In “A United Kingdom,” David Oyelowo plays Seretse Khama, the real-life king of Botswana (then a British protectorate known as Bechuanaland) who set off an international crisis in 1948, when he married Ruth Williams, a white British clerk. South Africa, which was instituting apartheid at the time, objected to an interracial couple’s leading a neighboring country; Britain opposed the marriage because resource-rich South Africa did; and Botswanans were angry that their leader had chosen a queen not of their race or tribe.
Reviewing “A United Kingdom” for The New York Times, Glenn Kenny said the best reason to see the film was Mr. Oyelowo’s performance and added, “It is remarkable, genuinely riveting work.” One scene in particular encapsulates the performance: an open-air meeting at which he must convince his countrymen that he should remain their king and that they should accept his wife.
In an interview at The Times, Mr. Oyelowo, who was also a producer of the film, explained how, for this scene, he drew on his own life as well as historical research. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:
How did you think about this scene?
For me, things hopefully come together. Obviously you have to know your lines and know them well enough in front of a crowd, [so] you harness their attention. There’s also the accent: Seretse Khama had a Botswana accent, but he also spent a lot of time in the U.K., so his accent was a hybrid. And sometimes the emotion can take over and the technical aspects can go by the wayside, and you don’t want that to happen. Then there’s the truth of what he’s saying, the emotional truth. None of the technical work means anything unless there is an emotional connection — for you as the actor but also to the people you’re delivering the speech to and then the audience as well.
What was the attitude you started out with when you looked out into the crowd?
It was one of those rare instances for me as an actor where what I say as the character very much overlapped with what I believe as a person myself. And so I felt a lot of the emotions I imagine Seretse Khama would have felt. We shot it in Botswana in front of a Botswana crowd, a lot of whom would know who Seretse Khama was. So in some ways, it’s a real test to play this leader who means so much to them and to convince them both within the film and as real people who see me as an actor not from Botswana.
Do you think about posture or other physical things when you’re performing?
I found through my research and watching footage [that Khama] was an incredibly poised man, a very elegant man. And I felt in this speech, there should be a stillness to him. I’ve always felt stillness gives status. And even though he is emotional [throughout] this speech, he never loses his dignity.
When people aren’t engaged in the crowd, how do you get them back?
Any actor will tell you this. I’ve done a lot of stage, and you can see how the audience is reacting. Sometimes you have people asleep in the front row. Sometimes people are crying their eyes out. You have to try to find a place within you that doesn’t take it personally. Thankfully, most people seemed engaged, but sometimes people weren’t. And you have to use those people; you probably zone in on someone who seems not so interested.
In the scene, a single tear falls. How do you make that happen?
For me, any emotion I have, it’s not technical. I am not one of those people who can cry on cue. It has to feel real.
Is there anything in your performance as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma” that you brought to this role?
In many ways, I was desperate to make sure there was a distinction between myself as Dr. King giving a speech and Seretse Khama giving a speech. Of course, these are completely different men, but they have me in common in movies, and I was very mindful that they must remain distinct.
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