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British actor David Oyelowo brings Shakespearean passion to ‘Don’t Let Go’

David Oyelowo stars as Jack Radcliff and Storm Reid as his niece Ashely Radcliff in "Don't Let Go."

UNIVERSAL PICTURES/TNS

By CHUCK YARBOROUGH | The Plain Dealer | Published: August 29, 2019

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- David Oyelowo is a writer, director (he’s in the middle of shooting a film called “The Water Man” now), actor and producer.

The classically trained British actor -- a couple of years ago, he was in an off-Broadway production of “Othello,” opposite James Bond, aka Daniel Craig, as Iago -- has five other projects in pre- or post-production, as well as a lot of voiceover work for television and more on his resume.

Point is, the guy is busy, but he knows how to keep his proverbial ducks in a row. So, a quick call to discuss his current release, the time-traveling thriller “Don’t Let Go,” while at a film festival in Atlanta where it was screening was just another day in the life. Paying your dues, so to speak.

“Paying dues is something that kind of has a negative connotation,” said Oyelowo in a smooth, cultured British accent that’s far removed from the Los Angeles detective he plays in the thriller about an uncle who gets a phone call from his murdered niece two weeks after her funeral.

“To me, it’s a necessitous thing,” he said. “The thing you don’t want is a big opportunity and to fall flat on your face.

“For me, playing smaller roles, being in smaller films and learning my craft as an actor [let me] go into bigger activities with more confidence, and that confidence allows you to take a much bigger swing,” he said.

Fortunately for his co-star, Storm Reid, who played Ashley Radcliff to Oyelowo’s Uncle Jack Radcliff, she didn’t “fall flat on her face” in her early roles, which include parts in the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” and the lead in the sci-fi film “A Wrinkle in Time.” Oyelowo was in that film, too, and that’s where they met.

“At the time we shot [‘Don’t Let Go’], she was on the on the tail end of being 14,” said Oyelowo. “I defy anyone not to be impressed. She has a very natural ability and a high acting IQ.

“It was a complete joy to act with her,” he said. “She gives a game-raising performance.”

The story is built around Oyelowo’s character trying to prevent the murder of his niece. It’s a phone call from her to her guilt-wracked uncle two weeks after the funeral that sets the whole thing in motion.

For the plot to be believable, Oyelowo and Reid had to be able to sell it, and they did. Part of the way they were able to do that was shifting the story location -- “The original script was set on a farmhouse in Ohio, with a white protagonist,” he said.

“As we dug into the development of the movie, [co-producer Jason] Blum recognized my passion for the film” and brought him into the fold as a producer.

“Anyone who’s developed or written a time-travel movie will tell you it’s one of the tougher things to get right on the page,” he said. “We had to do a fair it of work on the script to get it there.

“Once I came on board, we needed to be fairly culturally specific on universal themes not tied to race, but authentic to me and to who my niece would be,” he said.

Oyelowo also lavished praise on writer-director Jacob Estes for knowing when to say when, especially on a concept that has been employed before, that of a phone call from the grave.

“I think the thing we did was to try and not explain the rules of the time travel element in this,” he said. “To do that would have bogged down the move. Instead, the film focuses on what I think is more interesting: the relationship between the uncle and the niece.

“Anyone and everyone wants to save someone they love,” he said.

Oyelowo also did his homework in preparing for the part.

“I actually shadowed a detective in South Central Los Angeles,” Oyelowo said. “He was instrumental in anything I was able to bring to that role in authenticity.”

That also meant speaking “American,” but the United Kingdom native went beyond that to include speech patterns and mannerisms -- speaking more formally to his boss, played by longtime friend and frequent co-star Alfred Molina, and more informally to his niece.

“Being British and not from South Central Los Angeles, I never want to ‘do’ an accent,” Oyelowo said. “I want to be a human being and the twerks are what make a character feel real on film.”

His Shakespearean training came into play with that, he said.

“There’s a reason why Shakespeare endures so much, and is the most challenging,” said Oyelowo, who’s also starred in productions of the Bard’s “As You Like It.” “It taps into your humanity, but the vocabulary in Shakespeare is four or five times the average person’s speech, so it’s a great means of building [acting] muscle.

“After that, you feel fearless in relationship to everything else.”

Including trying to prevent a murder that’s already happened.

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