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May 08, 2015

A Man and His Method

To depict the vortex of mental illness in an HBO showpiece, David Oyelowo chose to stay in character for the duration of the shoot.

Deanna Barnert

Despite the dulcet images conjured by its title, HBO Films' Nightingale — a one-man drama that captures the mental unraveling of a military veteran — "is meant to be a gut punch of a movie," says star David Oyelowo.

The psychological tale, premiering May 29 on HBO, unfolds entirely in the home of Peter Snowden, a lonely grocery clerk suffering from dissociative identity disorder (previously known as multiple personality disorder).

"He's fragmented himself into several compartments to deal with just existing," says Oyelowo, who is also one of the film's executive producers.

"This is someone who's lived a very repressed life He's dealing with sexuality, family, mental illness, PTSD, the legacy of religion, love, loneliness — every facet of his life has been subjected to his disorder."

Like the titular nightingale, Peter cries out for connection.

He rages, cajoles and begs via his phone and YouTube vlog, but as the film "lifts the veil" (as the actor puts it) on mental illness and isolation in the digital age, Oyelowo — whose many credits include starring as Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma and as Louis Gaines in Lee Daniels' The Butler — never interacts with another human.

"When I read the script, I was intrigued, fascinated, blown away," recalls the classically trained Brit.

"But my first questions were, 'Can this be done? Can you keep an audience engaged for 90-odd minutes with one person in a house unraveling?' The fact that I had to ask myself that is what made me sure I wanted to dive in."

He wasn't the only one. "Agents went mad" for the actor showpiece, reveals director Elliott Lester, who also exec-produced along with Josh Weinstock, Katrina Wolfe, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner. "We were inundated."

With Selma not yet greenlit (let alone raising Oscar controversy — the film was nominated for best picture, but Golden Globe nominee Oyelowo did not receive a best-actor Oscar nom), the would-be star didn't make the first round of meetings.

He eventually won the role by saying he was ready to "leave blood on the wall."

"As a director, you want your actors to be as ambitious as you are," Lester explains. "He's an immense force and a lovely human being. From the moment we said yes, it became a love affair."

With guidance from a clinical psychiatrist and a psychotherapist, Oyelowo and Lester broke down Frederick Mensch's script.

"So much of what I was able to do was born out of my conversations with Elliott and knowing I was in safe hands within which to take great risks," Oyelowo admits. "He was the captain of the ship, steering me."

Being Peter was "discombobulating and dizzying," but Oyelowo stayed in character for the three-and-a-half-week shoot, which took place in a house in Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley.

He moved out of the L.A.-area home he shares with his wife, actress Jessica Oyelowo, and their four kids, stayed in a friend's empty apartment and showed up on set every day wearing a boxer's robe.

Oyelowo insists he's not a method actor — at least, not yet.

"I've only done this twice, for Selma and Nightingale. It's produced the same result, which is that I'm seeing someone who looks and sounds like me, but is not me.

"It's something I'm processing now. Do I have to do that every time? 0h, no! It's painful to go to these places and stay there for that long, but I'm happy with the results."

For a performer whose resumé is awash with tense dramas — from his breakout role on British TV's MI-5 to his upcoming films Captive and The Queen of Katwe, with Kate Mara and Lupita Nyong'o, respectively — Oyelowo is quick with a laugh.

"I probably need to find a romantic comedy to balance things off," the Royal Shakespeare Company alum quips.

"I'm always looking for a story I have to scale the heights to conquer, and when it comes to storytelling, I'm a deep lover of exposing the human condition."

Which is why the actor, who has plenty of television credits to his name, is keeping an eye on the thriving TV landscape. "TV, to be honest, is taking over in terms of brave choices and artistry being displayed," he observes,

One of his favorite collaborators, Lee Daniels, crossed over from film this past season, as an executive producer of the Fox hit Empire.

"To work with Lee again is high on my list, but will it be Empire?" Oyelowo hedges. "You'll have to ask Lee...."

Did you hear that, Mr. Daniels?

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