David Oyelowo on reinventing classic fairy-tale characters for Sundance-bound Come Away
“I’m just really elated,” he tells EW. “This is a nice departure. I guess we’re going to have a theater full of kids, which will be a new experience for me at Sundance.”
The movie that will take him there is Come Away, a “reimagined origin story,” as Oyelowo describes it, for the imaginary worlds of both Peter Pan and Alice (of Wonderland). In the film, the two classic characters are siblings living in the Victorian English countryside with their parents and older brother. When tragedy strikes, the pair endeavor to save their family from falling apart, sending them down the paths that will take them to Neverland and Wonderland.
Oyelowo, who plays the children’s father, Jack, was the first actor to sign on and also produced the film. “I thought it was kind of an ingenious idea,” says the star, who also jumped at the chance to make a film that his own kids could see — but that wouldn’t talk down to them. “I think often, when you see children in film, we can patronize them a little bit in terms of the level of emotional complexity they’re afforded to play and live within,” he says. “Having four children myself, I know that they’ve had to deal with all sorts of things, both wonderful and tragic, and they handle them in surprising ways that film very rarely depicts, I would say, realistically.”
The actor credits director Brenda Chapman (making her live-action directorial debut after having built her career on beloved animated films like The Prince of Egypt and Brave) with threading that needle of staying grounded in reality while also invoking these familiar fantasy lands. “Often, kids retreat into their imaginations because they feel the need to escape from something else,” Oyelowo observes. He hopes the film walks the line of speaking to both children and grown-ups, too, since after all, “everyone, to a certain degree, knows what it is to be a child.”
Angelina Jolie plays Jack’s wife, Rose, and was cast at Oyelowo’s suggestion. The actors have been friends for a long time, having connected over being parents to a lot of children, and Jolie had lamented to him before that she never gets offered indie films or mother roles, “despite being a famous mother to six children,” Oyelowo adds. “I mean, famously a mother, I would say.”
After he was on board as both an actor and producer, “I remembered her saying those two things,” Oyelowo says. “So I called her up and I said, ‘I have a twofer for you.’ And within four days of me talking to her about it, she had signed on.”
The casting of the Alice and Peter’s parents meant that these classic storybook characters (themselves played by Keira Chansa and Jordan Nash, respectively) would be represented as biracial children, the significance of which was not lost on Oyelowo. “I just think there is something so beautiful [in] seeing a different kind of Alice and a different kind of Peter — but that not being the point of the film,” he says, also adding that “there’s definitely precedent for interracial marriages in the late 1800s in England,” so there’s really no reason that these fictional characters would have to be any particular race over another.
“I only ever produce films that mean a lot to me, and that’s to do with representation, that’s to do with the kind of thing I want to see in the world, that’s to do with the kind of thing I didn’t get to see when I was younger or when I was growing up. It’s about putting things in the world that I would like my kids to be able to be around,” the star says. “I think audiences are craving seeing stories from different perspectives, and that’s what I try to do with all of the films I produce. I really think we managed that with this one, and it’s something I’m very proud of.”
Come Away will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 24.