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David Oyelowo on playing justice seekers, peacekeepers and men on a mission

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Today marks Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when slavery ended in Texas, 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. One of the Lone Star State's folklore heroes of that time period is Bass Reeves, a formerly enslaved man who went on to become one of the nation's first Black deputy U.S. marshals.

His story is the stuff of legend. They say Bass Reeves spoke five tribal languages and is credited with bringing thousands of outlaws to justice. It's a story actor David Oyelowo was obsessed with from the moment he read it, but it would take him eight years to finally get a series about Reeves made. "Lawmen: Bass Reeves" debuted on Paramount+ last fall.

David both produced and starred in the series, which starts in a civil war battle when an enslaved Reeves is forced by his master to fight for the Confederacy. Reeves later flees to Indian territory, where he meets a U.S. marshal who notices Reeves' fluency in native languages and marksmanship. Reeves is later deputized and given the task of capturing criminals. But an internal battle rages within Reeves as he grapples with his own sense of morality and justice. In the season finale, Reeves goes off without official sanction to get revenge against a corrupt lawman, a Texas Ranger. While on the hunt in a distant Texas town, a small boy utters to Bass Reeves a meaningful message.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAWMEN: BASS REEVES ")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You a lawman or an outlaw?

DAVID OYELOWO: (As Bass Reeves) Today, a bit of both, I reckon.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) My daddy said, they're one and the same.

OYELOWO: (As Bass Reeves) Your daddy a smart man.

MOSLEY: That was a scene from the Golden Globe-nominated series "Lawmen: Bass Reeves." David Oyelowo is an Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated actor who rose to prominence for portraying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay's film "Selma" and Peter Snowden in the HBO film "Nightingale." He starred in several films and television shows, including the Netflix film "The Midnight Sky" alongside George Clooney. David Oyelowo, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

OYELOWO: Thanks for having me. Always good to be here.

MOSLEY: It seems to take years for many of your projects to come to fruition. Eight years is a long time.

OYELOWO: Yeah, I wish it wasn't this way. But for whatever reason, I seem designed to be the guy who sticks it out.

MOSLEY: You stuck it out because you were passionate about this story. You felt like this story was important. What was it that made you feel that way? What was it that you connected with this character, with this person, Bass Reeves?

OYELOWO: I had grown up, like a lot of kids of my generation, loving Westerns. They were on the TV ad nauseum. You know, Mom's broom was my white stallion, and I would clip-clop around the living room with her being upset that I was jumping all over the sofa. And I was a fan of the genre...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

OYELOWO: ...So to speak. And I didn't even know that I was missing something in terms of the representation of Black people in that genre. It wasn't until many years later, actually, as I was digging into my research for Bass Reeves that I came to find out that 1 in 3 cowboys was Black. In fact, the word cowboy is a racial epithet.

MOSLEY: It is?

OYELOWO: They were actually called cow punchers. But because of the sheer amount of Black people who were cowboys that - the phrase - the boy of it all is why it became cowboy.

MOSLEY: I did not know that.

OYELOWO: And you'd be excused for not knowing that because the representation of them in films that are Westerns or TV shows that are Westerns - graphic novels, whatever it may be, books - is just not commensurate with how present they were.

MOSLEY: All of the characters that you seem to take on are men on a mission -peacemakers, those who are really important to the story of America, but in some instances, undertold stories.

OYELOWO: Yeah, we see many stories centering Black people from a historical context that are about how we've been brutalized, how we've been marginalized, how prejudice has browbeaten us. But very rarely, in my opinion, do you see those triumphant stories where we overcome, where we are triumphant in a way that anyone and everyone would deem that individual to be a hero despite the obstacles that they overcome.

And to me, that's where there is a universal truth in relation to the character that makes them aspirational, that makes it so that regardless of your race or country or ethnicity, you go, that's someone I want to be like. And so the combination of an aspirational character that is the center of the narrative, I think, is the difference.

MOSLEY: Let's talk a little bit about Bass Reeves. He escapes enslavement amid the Civil War. And this series takes us through his career in law enforcement during that period of reconstruction. You know, from the moment I heard this story, though, I just couldn't wrap my head around this Black man during that time period arresting white men.

OYELOWO: Right.

MOSLEY: What kind of man would you have to be or did you have to be to be Bass Reeves?

OYELOWO: Well, this is why it was so exciting to play him and to tell the story. The whiplash it must have engendered to, within a very short period of time, go from being enslaved, fighting on the side of the Confederacy, to now you are empowered as a purveyor of justice to not only uphold the law but to arrest the very people, a lot of them disgruntled...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

OYELOWO: ...Ex-soldiers who deem this new world to be untenable, and you are a constant representation of what they deem to be untenable.

MOSLEY: Dangerous. I mean...

OYELOWO: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...His life is on the line constantly.

OYELOWO: Absolutely because the job he's doing is inherently dangerous, but because he's a Black man doing it, as well, in a world where, in very recent memory, he was chattel. He was to be owned and to be abused, used and abused as the so-called master saw fit. And so that in and of itself is an incredible character to present at an incredible time. The reconstruction era is where this is playing out, beyond the Civil War and before Jim Crow - an extraordinary time to be a Black person in America.

MOSLEY: You had to recreate, based on probably historical documents, other people in order to make a composite of Bass Reeves because really, there's not much there about him.

OYELOWO: Right.

MOSLEY: You had to spend a lot of time researching.

OYELOWO: Yeah. You know, as you do your research, you start to see the stories that come up again and again and feel more plausible. And actually, there are court transcripts of some of the cases that he had to give testimony for, in terms of people that he arrested. You know, he did beat his enslaver almost to death. He did live with Native Americans for a time. He was a failed farmer. He was deputized by Judge Isaac Parker as played by Donald Sutherland in...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

OYELOWO: ...Our show. So there are many things you can tether to in terms of the poles of reality around which you now have to...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

OYELOWO: ...Sort of build, like you say, on the basis of research, on the basis of what was going on at...

MOSLEY: Right.

OYELOWO: ...The time and, you know, the joy of storytelling...

MOSLEY: Right.

OYELOWO: ...Dramatizing the life.

MOSLEY: Yeah. I mean, was there a detail that just really stuck with you, a legend or a story about him that you were like, oh, my gosh? One thing, he was a wonderful marksman.

OYELOWO: Right.

MOSLEY: Like, he could really handle a gun, right?

OYELOWO: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, no, he was extraordinary at several things. I think one of the things that was true, and we exhibit to a certain extent in the show, is that he was illiterate. He was denied the ability to read. Incredibly bright - there is a difference between being illiterate and being whip-smart. He was whip-smart. And what he would do - his wife, Jennie Reeves, could read. And when he would get the information, the written-down information of the people that he had to go and arrest, he would have her read them to him once, maybe twice, and he would memorize every single aspect of it, in order to go and arrest that person. So he had an unbelievable mind and was often the smartest guy in the room, but he was a man of few words, which is another thing you see in our show and...

MOSLEY: I got to talk about it. Yeah, because, I mean, in Westerns in general...

OYELOWO: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...You know, there's not a lot of dialogue.

OYELOWO: Right.

MOSLEY: But in this one in particular, there's a lot of acting, a lot of your acting, is just in your face. It's in your expressions. Where did you have to go to in your mind during these really powerful scenes where you're contemplating, you're thinking through the next action for your character, for Bass Reeves?

OYELOWO: Well, to be enslaved at that time, there was a lot of politics around just where you place your eyes. You were not allowed to look your enslaver in the eye. And so a lot of communication that was going on from a hierarchical point of view was nonverbal at that time. Because, you know, speaking to your enslaver was a dangerous thing to do. Espousing your opinions was a dangerous thing to do. And so the disposition for survival was one of silent obedience, so to speak. And so that's woven into what Black people were having to endure at that time. But you combine that with the fact that he is - one of the reasons why he's so good at being a deputy U.S. marshal is his ability to observe. And he did speak a myriad of languages. You know, I had to speak Creek and Choctaw in the show.

MOSLEY: You had to - right, you had to learn those.

OYELOWO: Yeah, yeah. And, you know, so speaking was something he was good at, but he was even better at observation, and that's what made him incredible at what he did.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest today is David Oyelowo, star and executive producer of the Paramount+ series "Lawmen: Bass Reeves." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "4 ON 6")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and today, we're talking to David Oyelowo, star of the Paramount+ series "Lawmen: Bass Reeves," which he also produced. David is an Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated actor, known for portraying justice-seekers, peacekeepers, and men on a mission, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay's film "Selma" and Peter Snowdin in the HBO film "Nightingale."

There is this overriding theme where as Reeves is really asking himself, am I an instrument for justice or am I being used?

OYELOWO: Yeah.

MOSLEY: And that's an interesting question that never really gets answered. I don't know if it could really be answered. It's also really powerful because as a Black person, anyone who has had - been in a position of power has probably asked themselves that question, too.

OYELOWO: Right. Right.

MOSLEY: What about you?

OYELOWO: Well, I think in the show, that's one of the primary themes of the show, and it's rooted in the gray area that is the notion of justice. How do we talk about justice in America at a time where there have been centuries of injustice meted out towards African Americans who were stolen from their continent to build America? So when you are a Black person, who has been living in what can only be described as an unjust world, and you are now being invited into an infrastructure that is saying that it has had a change of heart, a change of mind, and so therefore, you're now being invited into a world where...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

OYELOWO: ...And you can see that there are Black people who are going into politics, Black people who are going into industry and entrepreneurship and law enforcement. So it is suddenly a new world, but it is someone who looks like your enslaver, who is inviting you to do that. That's a very confusing thing. You are now arresting people who are going to toss racial epithets at you saying, you are not the thing that your badge says you are. That is something I don't accept. And the reality is all of those mistrusts you feel about this changed society soon get answered with Jim Crow.

MOSLEY: There's so many quiet moments, and as I mentioned, you act so much with your face and your body and the action within scenes. But your character - there are moments where we hear Bass speak. And it's a very distinct accent. And I want to play a scene between you as Bass Reeves and the local judge who has appointed Reeves to be a U.S. marshal. And in this scene, the judge, played by Donald Sutherland, tells Reeves a story from his childhood, how when he was a boy, he showed his father what he thought was gold, and his father said, That's not gold. It's pyrite. It's fool's gold. And so then he asks Bass, a man that he's always trusted, whether he himself is gold or pyrite. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAWMEN: BASS REEVES")

OYELOWO: (As Bass Reeves) The man whose name and brand I carry, the one who taught me to ride, to shoot, was William Reeves. Everyone told me how fortunate I was to have his good favor. You got the big man's interest, Bass. Made it good, Bass. He wasn't a cruel man, at least not on the surface, but then he gifted me to his son, George. When that man's cruel became too much to bear, I didn't go treasure hunting, collecting loose rocks, fool's gold. No, sir. For you, knowing who's who a simple thing - gold or pyrite. But justice - ain't nothing more costly.

MOSLEY: That was my guest today, David Oyelowo, starring as Bass Reeves in the Paramount+ series.

David, this accent is very distinct. What did you find out about how Black Americans spoke during that particular time period in that region?

OYELOWO: At that time, Black people were so much closer to their West African roots than we are now. And there is a music in the way they spoke that I recognize because I'm of Nigerian descent myself and lived there for a fair few years, and that was the accent my parents had. And people didn't move around as much back then. So the accents people had were more distinctive and more traceable to West Africa. And we found this because we heard recordings that were later than the 1860s, which is when our show is set. You can hear the sounds. And it's extraordinary to me how akin to the Yoruba sounds...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

OYELOWO: ...That I grew up listening to. There's sort of a melodic quality. And so the combination of that, the transcripts that we were looking at, the fact that we cover 15 years of his life, the fact that he lived a very hard life. The failed farmer for about 10 years, all that dust, all that outdoors life, all that time on a horse. People grew older a lot quicker back then. And a lot of the place that would manifest is in the voice.

MOSLEY: What did you do to get yourself there?

OYELOWO: Well...

MOSLEY: 'Cause it's more than an accent is what you're telling me.

OYELOWO: Yes, yes. You know, often young people who want to be actors ask me what the trajectory it is I would recommend to them in terms of becoming a good actor. I will always say it's the theater. And I...

MOSLEY: Your early career was in the theater.

OYELOWO: It was in the theater. And when you're doing plays, you don't have the luxury of editing and v-effects, and all the amazing things that cinema and television gives you as a tool as an actor in order to convey a character. Your body is the tool, your voice, your disposition. And you're having to transmit that to sometimes hundreds of people, sometimes thousands of people, and the voice is a primary way you are expressing who and what the character is. And so I had several opportunities at that early in my career. So I know the power of the placement of the voice, not just the accent itself. And so, in order to convey a weariness that is inevitable...

MOSLEY: With that life.

OYELOWO: ...With that life and with the culture and the history and the politics of that time - you know, I am an actor who aspires to use all of him when it comes to a role. I will look for the costume to inform some of what I bring to the role. I remember playing Dr. King. You know, I put on all this weight, and Dr. King had a very specific way his neck sat within his collars. So I asked Ruth, our costume designer, to make all of my collars about half an inch smaller.

MOSLEY: So it's a little tight.

OYELOWO: So it's a little tight. And that in and of itself, that constriction then did something to my body. It brought a sort of a tenseness to everything that I couldn't have done if I was more comfortable in what I was wearing. And that's the genius of Ruth Carter. That was something that we arrived at together. So there are so many things that come to bear as you are trying to convey the truth of a character. The voice is just another one of those tools.

MOSLEY: You had to learn how to ride horses and shoot a gun.

OYELOWO: Yeah, I did that for over a year. Just outside LA here, I would get on a horse with amazing trainers, and we would ride in very tricky terrain, in order for me to get to a place of ease that when cameras are rolling, when I had to gallop, when I had to suddenly stop, when I'm in all this undulating, inclement circumstances - I remember seeing Kevin Costner in "Dances With Wolves." And there's a scene early on in the film where he rides across a battlefield in a sort of death-defying way, and he lets go of the reins. And he is riding this horse without holding onto the reins. He throws his arms to the side, looks up to the high heavens, with his eyes closed.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

OYELOWO: And that was clearly him.

MOSLEY: Yes.

OYELOWO: And I just thought, whoa. That is...

MOSLEY: You got to get to that level.

OYELOWO: You got to get to that level, because that's the point at which he buys the audience's trust in the fact that he is that character. That is not a stunt guy. You are watching someone - not unlike any of Daniel Day Lewis' performances, or you watch Denzel Washington in "Malcolm X," you feel that an actor has given themselves over to a character, and that allows you to relax and be completely tethered to the truth of what that actor is doing.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is David Oyelowo, star and executive producer of the Paramount+ series "Lawmen: Bass Reeves." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. I'm Tonya Moseley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIONEL LOUEKE SONG, "SKYLARK")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And my guest today is Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated actor David Oyelowo. He stars and is the executive producer of "Lawmen: Bass Reeves," which is about one of the first Black U.S. marshals of the 19th century. Born into slavery, Bass Reeves goes on to be known for arresting more outlaws than any other deputy during his 30-plus-year career.

David Oyelowo rose to prominence for portraying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay's film "Selma" and Peter Snowdin in the HBO film "Nightingale." He starred in several films and television series, including the Netflix film "The Midnight Sky" alongside George Clooney.

The show, "Lawmen: Bass Reeves" - this show has been praised. There's also been criticism that it's not Western enough, that it - the narrative, the family narrative, may take over more than the Western part of it. Maybe people, when they saw that this was coming out, thought, OK, I'm going to come and see what I've always seen.

OYELOWO: Right.

MOSLEY: How do you respond to that?

OYELOWO: It was absolutely by design, and I love hearing that because for me - when I first sat down with Chad Feehan, our creator and showrunner, I wanted to make a Western for people who don't love Westerns. And Westerns, typically, the tropes are revenge. The tropes are a lone man who has no ties to any family, and the violence often, in my opinion, is mindless.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

OYELOWO: This man has a family. Love is the driver for why he consistently wants to get back to his family. Revenge is not the driver for why he wants to be a purveyor of justice. His faith in God and the Bible is. And so there are so many things inherent in the character that fly in the face of the tropes of the Western.

But also, with this being one of the rare times where a show of this nature is centering a Black person, centering a Black family, I personally was not interested in it being what we have seen before. I love shows and films that are fresh and familiar. Give me my Western in a fresh way.

MOSLEY: Way.

OYELOWO: And that is what we set out to do.

MOSLEY: You mentioned that you're Nigerian. You grew up in the U.K. and in Nigeria. You came to this country, and I wonder how your perception and understanding of the Black American has changed or evolved since you've been here and you've been taking on these roles.

OYELOWO: Yeah, it's been quite the ride, and one that I didn't seek out. But yes, between films like "Red Tails," playing a Tuskegee airman...

MOSLEY: Yep.

OYELOWO: ...Or "The Butler," playing the son of the butler as played by Forest Whitaker or playing a preacher in "The Help," the thing that I have come to learn and truly appreciate, which I will fully admit I didn't before, is just how extraordinary Black people in America are. And I mean that in terms of African Americans. When you look at just how much injustice, how much challenge, how much pain, how much - how many lies have also been told about the reality of who and what Black people are to this country. Black people built this country. There is no America without the stealing of all of those Black bodies to basically build this nation. There just isn't. And for all of that injustice to be foisted upon a people, and then to still be invested in building the country, building community, taking ownership of being American, is truly extraordinary to me.

MOSLEY: What were your perceptions when you were a kid growing up of Black people in America?

OYELOWO: Because so many of the narratives are negative, you just think, well, Black people in America are inherently upset with how they've been treated, and they are stuck in that place. That's the perception you have growing up in the UK. You watch "Do The Right Thing," and I love that film. But there is - you can feel that there is a heat around what it is, particularly being an African American man. You have been objectified, you have been consistently and continually accused of things you didn't do, you are mistrusted, but you are also exploited when it comes to sport and music and your body, and there are so many pervasive narratives, particularly around Black men.

And when you are imbibing culture from across the pond and you're getting these negative stereotypes shoved down your neck, what you're not having as much of a front row seat to is just how much of what is good about America was built on the back of Black people. Just how much of what America is able to call itself is rooted in a forgiveness and a love, which you could argue isn't warranted, from Black people.

MOSLEY: I've always wondered about, you know, it seems that for the United States, our No. 1 export is, like, Black entertainment and culture, too,

OYELOWO: Right, right.

MOSLEY: Like, it drives and it informs so much. So when you were a young person in the U.K. and in Nigeria, and so much of what you were taking in was that, I mean, did you have an understanding or a depth of just how much contribution Black people paid in that regard to the arts?

OYELOWO: Because of how inherently - and I genuinely mean this - brilliant Black people are. And I say this as someone who grew up in an African country from the age of 6 to 13. And the way Nigerians move through the world is transcendent. I did grow up listening to that music and watching those films. Sidney Poitier was my hero because he was my mom's favorite actor. He had a poise and a disposition that was very akin to what I saw in my uncles and my own father, despite the challenges that they might face. And of course, yes, there's the music. There's the fashion. There's the literature. There's all this amazing stuff, but it is all being pushed through a white lens. It is all being shown through white distribution mechanisms. And, you know, some of these films are being directed by people who are not of the demographic that are centered within the show itself.

So I saw this very, very clearly in my time in the development phase of "Selma," for instance. And it was illustrative of the point I'm trying to make, which is when I first happened upon that script in 2007, the director was a white man, and the film centered Lyndon Johnson, not Dr. King. Lyndon Johnson was the lead, and Dr. King was tangential. That script then went to another white male director. The narrative remained the same. It then went to a Black director. It went to Spike Lee. I wasn't part of the project at that point, but I was by the time it became Lee Daniels, and suddenly, Dr. King was the center of the narrative. But it wasn't until it was Ava DuVernay who was directing it that the women of the movement became centered in a way that you could have actresses like Oprah Winfrey and Lorraine Toussaint and Carmen Ejogo and Tessa Thompson and Niecy Nash in prominent enough ways that you are getting not just the man that is Dr. King, but the movement, and how it was driven not just by other Black men, but by Black women as well.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest today is David Oyelowo, star and executive producer of the Paramount+ series "Lawmen: Bass Reeves." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT'S "EGYPTIAN FANTASY")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and today we're talking to David Oyelowo, star of the Paramount+ series "Lawmen: Bass Reeves," which he also produced. David is an Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated actor, known for portraying justice-seekers, peacekeepers, and men on a mission, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay's film "Selma," and Peter Snowdin in the HBO film "Nightingale."

Your mother had a prophecy when you were a kid, when you were born. She said that you would walk amongst kings.

OYELOWO: Yeah.

MOSLEY: When did you first learn about that prophecy?

OYELOWO: When I was very young, she told it to me personally. It's a sort of a statement that you don't forget easily, but I was genuinely confused by it because I didn't entirely know what it meant. I mean, you could watch films and see the knights of the round table or whatever and think, oh, that's a world in which kings were roaming the Earth, and you could mingle with them. But I didn't see anything growing up on a council estate in Islington that suggested I would be anywhere near...

MOSLEY: That's a working class - yes.

OYELOWO: Yeah, yeah, it's like growing up in the projects.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

OYELOWO: And so I loved that my mom considered that as something in my future, but I couldn't see it for myself.

MOSLEY: As you got older, how did you interpret that as you went through different stages in life, that prophecy, and what it meant for you? How do you sit with it today when you reflect on it?

OYELOWO: Well, it's funny, you know, I - one of the reasons I'm an actor today is because the Prince's Trust sponsored me to be able to join a youth theater, which is where I actually met my wife, Jessica, when we were teenagers. And that was the now, King Charles. It was the Prince's Trust, and King Charles is now a friend of mine. You know, because I've been an ambassador for his trust for, I mean, about 25 years now. My seminal role in the theater was playing the King of England in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3. In a film called "The United Kingdom," I played the King of Botswana, who was exiled because he married a white lady. So, you know, it's definitely been a theme. I am of royal descent. My father's dad was the king of a part of Nigeria called Awe. People hear that and immediately think, oh, wow, so you're this...

MOSLEY: Yes.

OYELOWO: ...Prince and all that. Trust me. It's not all of the things that you associate with being the King of England, but, you know, that is also part of my familial history as well. So it has been a theme. And my interpretation of that is that it's probably why I'm drawn to playing aspirational characters, characters that, for me, personally, as a Black person, make me proud to be Black. Make me proud of my culture, my history, and what we have contributed to the world as a whole...

MOSLEY: Yup.

OYELOWO: ...Which, again, I feel isn't platformed as much as it should.

MOSLEY: You know, something interesting when I was reading some old articles about you, listening to some old interviews with you. Everyone's so fascinated by that history, that royal lineage from your Nigerian history. There's so much myth-making around it.

OYELOWO: Right.

MOSLEY: What were the realities of you growing up? Because you lived in Nigeria for a time. You lived in the U.K. But you all were really middle class and in many instances working class.

OYELOWO: Absolutely. Yeah, when we first moved to Nigeria, we lived on Oyelowo Street on the Oyelowo Compound, which is, you know, very snazzy.

MOSLEY: That had to feel cool. Was it? Did it to you, or did you take it for granted?

OYELOWO: Well, I was very young. I was 6...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

OYELOWO: ...7 years old, so it was a bit confusing, if I'm totally honest. But my father was one of six kids, and he was the youngest boy. And he really didn't want to be deemed to be someone who was reliant on his family name or his brothers who were in politics and doctors and they were fairly affluent. He wanted to sort of do it his own way. And so he kind of broke away, not from the family, but from anything that could be considered him sponging off his own family. And so we were actually quite poor growing up, and my father had made the choice that he wanted to go it alone. And that was why he moved to the U.K. in the first place. That's why even when we were in Nigeria, not long after we moved there, we were no longer living on the Oyelowo compound. We were living in a tiny apartment with my dad working for the Nigeria Airways...

MOSLEY: What do you think it was - that he wanted to make a name for himself or do it himself?

OYELOWO: There is a pride and a disposition that I attribute to Nigerians in a way that I probably shouldn't generalize, but it's the pride of being self-made. It's the pride of being self-reliant. It's the pride of standing on your own two feet, and my dad had that in spades. He is where I learnt my work ethic. He is where I learned my love for family. He was a doer, not a talker, and he worked harder than anyone I have ever seen anywhere ever. And it's why, you know, again, when young actors say to me, what would be your advice as to how to succeed? I would say, well, the thing that has stood me in good stead is, when you're asleep, I'm working.

MOSLEY: Something you mentioned, I've heard you talk about, and growing up In Nigeria was the sense of self? You didn't suffer from minority mentality - is that the term that you use?

OYELOWO: Right.

MOSLEY: Right. So by the time you got to the U.K., went back to the U.K...

OYELOWO: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...You had a deep sense of self, because, you know, you're just around all people who look like you in Nigeria. It's very similar to how I grew up in Detroit - like, everything was Black. My church was Black. My school was Black. My neighborhood was Black. So my sense of self was pretty strong by the time I went on to the greater world. Have you thought about that? How do you grapple with that?

OYELOWO: Yeah, there are so many things that are constructs that torpedo our sense of self. If you're constantly being told you're a minority, if you have the notion that you are a diversity hire, if you are constantly being reminded of your race in a negative way - these are things that subconsciously work their way into how you think of yourself. If you are watching films and television shows where you are constantly the best friend, the Black best friend or the magical Negro as we know that trope, or you're just constantly tangential, superfluous or peripheral to the narrative, you are gathering data as to what your skin, plus the world, or that culture or community that you are within, how it feels about you, where it places you on the hierarchy of things. Now, if you grow up in a community, like I did in Lagos, Nigeria, where every image, every bit of stimulus I am receiving is telling me I am central to the life of that community, that is also something that is - you're internalizing and affects your disposition as you go out into the world. So the minority mentality is something I was able to discern when I moved back to the U.K. at the age 13. Being in Nigeria from 6 to 13 and suddenly this notion of race. Race as a construct - it's a construct to help us rationalize, to be perfectly frank, some of the terrible things we have done to each other through history as opposed to just feeling like a human being.

When I get out of bed every morning, I do - my first thought is not I'm a Black man.

MOSLEY: Sure, sure.

OYELOWO: You know what I mean? I'm David. I'm a human being. I love my wife. I love my kids. Are they OK? Let me go feed the dogs. Going to hit the - you know, these are the thoughts that - but then, very quickly, as I exit my door, there is stimulus hitting me that is deeming me anomalous, deeming me different, deeming me problematic at times or deeming me angry at the world or whatever it is. And sometimes that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes it's something you're fighting against. But both of those things are negative.

And I call it actually - another phrase I use is the Sidney Portier syndrome. When you look at what he achieved in this country at that time, something that if you were a Black actor today, you know, winning the awards he did, having the acclaim he did, working with the directors he did, being number one on the call sheet at the time he was. Even today, that's a challenge. How did he achieve that? It's because he grew up in the Caribbean. Where again, he didn't have - yeah. He didn't have a minority mentality. So he was walking into rooms, circumstances and situations with a disposition that didn't have him in a boxer stance the whole time. He had an ease to the way he was confronting the world, because he didn't feel like he was constantly at war with it.

MOSLEY: David Oyelowo, thank you so much for this conversation.

OYELOWO: Thank you, my pleasure. This was fun.

MOSLEY: That was David Oyelowo, star and executive producer of the Paramount+ series "Lawmen: Bass Reeves." Coming up, critic at large John Powers reviews the new movie "Green Border." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS TRIO'S "MILESTONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.