His most challenging role yet.
by Jessica Young
With an imposing presence, David Oyelowo has made his mark quickly in several dramatic leading roles, and he continues to make captivating movies full steam ahead. The British actor is best known for portraying civil rights leader Martin Luther King in Selma. His other roles include Lincoln, The Butler, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, A Most Violent Year and The Help. The 39-year-old father of four also starred in the British TV series Spooks.
His latest movie, Captive, is a crime drama, based on Ashley Smith’s book Unlikely Angel, co-starring Kate Mara, Mimi Rogers, Michael K. Williams, and David’s wife, Jessica, and is the true story of David’s character, Brian Nichols. Nichols escapes from the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta in March 2005, during his trial involving a rape case. In the process of the escape, he murders the judge presiding over his trial, as well as the court reporter. He shoots a special agent and a police sergeant and is the subject of a city-wide manhunt. Soon, he arrives at the apartment of Ashley Smith, a single mother and recovering meth addict, whom he holds hostage. Smith gets through her time as a hostage by reading Rick Warren’s best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life while Nichols searches for redemption. As she reads aloud, the hostage and her would-be killer come to a crossroads.
Why did you pick this movie, Captive?
I was more drawn to the story than the role itself.
What else intrigued you enough to play this role?
Whenever you look at this story, there was this blank spot of what happened over this span of time. You only had Ashley’s side of the story, you didn’t hear much from Brian Nichols, and he was facing trial … for murder, and is presently serving multiple life sentences. So, someone who had killed four people in the morning then turns around and not only lets this woman go, but gives himself up. Then in a weird twist of fate, she attributes part of her salvation to him. It’s something that generates intrigue in me.
How familiar with the case were you before coming onto the project?
I wasn’t at all. It happened in 2005, and I was still living in the UK at that time. I’d read The Purpose Driven Life, and to see it being such a pivotal part of what went on to happen between Nichols and Smith is what got my attention.
Ashley Smith was my greatest resource from that point of view. As you can imagine for those seven hours, even though her life changed for the better beyond them, that time with Nichols was very traumatic. She was being held hostage in her apartment, and she remembers it like it was yesterday. She was with us for a lot of the shoot. I relied on her quite heavily for how he moved, who he was, what he said, what he didn’t say. We were changing the script all the time just to make sure we didn’t embellish what happened between them.
Did you have a trigger that you would use, or did you stay in character the whole time?
I didn’t have one on this one. I’ll be honest with you. Playing Nichols was a very tough thing because to get your head into the space of being able to kill four people in a morning, cold-heartedly – I didn’t enjoy being there even for the time of shooting, let alone to stay in character the whole time. One of the things I learned early on as an actor is that you have to love your character. You have to not judge them. You have to understand them to be able to truthfully play them. For me, this is one of the hardest characters I’ve had to do that with.
What goals did you set for yourself in portraying Brian?
I wanted to acknowledge certain things that inevitably the audience do with characters like Brian, which is that you judge someone like him. He’s a big black guy; he used to play football. Packing on a lot of muscles [was] something I had to do. Partly to play with the audience’s perception.
You see a big black guy taking a white woman hostage. No matter who you are, where you’re from, what colour you are, that is very provocative imagery and prejudice, to be perfectly frank. And then humanise him. Then bring complexity. Then make you question the initial attitude towards him, but at the same time make sure you’re not exonerating him for what he did. It was a very tricky balance to strike, but the fact that Ashley Smith herself attributes part of her salvation beyond this event to Brian Nichols, you have to see that.
What else was involved?
You have to see that there was something in him that made her humanity awaken – her desire to be better to be kick-started. It was a tough character to play because, like I say, you can’t get away from what he did; but he is a human being, and I think that’s partly why Ashley was able to cut the red switch with him, in a sense. [It] is the fact that she also showed him humanity at that moment, which is what enabled me as an actor to show his humanity because he was having an interaction as opposed to a cold-blooded non-interaction like he had with the people he killed.
Were you able to meet Brian?
I wasn’t, no. The nature of his sentence means you can’t have access. But I did get to meet his mother, which was very intense, as you can imagine. The thing that was extraordinary about meeting her, even ten years on, is that she still can’t quite believe that this is her life and that this was her son that did this. It is still reverberating for that family…
Was there footage to use for research?
Yes, of the trial mainly. Not beforehand. My primary source for getting under the skin of Brian was Ashley. She remembers this event as if it happened yesterday, and she was on the set with us through quite a lot of the shoot. She had influence in so far as not from a creative point of view, but more from a factual point of view. I was very keen [to have her there], because I couldn’t speak to Brian, and because I was limited in being able to talk to people who knew him; I just wanted to make sure that what we were doing felt true, felt like it was authentic to the experience. It is one of those stories with no need to embellish anything. All of it played out like a movie.
Please tell me more.
When you think about the fact that Brian kills those people in Atlanta, and then it was a 45-minute drive to Duluth to the apartment complex, and then he finds his way into her specific apartment… You couldn’t write that, is the truth of the matter. So for us it was about sticking true to the story, and that was primarily her function for us while we were shooting the film.
Did you have any second thoughts about playing Brian?
Yes, I did. Because I know what it costs me to play these roles. You can’t phone that in. My job as an actor is to fully inhabit the character. And that costs with a character like Brian Nichols … what he did, and who he is, didn’t have the same draw as playing Dr King, for obvious reasons. But my job was the same. Your job as an actor is to not judge your character. You have to be able to understand why they do what they do when they are doing it, so that you function as a three-dimensional human being that people can believe.
The fact remains that beyond those seven hours, Ashley Smith attributes God with part of why she gained her life back. And when he held a gun to her head and said take the meth, and she said no, a drug that she had been a slave to for so long, the way she describes it is that she felt God took over Brian Nichols and said, “Do you want to live or do you want to die? You have a choice, turn away from this thing , take hold of life.” And so regardless of where you are coming from, [from] a faith point of view, something happened, something miraculous happened. Something that on paper shouldn’t have.
And that can only happen when, I believe … a degree of humanity is shared between these two people. So yes, the idea at the beginning of the movie is for him to be cold-blooded, and one of the things I really struggled with is, you have a guy, and this is what he did on the day, he had no shirt on, very muscly guy, two guns, running around Atlanta, the kind of guy who we normally deem an action hero in the movies – so one of the toughest things was how do we not make him seem like Jason Statham, or Bourne or Bond, so you have that to one side.
But at the end of the day, even though – especially if he had done what he did to any family member of mine – I wouldn’t want to see him as a human being … the fact remains that he was. And so yes, my job is to portray him with a degree of humanity that means you can take a look at these two people, who you could discard to the trash heap, making choices that took them away from the deadly path that they were both on. That can only be born out of humanity.
I know your faith is important to you and your family. Would you say this is a Christian movie?
I would be unhappy if it were limited to being thought of as a Christian movie because I have avoided films like that. People know I’m a Christian; it’s something I’m not shy about talking about, and I’ve had films like that be presented … I guess the preconception being that I would want to be involved with them. I don’t because I find anything preachy to not be evocative of what it’s like to be alive. I don’t think life is as clear-cut as someone has it all together, someone doesn’t, the person who has it all together helps the person who doesn’t, and they go on to find salvation.
What I love about this story is that these are two broken people, and undeniably something happened that took them on a path that was not what you expect. Brian Nichols killed those four people that morning but he let her go. He gave himself up. She went on to never touch that drug again. How did that happen, why did that happen.
That’s why I’m interested in that seven-hour interaction between them. It wasn’t born out of a Christian faith in my mind. It was born out of a miraculous circumstance. I would hope that it wouldn’t get boxed into just being deemed a Christian movie.
How do you hope the film connects with audiences?
One of the most dramatic things Ashley ever said to me when I was talking to her about that night is she said that when Brian Nichols broke into her apartment, she was aware of who he was and what he had done. She had been a slave to meth for a long time, and she felt that this was God’s way of saying, “You have run out of chances.” She thought she was going to die because that’s what she deserved. The opposite is what happened. It was the day beyond which she gained life. Not only life, but she never touched that drug again. I’m still blown away by the fact that this was a drug she pursued, she spent all her money to get and use, and Brian Nichols asked her to take that drug three times at gunpoint and she said no. What happened there? How would you go from someone who pursues this drug to a murderer saying, “Take the drug”? I would take the drug. You know what I mean? And I’ve never taken any drugs. So to me, my hope is that people watch the film and see that no one is beyond a second chance, no one is beyond redemption. This is a woman who felt she was beyond redemption and gained it and stepped into it and now her life is impacting other people. I just find that to be a very powerful thing.
Is there anything else that you want to add?
The tough thing for me was to have all those things Nichols did but to work very hard not to glamorise those moments. He was a cold-blooded killer. What he did that day, there are people alive still dealing with the pain and the fallout of what he did. Glamorising it and making him feel cool in any way was the opposite of what I wanted to do. We just wanted to make it feel as it was, which is terrifying and cold-blooded, and instantaneously people’s lives are changed forever. That was the thing we worked very hard to do.