David Oyelowo Discusses Portraying Brian Nichols in 'Captive'

David Oyelowo Discusses Portraying Brian Nichols in 'Captive'

Shakefire sat down with actor David Oyelowo, who recently portrayed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in last year's Oscar-nominated Selma, to talk about his latest role in Captive. Once again he steps into the role of a real person, only this time he's a cold-blooded killer; the complete opposite of someone like Dr. King. In 2005 Brian Nichols escaped police custody, killed four people, and set off one of the biggest manhunts in Atlanta history. Oyelowo discusses with us what it was like to get into the mindset of a murderer and how he hope Captive will connect with audiences.


Shakefire (SF): Where did you film, and why did you chose to film there instead of Atlanta?

David Oyelowo (DO): We shot in Charlotte, North Carolina. Anyone who knows the story of what happened in the courthouse that day would have to accept that it’s a bit of an indictment on courthouse security in Atlanta and shouldn’t have happened. We wanted to shoot in Atlanta and, to be perfectly honestly, didn’t feel as much love as you would like because it’s a story that’s tough in terms of what happened in the courthouse that day. I know there’s been a lot of reform that means that what Brian Nichols did that day is unlikely to be able to happen again, but that was one of the reasons why we shot in North Carolina.


SF: How familiar with the case were you before coming onto the project?

DO: I wasn’t at all. It happened in 2005, and I was still living in the UK at that time. My entry into the story was actually Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life. I’d read it before I knew about the Ashley Smith/Brian Nichols story. Having read the book and found it a very meaningful book for myself, to see it being such a pivotal part of what went on to happen between Brian Nichols and Ashley Smith is what really got my attention. In a very far less dramatic way, the book was meaningful for me, but you could argue that this was the turning point in terms of their interaction. So yeah, the book came first before the knowledge of the story.


SF: Even though the case is documented very well in court and in the media, there’s very few images and video of Brian Nichols the character. How did you construct him based on the information you had?

DO: 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 Brian Nichols was very traumatic. She was being held hostage in her own apartment, and she remembers it like it was yesterday. She was on set 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. We didn’t Hollywoodize it, for lack of a better phrase. There’s enough footage of the trial itself that gives pretty good indications of who he was, how he moved, his disposition. But you’re right. And I couldn’t have access to him. He’s serving multiple life sentences so access to someone like me, or I should say the other way around, is not going to happen. So Ashley was my greatest resource.



SF: Did you have a trigger that you would use or did you stay in character the whole time?

DO: I didn’t on this one. I’ve only employed that in playing Dr. King in Selma and then a film I did called Nightingale. I’ll be honest with you. Playing Brian 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 in order to be able to truthfully play them. For me personally, this is one of the hardest characters I’ve had to do that with, but I did it. I had to find reasons in my mind as to why he did what he did and justify them moment to moment, but I was not in a hurry to be in that space for two months.


SF: What goals did you set for yourself in portraying Brian?

DO: The goal I set myself was I wanted to acknowledge certain things that inevitably the audience do with characters like Brian Nichols, which is that you judge someone like him. He’s a big black guy; he used to play football. Packing on a lot of muscle is 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 color you are, that is very provocative imagery and prejudice, to be perfectly frank. And then humanize 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. You have to see that there was something in him that made her own humanity awaken, her own desire to be better, to be kickstarted. 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 Smith was able to cut the red switch with him in a sense is the fact that she also showed him humanity in 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.


SF: How does it differ getting into the headspace of someone like Nichols versus Dr. King?

DO: Well, not only as an actor, but as a man, as a Christian, as someone who highly admires Dr. King and what he did, to play Dr. King is a honor I will take to my grave. It’s definitely, I know no matter what I go on to do it will be one of the best things I’ve ever done with my life. I felt that going in, and I still feel that now. I can’t say the same thing about Brian Nichols, in terms of a desperation to play Brian Nichols, but the challenge is the same. You have to play someone who is real, who people have a very real attitude towards, whether negative or positive. It’s not like playing a fictional character where you’re basically concocting someone who people believe in because you’re presenting them. They will literally watch it, especially here in Atlanta, and go, “He looks nothing like Brian Nichols. That isn’t what happened with Brian Nichols.” You’re having to endure that kind of scrutiny. You’re not going to please everyone all the time whether you’re playing Dr. King or Brian Nichols, but at the end of the day the level of work is deeper because people already have a frame of reference before they’ve seen the movie.


SF: Would you say this is a Christian movie or does it transcend that?

DO: I would be unhappy if it was limited to being thought of as a Christian movie because I personally have avoided films like that. People know I’m a Christian; it’s something I’m not shy about talking about and so therefore I’ve had films like that be presented to be with I guess the preconception being that I would want to be involved with them. I don’t because I find anything preachy to be not evocative of what it’s like to be alive, personally. I don’t think life is as clean cut and cookie cutter 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 the Ashley Smith/Brian Nichols story is that these are two broken people, and undeniably something happened that took them on a path that was not what you expect. There is no way when you see that Brian Nichols killed those four people that morning that you’re thinking he’s going to be in an apartment with a woman for seven hours and she’s not going to suffer the same fate. 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. There are so many different apartment situations Brian Nichols could have found himself in between the event at the courthouse here in Atlanta, GA and Duluth, GA. But that was the apartment he found himself in, and that was the woman he ended up with; a meth addict and a murderer. It sounds like a movie, but it actually happened. I would hope that it wouldn’t get boxed into just being deemed a Christian movie. Of course there are elements of faith that intersect with it, but I would hope that anyone and everyone could take something from it.


SF: Can you talk about working with Kate Mara? The majority of the film is just you two in this apartment.

DO: It was a complete delight. She’s one of my best friends in the world. I’ve known Kate for a long time, and I was very keen for her to be the one to play Ashley Smith from day one. The film was in my life for about three years before we actually shot it and other names were suggested and I just didn’t want to hear it. I wouldn’t entertain it, personally, because I think she’s a phenomenal actress but also she has the qualities you’re looking for. There’s a fragility to her while also a strength. I think she’s a transcendent actress, and I just enjoy her company. And like you say, we were together in that apartment for a lot of the shoot. If that’s going to be the case, you want it to be someone you actually like. And I do like Kate. It was a complete joy because she’s a fearless actress as well. She threw herself into this feet first, and I’m very proud of the performance she gave in the film.



SF: How do you hope the film connects with audiences?

DO: 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 - you have to remember it was on the news on a loop that day, especially in Atlanta and in Georgia generally - she was aware of who Brian Nichols was and what he had done and then there he was on that same day in her apartment. 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. You deserve death.” That’s what she felt. 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 gun point 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.


SF: Was Ashley on set on a daily basis?

DO: She was on set for a lot of the shoot, not every single day but certainly a lot of the time. It was invaluable because, for me as an actor who tries as much as possible to tell the truth and be authentic and who didn’t have as much access as I would like to Brian Nichols himself, it was very very important. We were literally changing the script moment to moment to fit what was more akin to what actually happened than what we thought might have happened.


SF: Can you walk us through the process of when he took down the guard, got the gun, and went on a killing spree. How many takes did it take you to get that down?

DO: Not many takes but what was important to me, and one of the biggest challenges is normally in movies you have a guy who’s jacked. Brian Nichols is a big guy so I spent a lot of time in the gym. As it happened on the day, he was wearing a black suit with no shirt on, had two guns, running and killing people. In normal films, that’s the hero. That’s the action guy who we all kinda go, “Wow, he’s a badass! We want to be like him.” The tough thing for me was to have all those things Brian Nichols had but to work very hard not to glamorize those moments. He was a cold-blooded killer. What he did that day, there are people alive still dealing with the paint and the fallout of what he did. Glamorizing it and making him feel cool in any way was the opposite of what I wanted to do. That was what was difficult about those moments. There had to be no slow motion, no embellishment, just cold. It happens very quickly and that person is moving on. We didn’t want to dwell on it. We didn’t want to make it a movie moment. 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, and I was insistent upon that it didn’t feel in any way like Brian Nichols was some kind of action hero.


Captive opens in theaters on September 18, 2015.

Matt Rodriguez
Interview by Matt Rodriguez
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