Nigerian Actor Becomes First Black Man To Perform James Bond Character
David Oyelowo will play James Bond. Although his performance will be heard rather than seen – in an audiobook.
The announcement on Thursday follows long-standing rumours that Idris Elba is in line to replace Daniel Craig when the latter’s run playing James Bond on the big screen comes to an end, potentially in two movies’ time.
Oyelowo’s previous roles include Henry VI for the Royal Shakespeare Company – which made him the first black actor to play an English king in a major Shakespeare production. He also played the MI5 officer Danny Hunter in the BBC TV drama Spooks and was acclaimed for his performance as Martin Luther King in Selma.
Oyelowo will play Bond, and other characters, in the audiobook version of Trigger Mortis, written by Anthony Horowitz and commissioned by the Ian Fleming estate.
Describing himself as “very honoured”, Oyelowo said: “I am officially the only person on planet Earth who can legitimately say: ‘I am the new James Bond’ – even saying that name is the cinematic equivalent of doing the ‘to be or not to be’ speech.”
He added: “I was asked specifically by the Fleming estate, which is really special.”
Born in Oxford to Nigerian parents, his performance as Henry VI drew critical acclaim, but also “very real resistance”, particularly from one academic. Oyelowo said: “He said that we open ourselves to ridicule if we allow black people to play English kings when English kings have never been black. But I’ve never seen an Egyptian play Cleopatra ... so it’s a nonsensical statement.”
Oyelowo, centre, as Martin Luther King in Selma. Photograph: Paramount/Everett Collection
The actor received hate mail that came “in the guise of fan mail”. He said: “I had to have my agent filter mail ... it was hate mail. It was: ‘How dare you enter a realm that is not yours to enter?’ One slipped through the net … it’s upsetting ... I had letters coming through to the stage door.”
He added: “This was over 10 years ago -so you’d hope that wouldn’t be the case now.”
But Oyelowo believes black actors still have huge obstacles to overcome. He is not alone. The director Rufus Norris has said that the UK still lags behind the US in casting black actors, while the comedian Lenny Henry has spoken of work having “dried up” for home-grown black, Asian and minority actors. David Harewood, who stars in the hit drama Homeland, is among black actors who have left Britain to find work.
Oyelowo also left the UK – in 2007 – and lives in Los Angeles. He said: “Part of the reason I moved to America was I could feel my head bobbing against this glass ceiling that wasn’t going to break.” Yet when black actors are given the opportunity, some “great work” happens, he said, adding: “That should be rewarded with more opportunity.”
Part of the problem lies in the disproportionate number of negative roles that are offered to black actors. Oyelowo is disturbed by the focus on white protagonists within dramas. He said: “It’s how few times we get to be the protagonist ... and how few times the world is seen through our eyes.”
Oyelowo said things will change for the better when a “white kid in Birmingham” can watch a TV show or film through a black actor’s eyes and “feels as much like him as the next person”.
He added: “If that young boy is always seeing [black characters] as on the periphery ... that’s going to be his world view, that someone like [that] is always on the periphery – and, by virtue of that fact, less important.”
Oyelowo acknowledges the industry is aware of the need for change, but he said: “It is [aware] verbally, but not in action. There is a cerebral desire to do it, but that’s not worked its way down to the heart yet. Because, if it did, then things wouldn’t be regressing, which they are.”
Asked why there is a resistance to change, he said: “It’s the status quo. A lot of it is subconscious. Some of it I do think is racism.”
Elba, who rose to fame in The Wire, has been rumoured to be among the frontrunners to replace Craig, and would be the first black actor to play the spy on screen if he secured the role. Although Elba appeared to distance himself from the rumours, Oyelowo said he was “ripe” for the role.
He said: “A titan on screen, he has all the qualities that you’d want in a James Bond. Because films and TV affect culture, a black Bond would be a cultural event ... a statement ... beyond just entertainment.”
More than 100m Bond books have been sold worldwide. Fleming wrote 14 and his estate has since commissioned new adventures from various authors, including Kingsley Amis.
Horowitz has written more than 40 books and, as a television screenwriter, created the Bafta-winning Foyle’s War. Oyelowo described his Bond as “a man who is very self-assured” but not perfect.
In a statement, Horowitz said: “What an honour to have an actor as talented as David to read my take on Bond. He has a brilliant voice and talent for bringing out the nuances of dialogue and characters.”
This article was amended on Thursday 13 August 2015. The original article’s headline and opening paragraphs stated that David Oyelowo would be the first black actor to play James Bond, across any medium. In fact, Hugh Quarshie played the character when he read the audiobook version of Dr No in 2012. This article has been corrected accordingly.