Morocco was doubling for Egypt, as a Westerner you very much feel like a fish out of water, in terms of the culture, the topography, the heat. It’s just such a different world to the one that we inhabit either in the UK or in the States where I now live. In the film we’re suggesting that Edward is a fish out of water in MI5 and even more so when he gets to Cairo. So that whole feeling of alienation ramps up.

“You’re always looking, as an actor, for situations whereby you can place yourself in a real environment so that you’re not having to conjure up things that can feel false. So that feeling of alienation was very much exacerbated by actually shooting in Morocco.”

Your scenes with Arsher Ali were electrifying…

“Arsher is an unbelievably brilliant actor in my opinion. The first time I met him was at the read through. From the moment we met, there was tension. That was largely coming off him – I’m much more [puts on sing-song voice] ‘Oh hello…’ I’m all about the work, but if we have an acrimonious relationship on screen, I’m not one of those actors who necessarily feels the need to have that going on off screen. He came in with such a level of intensity.

“Put it this way – the tension between us in the scenes, largely led by Arsher, was there for us as people. And once I saw that that was the choice he was making, I said ‘Okay, this is interesting. It’s not the way I’ve gone before, but let’s go with this.’ So actually there was very little small-talk and back-patting between us during the course of the shoot.

“A lot of the tension you see on the screen was also there between takes. It wasn’t that we were arguing or beating each other down, it just wasn’t a pally-pally situation. And then the moment we finished our last scene with each other, Arsher’s demeanour entirely changed, he came up to me, he had seen me as Henry VI at the Royal Shakespeare Company, was very complimentary about that, he was an entirely different person. As I say, this approach had come from Arsher, and I think it was really, really useful, because these are not men who know each other – even though Edward’s been studying him for years.”

The script puts forward very compelling reasons as to why Edward makes the decision he does, that’s a very important aspect of the drama, isn’t it?

“It’s a hugely important aspect of the drama, because post-Guantanamo Bay, it’s very easy, sat in our living rooms across the world, to be very judgemental about the very, very tough job people in the secret services have to do. And since Guantanamo Bay the rules have changed – as a member of MI5 or the CIA you can’t bring someone in without evidence. A lot of the time what you are relying on as a secret service officer is your instinct. You go with that and then try and build on a hunch.

“Post Guantanamo you have to go to your superiors with evidence in order to not have another debacle, so that’s the situation we have with Edward. He has a hunch – based on a lot of information gathering, but not the kind of hard evidence that would mean they could sanction bringing this guy in. When you know that your decision is either going to allow thousands of people in London to be subject to a Ricin attack or not, that becomes a very tough call. It’s saying to the audience “What would you do?” To me, that’s one of the most compelling things about the drama.”

How do you think attitudes compare between the US and the UK regarding this issue. Do you think, broadly speaking, the public are on the same page in both countries?

“No, I don’t. I think America is a nation very much run on fear, and I think the politicians play into that. If a politician wants something passed through, they will pump the airwaves with why you, as an average American, should be fearful of it – whether ‘it’ is a rival candidate or offshore drilling or terrorists.

“What you do is you pump the American public – who are largely ill-informed – with soundbites, and that can get you what you need passed. Whereas in the UK I don’t think we’re a culture that is as susceptible to the fear-mongering. But more and more, I find, flitting between the UK and America, that old reference to the UK being the 51st state is becoming a truism. The news coverage is becoming more and more homogenised, for example. But I think we still have more of a level-headed approach than you would find in America.”

You now live in America – what was behind your decision to move there?

“In all honesty, things were going fantastically well in the UK. But I could feel that there is very much a glass ceiling – not just as a black actor, but as an actor generally – in the UK. If you want to do film, if you want to aim for the pinnacle of what there is on offer in terms of screen work – I just felt that having done great TV series and fantastic theatre in the UK, and a few films, I just felt if I wanted to keep the momentum of my career going, I had to make that move. I didn’t want to wait until things started to calcify before going.”

Do you think there’s a major difference between working on a US production and working on a British one?

“I think literally the only difference is size. By size I mean the scope of it, the money available, and the production values. That is literally it. There is no contest in terms of the UK when it comes to the acting and the writing and the producers, directors, the technical crews we have in the UK are second to none. That’s why so many of them are working in Hollywood. But it is literally to do with the money available to get the job done.

“Movies are expensive to make – even a small movie, you’re talking about upwards of £2 million. So that’s the primary difference, and it affects everything. The kind of work I’m getting to do in America is definitely not the kind of things I would get to do in the UK. In the UK they’d be a lot smaller, which would mean the characters had less scope, which means there’s less opportunity to reach a wide audience.”

Your parents were from Nigeria, and you lived there for seven years, and you’ve spent most of your life in the UK. Now you’re in the US. Where do you consider home to be?

“That’s a very good question. I often refer to the UK as home, but if I’m not in LA, LA is home. And Nigeria, because of the place it holds in my heart, is also home. In many ways that’s reflected itself in my career. Because I’ve lived in these places, I have been able to play characters from all those continents. I’m very lucky in that respect. I suppose it depends on which day you catch me and where I am as to where I refer to as home.”

Is it true that you got into acting when you joined a youth theatre because you were invited along by a girl you were attracted to?

“Yes, it is. She was my pastor’s daughter, and she used to work the overhead projector. When I was meant to be paying attention to the Lord, I was paying attention to her and her long, flowing locks. And then one day – it was a complete shock – she invited me to the theatre, on what I thought was a date. But it was actually a youth theatre group where they were low on boys. But I liked her enough that I kept going, and before I knew it, a new passion was born.”

The RSC has played a hugely significant role in your career, hasn’t it?

“Yes, massively. The opportunities I was afforded there are still very much the basis upon which my career has been built. The RSC gave me the profile and the confidence to go into something like Spooks, which then led on to everything else. It was definitely formative.”

Spooks was a fantastic show – was it as much fun to work on as it was to watch?

“I think it was actually more fun to work on, because what you never saw was how much giggling went on. We were being very earnest and saving the world. When we started out, myself, Matthew and Keeley were all in our early 20s. In the early Noughties, when we first started, there were very few dramas, if any, that were being headed up by young actors. So we were the kids who had been let loose in the candy store.

“We literally thought with every episode that we were going to get fired. We thought “Someone, somewhere has made a mistake.” And then it came out and did so well, much to our astonishment. And Matthew MacFadyen is one of the funniest human beings I know, as is Peter Firth, and myself and Keeley are big gigglers, so it was a terrible mix for getting the day’s shooting done. So yeah, it was an incredible amount of fun.”

Your career in the States is going really well. Do you still worry where the next job is coming from?

“You always do – I think that’s hard-wired into the actors’ DNA, because every actor I know, to a certain degree, harbours this thought of “One day I’m going to get found out.” If you love acting, and you’re afforded the opportunity to act, and you’re being paid the kind of money that means you can not only live, but live well, you really are one of the most fortunate people on planet Earth.

“And when you’re offered roles that mean you get to go to places like Morocco, or travel the world and see incredible things, and it’s all on someone else’s dime, it’s an incredible job and an incredible life, so you feel that someone, one day is going to realise your life is one big jolly, and they’re going to pull the plug. So I’m trying to move away from those feelings by doing more writing and collaborating, and producing more, so that I’m relying less and less on someone picking up the phone and asking me to come and play.”

Does your faith influence the kind of roles you take on?

“Yes, it does, in as much as I tend to stay away from anything that I deem to be a celebration of the dark side. I by no means feel like everything I do has to be Christo-centric, or have a happy ending, or be a message movie, but from a moral compass point of view, there are pieces that I feel are not edifying to the human spirit that I will therefore stay away from. At other times, I may be indecisive about doing a role, and prayer, for me, helps me in those decisions. So yes, it definitely does.”

You have four kids now – how do you find the time and energy to go to work?

“You know what? Thankfully they’re wonderful children. And we home-school them, which means we’re always this travelling band. They were in the UK when I was shooting Complicit. They’re being educated wherever they are, which means I’m not an absent father, which is very, very important to me.”

With acting parents, are any of them showing inclinations in that direction?

“I just did a film called The Butler, shooting in New Orleans, and my eldest son, Asher, came to visit the set one day, and the director took one look at him and said “I want that boy in my movie”. And before I knew it he was playing Mariah Carey’s son at the beginning of the movie. I literally watched my son catch the bug. If you’d asked me a month ago, I’d have aid probably not, but we’ve had a shift since then.”

The career you’re in can lead to couples and families spending time apart – you’ve got a specific rule about that, don’t you?

“Yeah. Before the kids even came along, my wife and I have always had a two week rule, so that we’re never apart for more than two weeks. This meant a lot of very tough choices, like turning work down or having to shift a family wherever we’re going, which can be hard work. But it’s paid huge dividends, and my wife and I have been married 14 years now. We’ve only ever broken that rule by 11 hours, so we’re not doing too badly.”