Audiences grooved to his energetic portrayal of blues man Muddy Waters in “Who Do You Love,” sympathized with his dilemma as Joseph Asagai in the television drama “A Raisin in the Sun” and applauded his character’s demise in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”
British actor, David Oyelowo, is fast earning an estimable reputation as one of the most versatile character actors of his generation. In a decade, he has marked the screen playing memorable characters, and was the first black actor to play an English king for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The star of the George Lucas produced vehicle “Red Tails,” a film inspired by the heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen (the first black military aviators in the United States armed forces), Oyelowo plays a war veteran called Joe ‘Lightning’ Little.
“I was passionate about this guy from day one,” shares the actor, who for several months had to inhabit the physically demanding role of his character. “What I loved about him is that he exuded the confidence and invincibility that you feel when you are a young man. There’s something about that feeling of immortality that you have when you are in your early 20s, that gets eroded as you get older. For me, Lighting was the embodiment of it. That was why I really fought for that role, because I felt that he was the absolute representation of what the real Tuskegee Airmen stood for.”
Oyelowo’s character and that of his cast members, who include Cuba Gooding Jr., Nate Parker and Neyo are composites of real life heroes, who were awarded the opportunity to fight for the Allied forces during the second World War.
“It was a huge accomplishment, as they went on to be part of the desegregation of the military in the Southern parts of America, which led into the civil rights movement,” continues Oyelowo.
The history of these Tuskegee Airmen began when 13 cadets were selected to participate in an experiment at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which was aimed at training “colored personnel” to become combat pilots for service in the Army Air Corps. Flying escort for heavy bombers, they earned an impressive combat record and were nicknamed “Red Tails” because of the distinctive crimson paint applied on the tail section of their P-51 Mustang planes.
“Having some of the actual Tuskegee Airmen while we shot the film was very helpful for us. It was a constant reminder of the fact that this wasn’t just any old acting gig,” adds the actor. “There was a very steep learning curve of the technology involved and in shooting various planes sequences. They were very fit military men, had a certain shape to them, and had to be able to fit into those planes. So there was not only the physical, but the historical research also. We had quite an extensive period of training for the film and that involved just getting very, very fit.”
In addition, training flights were also taken on actual P-51s by the cast at the Planes of Fame in Chino, CA.
“It was the most exhilarating experience of my life in terms of the speed and the acrobatics that these things are able to perform,” Oyelowo continues, “I didn’t know there were black fighting pilots in the Second World War, and it was great to be part of getting that story to a broader audience.”
Directed by Anthony Hemingway (The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, True Blood), John Ridley (U-Turn, Three Kings) and Aaron McGruder (Boondocks) serve as screenwriters on this action adventure.
“For me, this project was driven by the writing, and the fact that there is so much research available, plus it’s full of drama, intrigue and interest, which are always made more exciting by the fact that it actually happened,” he adds.
For the actor, whose batch of new films includes the Ava DuVernay directed project “Middle of Nowhere” and “One Shot” with Tom Cruise, filming “Red Tails” was certainly a memorable experience.
“We have a shortage of opportunities to work together as black actors, so it’s nice to be in a film where our energy can bounce off each other, and not feel like we are all having to fight for the same small slice of the cake. To have a film in which we can all shine together, that isn’t just being made for the niche market that is the African American community is great.”
Red Tails releases in theaters January 20.