Interview extra

David Oyelowo, ComplicitFebruary 8, 2013

David Oyelowo in Complicit

Former Spooks star David Oyelowo relocated to America six years ago and has appeared in movies including Jack Reacher, The Help and Lincoln. But he returns home regularly to star in dramas such as the BBC’s highly-acclaimed Small Island and takes the lead role in C4’s tense thriller Complicit. It’s the story of MI5 agent Edward Ekubo who is so convinced that a terror suspect he’s tailing is plotting a deadly Ricin attack that he has him illegally tortured. His actions have devastating consequences for everyone involved, not least Edward himself. TV Choice caught up with David during a brief trip back home from LA.

How would you describe Edward? He’s very unassuming and workman like… it’s almost wrong to call him a spy because that has all sorts of James Bond-like connotations. He’s living in a post 9/11, Guantanamo Bay world in which his job and what he does is under scrutiny. He’s also one of the only black people in his department, so there’s an inherent feeling of isolation and being a fish out of water — he’s an ordinary but very complicated man and that’s what drew me to the script.

Do you share his single-mindedness?
I like to think I share his dedication but that’s pretty much where the similarity ends. He seems intent on doing what he does at the expense of his family and other personal relationships.

It’s a very topical subject right now.
Yes. It’s very easy for us to sit in our cosy homes making snap judgments about what’s right and wrong and hopefully this film will make people think. He’s trying to do his job but unlike most jobs, if he doesn’t do it properly there’s a very real possibility that hundreds of people will die. How would you live with yourself knowing you could have prevented it? Edward will do anything and everything to stop an attack.

When you were in Spooks you met MI5 operatives, how did you prepare this time?
I studied a lot of protocol and it’s fantastic because it’s all on the MI5 website! I studied the kinds of people they employ and former cases which are published after a certain amount of time has lapsed. I was able to read case notes on how these people actually do what they do.

You must lead a very different life in America.
It’s a very different career trajectory because there’s more money to spend so as a black actor there’s more opportunity. And not just as a black actor, as a white actor too. Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench, Hugh Grant, they all go there to do great work. The difference is they can come back here and do period drama. I can’t… if I can’t be in Downton Abbey I’ve got to go over there.

Do you still feel very British?
Yes, every American I meet is an indication that I’m British because I’m so different from them and I love that, I celebrate it. That’s one of the wonderful things about my character Edward, he’s black and yet he’s very British. He’s very much a product of his environment and that’s what I know. I feel very British even though I live in America.

Do you think the race issue has changed much in the past few years?
We are in a weird postmodern racial age. I come back here now and I hear so many accents that I didn’t when I lived here six years ago. I remember a couple of years back being on a train and throughout the journey, I barely heard an English accent. I’m first generation, product of Nigerian immigrants, and I found myself going, ‘Speak English, we’re in England for God's sake!’ I’ve experienced that from other people in relation to me so it was kind of a wonderful realisation that at the end of the day, we are all just human beings who fear what we don’t understand, people who are not like us.

You have a young family, are they going through the school system in America?
I have four children aged between one and 11 and we home school them. I move around so much so they go with me wherever I go. But they do have hideous American accents which is very upsetting!

Channel 4 Sunday

Mary Comerford

Read more from your favourite stars