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"I’m not someone who shies away from darkness." David Oyelowo in conversation with Malachi Kirby

He’s among the greatest actors of his generation. His production company is a hothouse for emerging talent. His directorial debut is attracting rave reviews. David Oyelowo is a one-man tour de force. He sits down with Malachi Kirby for a conversation about faith, identity, storytelling, and the push toward a better tomorrow

David Oyelowo

Introductions to magazine profiles are hardly allergic to hyperbole but the phrase ‘David Oyelowo is one of Britain’s greatest living actors’ isn’t a claim so much as a factual statement.

At the age of 46 – which is crazy, he’s been part of our cultural fabric forever – Oyelowo has amassed a formidable CV, or rather three formidable CVs: a triple threat of theatre, TV and film.

His portrayal of Henry VI – becoming the first black actor to play an English king in a major Shakespeare production – attracted rapturous reviews and remains one of the most celebrated performances on a 21st century stage.

He achieved national recognition as Danny Hunter in BBC spy drama Spooks, a role originally written for a white actor. His performances in films such as Nightingale, The Butler and Selma have garnered numerous awards and nominations. Oh, and there’s the voice work: in 2015, Oyelowo portrayed James Bond for the audiobook of Anthony Horowitz’s Trigger Mortis. (He’s also done Star Wars and Disney.)

Yes, Oyelowo is a truly Great actor: capital G. And the description still sells him short.

David Oyelowo for Square Mile Magazine
David Oyelowo for Square Mile Magazine

For Oyelowo is a producer, founding the company Yoruba Saxon with his wife Jessica in 2014. Oyelowo is a director, debuting his talents behind the camera with the upcoming family drama The Water Man – which he also produced. And starred in. Oyelowo is a prince: of a man, sure, but also a literal prince, an omoba of the Nigerian kingdom of Awe.

Above all, Oyelowo is an inspiration: hundreds of actors and performers working today will have grown up watching his work. A whole generation follows the trail he blazed, and continues to blaze still: as an artist and as a man and as a storyteller.

As Oyelowo himself so eloquently puts it: “How we tell stories shapes people’s perspective, their world view, their notions of who they are, both in the past, present, and maybe even future.”

It seemed only fitting we ask one of those young actors inspired by Oyelowo to conduct this interview. Malachi Kirby has transitioned from theatrical prodigy to fully fledged star of the small screen, picking up a BAFTA nomination for his Darcus Howe in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology. (Oyelowo wrote to Kirby, congratulating his performance.)

Their conversation is a thing of wonder, encompassing faith, identity, the power and possibilities of art; exploring the places we have come from and the places we have yet to reach. It was a pleasure to listen to. It’s a privilege to share.

Listen to the conversation

Square Mile: Before we start… Malachi, you nearly got mentored by David, right?

Malachi Kirby: For BAFTA Breakthrough Brits, when was this? I think 2017?

David Oyelowo: Yes, that sounds about right.

I struggle to remember anything past Covid at the moment. Yes, I remember being offered the opportunity to be mentored by anyone and it was basically, for me, only two people. It was you and Denzel. 

Denzel was busy, so…

Denzel was busy! [Laughs.] No, but I’m very glad for that. I was really glad to get in contact with you. And we haven’t spoken a lot, but the little that we have spoken has been really encouraging for me in many ways. So thank you for that. Thank you for making the time.

My pleasure! I love you. I think you’re great.

So how are you doing, man?

Yes, I am well. I am here in London by the Young Vic. I’m doing a film here at the moment, such a weird way to be in London. I’m either in this apartment or on the set so, yes, crazy times.

You live in LA, right?

That’s home. I’ve been here just over a month now. I always take an excuse to be in London or the UK when a good project comes along. But having lived here for most of my life to be here and not be able to see anyone is, oh, weird.

As much as I’m tired of talking about Covid, I’m interested – is it very different in America in terms of that situation?

Yes and no. For me living in LA, there’s just more space where I live and we’re blessed with a home that has a decent amount of land around it. So even though it’s been weird to be at home a lot of the time, we haven’t felt hemmed in. My wife and I, we have four kids, we have three dogs, we have chickens, we have parrots!

You’ve got land!

Yes, yes; there’s a lot going on. But it’s funny, it’s being back here – being in a smaller apartment – that I can now appreciate how some people must be climbing up the walls to be in a smaller space with kids doing Zoom school and all of that must be crazy. It’s similar in terms of lockdown, but I will say nice weather helps, a bit of space helps; it takes the edge off it.

And it’s actually been quite a creative time because my wife and I run our own production company. And when I’m busy shooting, certain projects suffer a bit because you’re focusing on the task at hand. There’s been a bit more time to be at home: projects that I really love, we’ve had time to develop and get them off the ground.

So it’s been a creative time, been a time for family, been a time to create and a time to reflect, just reprioritise things. So that’s been my Covid.

David Oyelowo for Square Mile magazine
David Oyelowo for Square Mile magazine

I just watched your film for the second time yesterday, The Water Man, which I’m right in saying is the first film you’ve directed?

Yes, yes, yes.

Congratulations, by the way, I thought it was beautiful. But I have a question: the production company, Yoruba Saxon where did the name come from?

I’m from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, from Western Nigeria. My mum was Igbo and my dad, Yoruba but being from a traditional Nigerian family, you inherit your father’s tribes. So theoretically I’m Yoruba, even though I’m both in all reality. My wife is Anglo-Saxon so that’s where the name Yoruba Saxon comes from.

Philosophically, what we want to do with our films is to exhibit how cultures, though beautiful in their specificity, there is commonality in all of humanity. We’re trying to bring people together with the projects we do, by showing and celebrating the specificity of different cultures, but showing how there is overlap as well.

David Oyelowo for Square Mile magazine

One of the things that was beautiful about the film, its values really stuck out to me because I think it’s so rare to see. In terms of it being very family oriented and in terms of the love that was in there, the hope that was in there, the intelligence of a young African-American: all of those things stood out to me in the most beautiful way.

And I just wondered if that’s something that is part of what you want to do with the company, you know, in terms of all of the projects that you do, or if it was just this film?

It’s beautiful that you’ve highlighted it. And the fact that you’ve highlighted it illustrates a really good point. I know you as a man, I know your integrity, I know your kindness, I know what you exude in terms of the light you exude; that is something that I see a lot in the people I interface with because that’s who I gravitate towards. But those values you talked about there, we unfortunately rarely see on film when it comes to people who look like you and I.

But that’s my life. I was raised in a home like that, I like to think I’m raising my kids in a home like that. It’s not unusual for me, but it’s unusual on screen. And so the answer to your question is, yes, that’s something I want in my work, but only because that’s my reality. That’s my truth.

I grew up loving films like E.T. and The Goonies and Gremlins. I loved the values that were often espoused in those films, whether it be friendship or fighting for your family, or just the joy of adventure, seeing kids be free, but I very rarely got to see myself represented in those films.

And so I’m trying to create a different world for my children, for your children, in terms of that being normalised. That they get to see themselves in the context of not just race but love and family.

Being concerned for your mother who’s ill, how can you save her? And your dad with whom you’re not getting along, but it doesn’t mean you don’t love each other. It’s just that you’re human beings, do you know what I mean?

So it’s not like a big, you know, the dad is beating up his son and all this kind of stuff. It’s just like, that’s family. And then you find your way back to each other. Those are things that I think anyone and everyone can relate to. And that’s the life that I lead.

David Oyelowo for Square Mile magazine
David Oyelowo for Square Mile magazine

Yes, for sure. In terms of this child having both his parents present – usually if I see a film, especially with people that look like us, it’s either the mum that’s present only, or neither parents, or it’s the other extreme: both parents are present and it’s really happy families.

So it was really interesting to see this film and see the nuances of ‘OK, both parents are present but it’s not all easy going.’ Just because they’re both there doesn’t mean this kid doesn’t have his challenges and his issues and his brokenness, even. The journey of seeing that brokenness, and so also seeing healing, was so beautiful to watch.

You didn’t write this film but you produced it, you directed it, you acted in it. So I’m asking this question, one, just because I’m interested to know how that experience was for you, but also for anyone aspiring to do something similar. Was there anything that you found particularly challenging about that? Was it all smooth going?

[Laughs] No, it wasn’t all smooth going, but I’m not saying that because it was tough. It’s just a big thing to take on. There’s no getting away from it. I had always known that I wanted to direct at some point but this was not a film that I was originally intending to direct.

At my company, there are two things we really want to put out into the world. Something we call ‘live action Pixar’: I love Pixar movies, there is something about animated movies that instantaneously appeal to kids.

When you have kids, you find yourself, ‘Oh gosh, I’ve got to watch this animated movie over and over again.’ But Pixar do this brilliant thing where they engage adults whilst also engaging the kids. And very rarely do you have those same qualities in contemporary film.

Spielberg did it brilliantly back in the day. JJ Abrams has done it to a certain degree as well, but there are very few young filmmakers, new filmmakers, who gravitate towards four-quadrant movies, where the whole family can sit down and watch a film.

I gave this remit to my agents. I said, “I’m looking for something in the vein of an E.T.” 

So live-action Pixar is one of the things we want to do. And the other thing is to contextualise black life for a global audience. To make sure that we are always having layered characterisations, the perspective is from someone who may be in mainstream, doesn’t normally get to tell the story both in front of, and behind, the camera. We want to keep on creating a world where different kinds of people are getting to tell the story.

So I gave this remit to my agents. I said, “I’m looking for something in the vein of an E.T.’’ And then they brought me this film, The Water Man, which was on The Black List. For people who don’t know, a hundred scripts are selected each year by an organisation called The Black List, which was created by a wonderful guy called Franklin Leonard. They are basically picked by the Hollywood industry as the best unmade screenplays of that year. They’re put on a database so that Hollywood can go, “OK, I want that one. I want that one. I want that one.” And a lot of them have gone on to be produced.

I managed to snag this film after a big competition from other studios. I managed to convince the scriptwriter Emma Needell that I had a vision for it.

We had a director who was going to direct it, but he went off to do a bigger film that has never got made by the way, just saying. We had found Lonnie Chavis, who’s a phenomenal young kid, who plays Gunner in the film, the lead role. And we had a start date. We had the money to go make it and anyone who knows about making movies, if you have your star, you have a start date and you have the money, you figure out how to go.

It was actually the writer Emma Needell who turned to me and said, “I think you should direct this,” because she knew I had those aspirations, we’d been developing it together for about four years. And so I suddenly found myself in the director’s chair and it took me a while to take a deep breath and do it.

But man, I loved it. I really loved it because I love storytelling. You know, one of the reasons I have a company is I know the day will come when maybe people will be less interested in seeing me in front of the screen, but I always want the opportunity to tell stories.

I admire folks like George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg and Kenneth Branagh, people who hyphenate. They produce, they direct, they write, they add, but no one is going to ever be able to take their toys away from them in terms of creating. And so that was the thing I just loved about this process is being in every tentacle of the storytelling process when it came to making a film.

David Oyelowo for Square Mile magazine
David Oyelowo for Square Mile magazine

OK. And just one thing that just came out to me as you were speaking, I just suddenly considered, if you were directing a film, it’s a question I’ve always wondered, you know, how do you get noticed? Do you give yourself – how does that dynamic work?

 It’s a great question and it’s one of the things I was most nervous about. I contacted a few friends of mine, actors who have also directed. So I spoke to Nate Parker who made The Birth of a Nation; Joe Edgerton who did The Gift and Boy Erased; and I spoke to Mel Gibson as well. How you are both the star and director of Braveheart, I don’t even know how you do that.

So I spoke to all of these guys and Joel Edgerton gave me the best advice in relation to your question. He said, “One of the first things you want to do is make sure you’re not the person saying, ‘action’ and ‘cut’.” Because that’s a bit too schizophrenic, especially if you’re in the scene. So have your first assistant director be that person. So everyone knows that there is an external voice to you who says ‘action’ and ‘cut’.

And then he said, “If you’re in a scene, no matter what, when ‘cut!’ has been called, leave the scene, go and look at the monitor. Even if you’re pretending to review the footage. Then come back and share your directions to the other actors in the scene.”

Because what you never want is for the actor you’re acting opposite to think that you’re doing a scene with them and you are observing them as opposed to being in the scene with them. Because it’s going to start affecting their performance where they’re going, “Am I acting with David, the director, or the character David’s playing?”

The idea of being an actor wasn’t prevalent because I didn’t see many examples of what was possible

And that was huge for me because there is no way I wouldn’t have made that mistake. I totally would have been in a scene with Rosario Dawson, “Cut!,” would have been called and I’d go, “So, let’s go again.” And that’s just too weird. That’s just too weird.

I had my wife on set with me for the first two weeks of the shoot, just to call me out on my BS. The director is being asked a hundred questions an hour: by the costume designer, by the production designer, by the first AD, by actors, by catering. It’s just constant. If you’re producing the film as well, that’s twofold. So I was nervous that I would be distracted from giving a good performance.

So I had my wife there who knows me better than anyone, because she would be able to know if I was in the pocket or not. And so she would just give me a little thumbs up or a little sideways thumb up or a thumbs down. Look, you need it. You need it in your life.

It’s real life, yes.

But within about two weeks, I realised, because I’ve been blessed with a fair few opportunities as an actor on screen, you have a muscle memory of what a good performance feels like. And so I could relax. I’m resisting saying the easiest, but certainly the most comfortable part of directing this film for me was the acting. Because that I know how to do, I know what it should feel like. It was all the other stuff.

But the other great piece of advice I got, and it’s fairly well-known, is hire people better than you, hire people who are brilliant at what they do – especially if it’s the first time you’re stepping out as a director. Give them your vision in a succinct and clear way, and then let them do their job. Let them elevate your ideas, elevate the film, take ownership of your vision.

The greatest joy for me was to watch phenomenal artisans make me look good. I’ve been on sets where there are directors who either through their own insecurity or whatever, they micromanage everything and you can see that great talents are not being fully utilised. That was a mistake I didn’t want to make.

David Oyelowo for Square Mile magazine

I’m taking notes myself, honestly. That was really insightful. So stepping away from work for a sec: I did some detective work, and I realised that we basically grew up in the same area. So I grew up in South London, in Battersea. You grew up in Tooting, is that right?

Yes, yes.

I was there all the time. I went to training at Tooting Bec Athletics Track when I thought I was going to be an athlete.

Growing up in Battersea, acting wasn’t on my radar. It wasn’t in my world. So I was wondering how you found acting, growing up in that area and with your upbringing and everything?

Yes, it was definitely the same for me. I’m older than you, Malachi, so even more so. And it’s beautiful that it’s no longer the case but when I was a lot younger, growing up in South London – even after we moved back to Nigeria and then moved to North London when I was in my teens – the thing that was very… I was going to say “evident to me”, it actually wasn’t evident, but I felt it subconsciously, was a lack of representation of someone who looks like me.

The idea of being an actor wasn’t prevalent because I didn’t see many examples of what was possible. You mentioned Denzel earlier: for me, similarly, I could look at Denzel, I could look at Sidney Poitier, I could look at Will Smith, I could look at Jamie Foxx. I could look at these guys and that was at least an indication of the presence of someone who looked like me, but Hollywood was like Mars compared to Balham or Tooting Bec, do you know what I mean?

It was, like, that is just not my reality, our reality. It was just so far away as a thought. I didn’t have the thought, even though I loved movies, I loved television. I did youth theatre but I did it because I loved it. It never felt like something I could do as a proper job.

And it wasn’t until I had a theatre studies teacher when I was doing my A-Levels who really encouraged me and said, “Look, I think this is something you should consider as a profession. I think you should consider drama school.” I didn’t even know what drama school was. I didn’t know you go to a school for acting, you know?

She really opened my eyes up to those possibilities. But even at drama school, you had David Harewood, you had Adrian Lester, you had Patterson Joseph, you had Eamonn Walker, but, as much as I admired those guys, I didn’t feel like they were being given opportunities that were equal to the talent I saw in them. And so it was still nerve wracking for me. I was like, “Man, I don’t want to prove my dad right.” He was so against me being an actor, because, again, he didn’t see any examples of success. He was worried for me. And so I was pretty determined that I would try and be part of a push to create a world that I wasn’t seeing.

That was my trajectory. Not seeing myself represented, finding someone who believed in me for who I am, and then taking that belief and trying to reshape what I was seeing play out in front of me

So when I left drama school, I had read an article about our friend Denzel. Early on in his career, he said to his agent, “Send me all the scripts Harrison Ford is turning down.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s interesting,” because when I would watch his performances, they transcended his race. And I said to agents who were looking to maybe sign me, I said, “Send me up for the roles that white actors are going up for.” I was trying to be Denzel. Malachi, I had agents who laughed at me in my face about that. But I knew in the core of my being that if I had only been going up for race specific roles, I would stay in a certain sandbox.

I found a great agent, Christian Hodell at Hamilton Hodell, who believed in my philosophy. I think if you have a vision for your life, and you work hard towards it, that thing starts to come close to you as you start to come close to it. And so one of the first major roles for me was playing Henry VI at the Royal Shakespeare Company, which was the epitome of a non-race specific role. In fact, I got a lot of stick for playing a character that people said a black person shouldn’t play.

And then similarly with Spooks – Danny Hunter was a role that was written for a white actor. But I went in, fought hard to get the role and it worked for me. Because at that point, and I would say still now, there was more dimension to these roles that were being written without race as a preoccupation in relation to the character.

That’s primarily because black writers, black directors, black producers were not prevalent. So the truth of our perspective as people was not working its way onto the page, it was always an outside view of who we were. To play something three-dimensional, to play a human being, you needed to find roles that were written for white actors so that you could be fully human. That was what my early career was built on: that philosophy.

So to go back to your original question, that was my trajectory. Not seeing myself represented, finding someone who believed in me for who I am, and then taking that belief and trying to reshape what I was seeing play out in front of me – which is stereotypical caricature, marginalised, peripheral characters. And how can I be the centre of the narrative in a way that feels truthful to who I am and who a global audience can relate to.

David Oyelowo for Square Mile magazine
David Oyelowo for Square Mile magazine

Wow. Wow. That’s a lot. This is amazing. I’m geeking out.

OK, I have another question. We’re both in Christ. For me, it’s something that I’ve come up against a lot – that question of ‘can I be a Christian and an artist and an actor?’ Or does one have to suffer more than the other one?

I just wondered how that is for you in your journey and with your faith. If you feel like you can be both entirely a Christian and an actor, or does one have to supersede the other for you?

It’s actually helped me immensely because it turns out God has really good taste. The things I gravitate towards, they have dimension to them. They have a moral compass to them but because, as a Christian, I’m very aware that the Bible is an R-rated book, I’m not someone who shies away from darkness because of my faith. My preoccupation is to make sure that darkness is not glamorised or platformed as the way to go. So I think as a storyteller, our job is to show the complexity, the depth, the plethora of humanity.

I think we go to the movies and watch TV to see ourselves reflected back to us, to be educated, to be entertained, to have insight. Jesus did that, I would argue, better than anyone in terms of he wasn’t hanging around with the religious establishment. He actually created the religious establishment. He was hanging out with the prostitutes and the tax collectors and the fishermen and the rich people who had no faith. And he was trying to relate to them, understand them, give them the bread of life.

One of the things I love about the Bible is how it uses story. Jesus was an amazing storyteller. The parables are all just phenomenal stories and he would tell them. And so for me, it’s been a great source of inspiration. You look at the Bible and it’s full of rape and destruction and death and war. But it’s also full of love and self-sacrifice and light and transcendent human behaviour. What else do you want in a story? You want both.

The best acting, the best storytelling is an act of service. Serve the script, serve the act, the audience, serve your fellow actors

For me, it has been immense as a storyteller, but also as a father, as a husband, it has been huge. One of the occupational hazards of being an actor is self-obsession. You are constantly thinking about yourself, looking at yourself, listening to what people are saying about you and your performances and the reviews. “Am I hot right now? Or am I not right now?” All this stuff – it’s me, me, me, me, me, me, me.

The danger is that you forget that the best acting, the best storytelling is an act of service. Serve the script, serve the act, the audience, serve your fellow actors. If you are doing that, you’re going to be a really good actor. You’re going to be a really good storyteller because it is an overflow rather than being insular and sort of a black hole. That’s something that’s very, very Christocentric. And so my life is built on the rock that is Jesus Christ, and it immediately means that I am able to think beyond myself.

I don’t get it right every day. Trust me, I’m as vain as the next person, but it just gives me these checks and balances. And it enables me to build my life on something that isn’t sand. Our industry is sand. You can be hot today and you will be cancelled tomorrow and it will happen that quickly [snaps fingers]. But if you have built your personhood on this… that’s why we see such devastating consequences in marriages, in addiction, in mental health, in relation to our business. My faith has really helped me navigate that as a man and as an artist.

David Oyelowo for Square Mile magazine
David Oyelowo for Square Mile magazine

Beautiful. Thank you. Coming off of that, how many kids do you have?

We have four.

Cool. So you are a father of four kids, you’re a husband to one wife, I checked your IMDB, you’re very busy. Not just acting, but producing and directing. I don’t know if you write as well, wouldn’t surprise me.

I do.

There you go. How do you balance all of that happening at the same time?

Yes, it’s a challenge for sure. And, you know, what we have found – my wife and I – is you need to have non-negotiables. So my wife is here with me at the moment. We’ve been married 22 years and we have something called a two-week rule. We’ve never been apart for more than two weeks since we got married.

That is logistically really tough when you are working all over the world. I’m in London right now, our home is in LA. But having those non-negotiables is just a way to practically and literally and philosophically make sure that the centre of your life is your key relationships. So it is God, it is my family. Yes, my profession is very important to me, but it is a by-product of the wellbeing of my family.

If Jess and I are getting those things right, what we are able to do is constantly communicate about where we carve out the time to be able to do the thing we love without a thing that is prioritised to us suffering. We don’t get it right every day, for sure. But it’s funny. The less time you have, sometimes the more effective you are with that time. If you just have infinite time – I mean, maybe people have experienced this during the lockdown, if you just have days and days with no real demarcation or compartmentalisation, you can burn six hours just staring out of the window easily.

It’s really amazing for me to come back to the UK and see films, TV shows, programmes of plays, where there are all these beautiful African names

But when you know that you have two precious hours, because the kids are going to be out of school, one of them has got to be picked up, the dog needs walking, you become very efficient with time. There’s a saying: you want something done, give it to a busy person. I have found that to be true because you are in a zone of, like, “OK, I’ve got to get it done.” But I don’t do it alone: at our company, my wife and I have assistants who are brilliant with what they do.

My wife writes as well. She’s also an actress. So we have to talk about how we compartmentalise time and our kids have grown up in the industry. They understand what mummy and daddy do, that the hours are a bit weird. And so they’ve, sort of, fallen into line. They’re now entering into our business.

Our eldest son is a music producer. He actually did the end credit song for The Water Man. He produced that track and my wife sings on it. Jess is in the film as well. And so it’s becoming a bit of a family affair, so that helps also.

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Amazing. Coming back to something we were speaking about earlier in terms of growing up. As much as you are definitely older than me, I’m pretty sure I look older than you…

It’s the beard. It’s the beard, that’s all.

OK, you’re being kind. Thank you. But I’ve been acting for about 12 years now, and in that short space of time, I’ve seen changes in the industry, in the world in general. I was interested to know what are the most significant changes that you’ve seen in terms of the acting industry?

It’s really amazing for me to come back to the UK and see films, TV shows, programmes of plays, where there are all these beautiful African names. Like, myself and Chiwetel Ejiofor, were it. That was it! I mean, also Danny Sapani… but it was thin on the ground. Culturally, as people of African descent, there were very, very few people of African descent in our industry to look to as an example, as an inspiration, as a test case to your parents who were saying, “What are you talking about? You’re going to be an actor?”

That is huge, a huge difference. And that makes me so proud, so happy. Not just folks of African descent but, you know, to see you thriving. I wrote to you about seeing you in Small Axe and seeing you front and centre, seeing Letitia Wright front and centre, in that way that just wasn’t happening.

You had to be deep into your thirties and forties to even be getting any kind of visibility. You had to have been grinding for two decades, just to be squeezing into any kind of prominence on screen. That is a really beautiful thing to see.

How we tell stories shapes people’s perspective, their world view, their notions of who they are, both in the past, present, and maybe even future

What I love about what’s happening with your career is that already – with Roots and then Small Axe – you were building up a body of work in your early thirties that is substantial. Protagonist roles that go the gamut of American roles to British roles to historical to contemporary to period. These are the kinds of opportunities that were not there, beyond being tokenistic. Like, for me being in Spooks, it became like, “Well, look, you got one, be happy.”

But to see you, to see John Boyega, Letitia Wright, to see this plethora of actors who indisputably are world-class talent, that’s a big difference. That’s a big shift. It means that generationally, literally right now, there is a ten-year-old, there is a twelve-year-old who just watched Malachi Kirby in Mangrove and his world just shifted on its axis in terms of what he thinks he can go on to achieve. I didn’t have that. That’s big. That’s a great change.

Globally speaking, it’s unfortunate that it takes things like the murder of a black man on screen for over nine minutes for the world to go, “OK, time out. We’ve got to do some real soul searching here,” but I would say that George Floyd’s murder playing out during a pandemic, while we were all being very self-reflective, has definitely held society accountable to what it says it wants to be – as opposed to what it actually is.

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And so I see real shifts in terms of perspective, when it comes to female directors, black and brown people being given opportunities, organisations being held accountable. Because what we do, what you and I do for a living is, its cultural impact is indisputable and far reaching. How we tell stories shapes people’s perspective, their world view, their notions of who they are, both in the past, present, and maybe even future.

For you and I have a real voice at the table when it comes to those stories is huge, which is why I do not take for granted the power of getting to direct a film like The Water Man. It’s a family adventure movie but I know the effect The Water Man would have had on me, if I had seen that film when I was a 12 year old kid. I would see myself in Lonnie Chavis, I would see my family in that family. And I would love to see that my quest to go on an adventure is something worth seeing on the big screen. Those are all drops in the ocean that hopefully lead to the world being different going forward. I do believe that. 

Amen. You mentioned that little kid watching some of the stuff that’s coming out now and being inspired and aspiring to something like that. Do you still have things that you aspire to do that you haven’t done yet?

I have personal ambitions. I really want to be able to build up the kind of platform that means I don’t have to ask anyone permission to make any story I want to make. I mean financially, I mean access to audience, I mean access to talent. I have a very real desire to see African storytelling, from the African continent, have global reach. In a world of prequels, sequels, remakes, where it seems like we’re running out of stories, Africa is just such a deep well of stories that we haven’t heard yet. Characters we haven’t seen yet. Perspectives we didn’t even know exist yet.

To have that married with incredible production value and great budgets and appropriate distribution that goes all over the world, that’s something I really want to be a part of. But from a macro point of view, I don’t want to ever talk about race again. I want the validity of you and I as human beings, as creatives, I want it to be completely normalised. I don’t want to know of a diversity officer within a company. I don’t want to be asked to be on the board or on a panel about some other BAME this, that or other.

That would be a real change when you and I don’t have to acknowledge or talk about the improvements that our disgracefully inept industry

That’s not the life I lead. I don’t live within the lines or the confines of what I look like in terms of the colour of my skin. I’m just a human being who is living a very full life. And I don’t want that to define me in the way our industry does. So the normalisation of that is a big ambition of mine.

That would be a real change when you and I don’t have to acknowledge or talk about the improvements that our disgracefully inept industry, historically, has been – it’s getting better, but it has been shocking in the past. To get to the point whereby that’s like an antiquated conversation, wow, that would be great.

And every piece of work I put out into the world is in the hope of that; in the hope of it becoming so normalised that people are like, “Yes, but we’ve had like 80 of those movies this year so it’s kind of an irrelevant conversation.” That would be great.

Boom! That sounds like a good note to end.

Yes. Well, I wanted to thank you for doing this with me. I’m really proud of you, man. I look at you, I look at your work, I look at the integrity with which you’re working it out, I look at the humility with which you’re working it out – that’s the stuff that a long career is built on. You’re not only a great actor but you’re a lovely person.

That’s what any and every actor should be looking at. This is not owed you: there are a lot of talented people who don’t get opportunities, who will never get opportunities. What we do is one of the best jobs in the world. We get to stay kids for our entire lives and just play. And you walk in it with a kind of a grace, with a regal, quiet grace. And you are also able to give these fiery performances – when you get intense on screen, I’m a bit like, “Malachi?” But that is indicative of the depth of your talent.

So thank you for doing this. I’m really, really proud of you and I just can’t wait to see more from you, man. I really mean that. We’ve got to make sure that it’s not only interviews like this where we get to chat, Malachi, because this is, kind of a posh way to catch up.

Yes! [Laughs.] I’m definitely going to be reaching out more.

 Cool. All right. Bless you, man. 

The Water Man will be out on Netflix in July 2021.

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