David Oyelowo

This past August, David Oyelowo appeared in two movies that opened within the same week. On the surface, not a remarkable feat. Except when you consider that the two movies in question happened to be among 2011’s biggest films: The Help and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. They were supporting roles—Oyelowo played Preacher Green in the mammoth adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller and the shark-suited, moneygrubbing villain in the Apes prequel—but different enough to show his flexibility across genres and charismatic, multi-quadrant appeal.

Previously, the Oxford-born actor, 35, won admirers on stage in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2001 production of Henry VI. Oyelowo played the title role, becoming the first black actor to play an English king in a major U.K. staging of Shakespeare. Anglophiles on this side of the pond probably know him best as counter-terrorist case officer Danny Hunter on BBC’s spy drama MI-5.

Now, he’s ready for his biggest moment in the spotlight yet, as a cocky World War II flying ace fighting Nazis in the sky and discrimination on the ground in Red Tails (opening Friday, Jan. 20). George Lucas’s 23-years-in-the-making Tuskegee Airmen epic, directed by Anthony Hemingway, may have bigger marquee names—notably Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr.—but it’s Oyelowo’s Joe “Lightning” Little, a scuffed-up soul seeking to prove his skill to racist commanders or die trying, who’s the emotional heart of the film. Oyelowo was so gracious and humble in person when I first interviewed him over lunch in New York City, before I had seen Red Tails, that I didn’t even realize at the time what a prominent role his Lightning plays in the film.

“Lightning is the hothead,” Oyelowo says. “He’s the star pilot who has a problem with authority figures.” Lightning’s anger at the segregationist military establishment that holds the Airmen back from the heavier fighting leads him to take greater and greater risks in the air. He’s at war in and out of the cockpit, like an African-American Jake La Motta with a pilot’s license. But when he falls in love with a young Italian woman he can finally envision a life for himself when the fighting’s over.

Oyelowo fully understands the perfect timing of his casting, adding, “As an actor I feel so privileged because I’m sure there were times in those 23 years when Red Tails could have been made. But thankfully, it came at a time when I could be a part of it.” Check out an exclusive video interview with Oyelowo, who will next star opposite “[his] favorite actor of all time,” Daniel Day-Lewis, in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

Anyone who’s seen Lucas’ Star Wars prequels could tell you that the best performances in those films came from actors like Ewan McGregor and Ian McDiarmid, thesps with substantial theater experience. In many ways, performing against extensive blue-screen backdrops is much like acting on the stage: you have to imagine environments that aren’t really there. “One of the skills you have to master in theater,” Oyelowo says, “is the ability to make the audience believe that things that aren’t there are there—just like when you’re acting against CGI. Also, in a theater, the people in the back row can’t see the whites of your eyes. Or your lips moving as you deliver dialogue. They get much of your performance from the movement of your body. It’s incredibly physical, and it’s that theatrical physicality that’s also necessary for motion-capture work or acting against CGI.”

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Though it’s set in World War II, Red Tails features over 1600 VFX shots, only a few hundred less than for Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, and Oyelowo’s theater background proved crucial in order to convey the chaotic reality of aerial dogfights. “You have to be constantly talked through what’s happening. A plane’s coming in left! One from the right! Now you’re jinking around and you’re upside down, and the whole time the plane is being shaken.” Luckily, Oyelowo and fellow on-screen aces Elijah Kelley, Michael B. Jordan, Leslie Odom, Method Man, and Ne-Yo, received some hands-on instruction from real-life Tuskegee Airmen Lee Archer, Bill Holloman, and Roscoe Brown. “The Airmen gave us invaluable advice, literally down to the details on our flightsuit. ‘Do you have all the buckles fastened properly?’ And they would literally tug on our flight jackets and say, ‘This goes here and that goes there.’”

The real-life Airmen may have helped the cast understand the reality of combat in World War II. Understanding the reality of today’s movie industry, though, may have taken even greater effort. “A film centered around the Second World War with a predominantly white cast would not have the pressure on it that Red Tails has,” Oyelowo says, citing Spike Lee’s underperforming Miracle at St. Anna as a previous effort that made Hollywood wary of African-American-driven war films. Or, for that matter, African-American-centered action movies not starring Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, or Will Smith. “It’s a business in which you’re gambling on what’s going to work. But the excuse, ‘Oh, a largely African-American cast doesn’t work’ is ridiculous when you consider that the biggest film in history was largely populated by blue people,” Oyelowo says, referring to Avatar. When asked point-blank if he thinks Hollywood has supported Red Tails, he quickly answers, “No, I don’t. I don’t think it’s a film that would’ve gotten made without George self-financing it, because there’s no ‘white savior’ role. The Tuskegee Airmen are the heroes. It’s their story.”