Actor David Oyelowo received acclaim for his portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. In Captive, he jumps to the opposite end of the moral spectrum.
Oyelowo was at Chase Park Plaza in St. Louis to promote the true-crime drama in which he stars as Brian Nichols.
In 2005, Nichols escaped from custody in Atlanta while on trial for rape. He proceeded to murder four people: the judge presiding over the trial, a court reporter, a sheriff’s deputy and a federal agent.
After the murders, Nichols took a woman named Ashley Smith hostage for several hours in her apartment. Nichols eventually let Smith go, which led to his capture. Nichols was sentenced to multiple life sentences in 2008 with no chance of parole.
“That, on paper, is not a role I gravitate towards in a hurry,” Oyelowo said.
What intrigued him was what happened while Nichols held Smith hostage. Smith wrote a memoir called Unlikely Angel: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Hostage Hero.
In the memoir, Smith writes about her struggles with drug addiction.
The circumstances of the hostage situation, Nichols’ eventual capture and the fact that Smith attributes part of her salvation to her captor is what spoke to Oyelowo.
“That’s what drew me to the piece: more than what Brian Nichols did is how that, plus (Smith), plus seven hours equaled what went on to happen beyond this event,” Oyelowo said.
Oyelowo could not speak to Nichols due to the nature of his sentence. He viewed footage of Nichols’ trial. However, Oyelowo’s primary source for getting under Nichols’ skin was Smith, who was on set for much of the shoot.
“She remembers this event as if it happened yesterday,” Oyelowo said.
Step of faith
Brian Bird, the film’s screenwriter, was an admirer of pastor Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life. Smith states in her memoir she had read a section of the book to Nichols while in captivity. This eventually led Bird to Smith’s story.
“This is an opportunity to blend good storytelling and real positive life and faith-affirming kinds of messages in the movies,” Bird said.
Bird said the secret behind all movies and television is they are all, in a way, faith-based.
“That might be kind of a controversial statement,” Bird said. “But, I firmly believe that we’re all wired for stories like that.”
Bird said mankind has been telling stories with themes of redemption, forgiveness, sacrifice, nobility and resurrection for a long time.
“You can look at the top movies and television shows and they have those threads running through them,” Bird said. “All those themes are part of the human makeup no matter where you go, no matter what culture you travel to, no matter what era you come from.”
Bird said the story of Nichols and Smith is a hard story to ignore, even in the competitive market of filmmaking.
He was not approached by a studio to adapt Smith’s story. He credits the film as a result of the collaborative efforts of others.
“When I started to work on the script about five years ago, it was a step of faith for me,” Bird said.
The moment Captive began to get off the ground was when a mutual friend asked to share the script with Oyelowo.
Once Oyelowo came on board as both the star and producer, all the pieces came together. His attachment drew other big names to the project. The film is distributed by motion picture studio Paramount Pictures.
“I think the reason Paramount is distributing this movie is because it’s a real movie,” Bird said. “We poured our hearts and souls into it, our blood, sweat and tears.”
Bird fears that people will see the film strictly as faith-based, but he believes it’s a film for everybody.
“It’s actually a film about hope and second chances,” Bird said. “The last time I checked, we all need second chances in one way or another.”
The actor’s job
For Oyelowo, the draw of playing a murderer was not as strong as the draw of playing Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. Despite that, Oyelowo said his commitment as an actor remained the same.
“Your job as an actor is to not judge your character,” Oyelowo said. “You have to be able to understand how they do what they do and when they do it, so that you function as a three-dimensional human being people can believe.”
Oyelowo said one of the challenges of playing Nichols was not trying to excuse his actions.
“My job is to imbue him with a degree of humanity,” Oyelowo said. “Seeing these two broken people together and making choices that took them away from the deadly path they were both clearly on, I think, can only be born out of humanity.”
Bird said writing and portraying a killer without any humanity will make the audience not care about the character’s fate. However, audiences from early screenings have told him they sympathized with Oyelowo’s character.
“I hope my script had something to do with that and I know, for sure, David Oyelowo embodies this character in a way where the audience cares,” Bird said.
For Oyelowo, the ideal aspects he looks for in characters are complexity and how that character fits into the storytelling. He said there should always be a glimmer of hope.
“I am a believer in the power of film to enrich, to inspire, to educate and to entertain,” Oyelowo said. “If I’m going to play Brian Nichols, I want you to see the results of his bad choices.”
Captive will be released in theaters Sept. 18, 2015.
*Photo contributed by Paramount Pictures