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David Oyelowo On 'Don't Let Go'


The actor David Oyelowo has taken us back in time. He portrayed Martin Luther King Jr. in the Oscar-nominated film "Selma," and he played a prince of modern-day Botswana in "A United Kingdom." His new film called "Don't Let Go" - well, it's more of a psychological time-traveling crime drama that's set in LA. This time, David Oyelowo takes us two weeks into the future.

DAVID OYELOWO: This terrible tragedy happens whereby my family is murdered. That includes my niece, my brother and my sister-in-law. And then I suddenly get this phone call.


OYELOWO: And it is from my niece. And somehow, she is calling me from two weeks before her murder.


OYELOWO: (As Jack) Where are you calling from?

STORM REID: (As Ashley) I'm at my house, in my bedroom.

OYELOWO: And I realize there may just be a chance to save her by reaching through time in some way.

GREENE: A phone call from the other side revealing the clues that will rewrite his family's fate.

OYELOWO: We can all relate to being prepared to do anything and everything to protect the ones we love. And that is definitely the case between this uncle and niece. And the bulk of the film is about them trying to get back to each other.

GREENE: Was there anyone in your family in real life who you wish you could hear from again - like to just hear their voice again?

OYELOWO: Oh, gosh, yeah. Weirdly enough, I lost my mom a few months before we started shooting...

GREENE: Oh, wow.

OYELOWO: ..."Don't Let Go."

GREENE: I'm so sorry.

OYELOWO: Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, it was - literally, I was in the throes of sort of dealing with that loss. And so in many ways, that was something that played into some of the emotional state I was in in being in the film.

GREENE: Have you thought about what you would want to say to your mom or if there's something you would do differently in your relationship with her if you had that chance?

OYELOWO: Of course. You think - man, to hug her again, to see her again, to hear her laugh again. I mean - you know, my mom, she would always call me for the most trivial things. You know, she had read an article, and she just wanted my opinion on it. And I'm in the middle of getting on with my day. I'm like - oh, Mummy, really? Is this what this phone call is about? You know?

And I would do anything to have a trivial phone call about absolutely nothing with my mum right now. And you know, the amount of times I was impatient when she would call me during a busy day is something I would definitely rethink now.

GREENE: I want to ask you a little more about your real-life family because I understand you come from royalty.

OYELOWO: (Laughter) Yes. Yes, my grandfather was the king of a region called Awe in western Nigeria.

GREENE: And did that - I mean, when you're growing up, is that something you bring up casually with friends when they're asking you about your family's roots?


OYELOWO: Well, definitely not living in the U.K. because it's very misleading. All we had as a barometer was the queen of England. And being the king of Awe or one of the princes of Awe is a little bit like being the Prince of Sherman Oaks. It's not really as impressive.

GREENE: To non-Californians, we should say, is an area just outside LA. But yeah...

OYELOWO: Yes - and a relatively small one.

GREENE: You've talked about the importance of diversity, representation in Hollywood - in film. I think I've read - and I might be paraphrasing - but it was something to the effect of, you would never take a role if you were going to be playing the black best friend of someone who is white - like, typecast in that way. So what do you think about when you consider roles when it comes to diversity and race?

OYELOWO: I am a believer in the fact that you are either part of the solution or you're part of the problem. If it's accepted that the black best friend is a stereotype, is a perpetuation of the marginalization of people of color in film, then it's something I don't want to be part of because, you know, that has to change.

It's an incredibly powerful tool culturally, film. And I do think that the more you are able to see people who are not like you in a human way, that is evocative of your own life, I do think it has the effect of breaking down prejudice.

GREENE: Let me ask you about "Don't Let Go" in this context because I understand it was originally written for a white lead role, set on a farm in Ohio. Is that right?

OYELOWO: Yes. Yes, it was. And that was the framing of it when it came to me. I was just elated that they just wanted to go out to an actor who they felt had the ability to inhabit that role, which is what, historically, hasn't necessarily been happening. And I do think it's because actors have been making the choice to not continue to play the stereotypical roles. And that is not to deny cultural specificity; it's not to say that there isn't something specific about me playing an African American role. It's just I get to do that in a more three-dimensional way in "Don't Let Go."

And so we made it feel specific. It's set in South Central Los Angeles as opposed to on a farm in Ohio. But you know, my casting is what opened things up so that Storm Reid gets to play my niece and Mykelti Williamson gets to play my my best friend and Brian Tyree Henry gets to play my brother. That's what happens when inclusion is truly at play - is that it really opens things up.

GREENE: How close are we to me never even having to bring this up at all and ask you this question?

OYELOWO: I'm hoping that will be what my kids are afforded. I see in them the lack of need to address race, almost to an alarming extent but certainly admirably so. I think in the same way that barriers are being broken down in my industry, they are also being broken down from a societal point of view. And I think it's going to become weird to talk about the differences between us going forward. Even though they exist and are to be celebrated, I think those things being framed through prejudice and marginalization feels like it's beginning to erode. But it's on us 'cause I do believe prejudice is taught. And I think some new teaching is out there right now for young people, and that's a great thing.

GREENE: David, best of luck with the new film. And thanks so much. It was great talking to you.

OYELOWO: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Thanks, David.


GREENE: That's David Oyelowo. He stars in the new film "Don't Let Go." It's in theaters tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS PASCHBURG'S "SPARK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.