David Oyelowo talks directing 'The Water Man,' the new Oscars standards and working with Nate Parker

David Oyelowo may not be at the largely virtual Toronto International Film Festival where his new film is debuting – but he is in Canada.

The star says he's quarantining with his family, plus “one of our dogs and even our parrot” in Vancouver while getting ready for thrice-weekly COVID-19 tests to film “Solitary,” directed by Nate Parker. But that’s a hop, skip and jump from Toronto, where his fantasy-adventure film “The Water Man,” in which he stars and makes his directorial debut, is hitting festival screens and being shopped for distribution.

Oprah Winfrey, who produced “Selma,” re-teams with Oyelowo as executive producer of "The Water Man," which follows a young boy named Gunner (“This Is Us” star Lonnie Chavis) who takes to the woods to save his ill mother (Rosario Dawson) as he searches for a mythic figure who holds the key to immortality.

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David Oyelowo stars opposite Rosario Dawson in "The Water Man."

By phone, Oyelowo opens up about getting behind the camera for the first time, his take on the new Oscars best picture inclusion standards, and why he’s putting his faith in Parker, who was embroiled in controversy upon the release of 2016's “Birth of a Nation.”

Question: Hello from Los Angeles! What is a virtual festival debut like for you?

David Oyelowo: It’s kind of exciting. I just applaud (the festival) for going, "Look, storytelling is important. It’s not going to be how it is in the past. But this is something that people want and need." We've all been through something very tough, and some of the airs and graces and pretentiousness has eroded, and it’s kind of nice to be talking to people in a time where we’ve all been humbled by this situation.

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Q: Does that also mean interviews in PJs?

Oyelowo: I’m stopping short of the pajamas but it’s definitely less buttoned-up than it normally would be in Toronto. I haven’t seen a stylist in quite a few months now. There are some not-so-bad things about that.

David Oyelowo hosted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Scientific and Technical Awards on Feb. 9, 2019.

Q: What made you want to make “Water Man”? It seems quite timely to introduce a film that explains accepting loss to children.

Oyelowo: We made this film before the pandemic, before a time where we anticipated everyone would be having to contemplate the illness or the potential death of their loved ones and how we can be socially and culturally responsible in order to try and avoid that. But what is always going to be the case is that if you truly love someone, you know that to do anything you can to protect them is what love looks like. So to see that through the eyes of this 11-year-old boy, I believe everyone can relate.

Q: The film also has Spielbergian vibes, but with a young Black lead at the center of the story.

Oyelowo: The film is an homage to the kind of films I loved growing up, the kind of films that (Steven Spielberg’s production company) Amblin used to make back in the day. Those films had a sense of adventure, but they had some core meaning to them, "E.T." being my favorite.

But I never saw myself represented in those kinds of films, and I wanted to make the kind of film that the young version of myself would loved to have seen.

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Q: You have four kids, ages 18, 15, 12 and 8. How was their reaction to “The Water Man” at home?

Oyelowo: That was the most nerve-wracking thing, showing it to my kids. Thankfully, Daddy did OK. They love the film (and) they recognize themselves in the film.  

Q: How do you feel about the new Oscar best picture standards taking effect in 2024

Oyelowo: Anything the Academy or anyone within our industry can do to shift the balance when it comes to the narratives that are deemed "valuable" and "valued" is important. 

I personally applaud what the Academy is doing because it’s acknowledging that we have all had to endure a broken system that has valued certain things over other things because it’s woven into the very DNA of it, it’s systemic. These changes are going to just make people think twice about who they’re marginalizing when they’re telling stories.

Q: You're preparing to star in “Solitary,” about a man coming out of seven years of solitary confinement and directed by Nate Parker. Four years ago, “Birth of a Nation” arrived at Toronto with Parker's past sexual assault allegation in the spotlight and his response was widely considered tone-deaf. What made you decide to work with him now?

Oyelowo: Nate’s one of my best friends in the world and I walked through those challenges with him. He made a lot of mistakes but I do feel that the film was strategically attacked. I think some of what he did only fueled those attacks. But in the four years since, I have watched him mature and his contrition grow and his compassion grow and his humanity grow. I believe people can overcome their mistakes and he is someone who should be afforded a second chance.

I am not for one second saying that he did what he was accused of, but I do feel that he didn’t manage what happened to him very well and he came off as indignant and not compassionate. And these are conversations he and I have been having for four years now and he is a transformed human being. And that’s the version of Nate Parker I am working with and that is the version of Nate Parker the world is about to be reintroduced to. I do think he’s a genius. A lot of people who should have been able to see “Birth of a Nation” didn't because of that film being compromised. But his new film “American Skin” is literally the most timely film I have seen maybe in three to five years and that film will hopefully see the light of day soon. 

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