‘Captive’ is a different kind of faith-based story

Barbara Vancheri
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Try as he might, David Oyelowo wasn’t going to meet with Brian Nichols, the man he portrays in the movie “Captive.”

He was “roundly rebuffed” in efforts to see the prisoner whose brazen 2005 Atlanta courthouse escape left four people dead and turned one young woman into a hostage for a night. Nichols now is serving multiple life sentences without the chance for parole.

Kate Mara plays the hostage, Ashley Smith, in the movie opening in theaters Friday. She credited Rick Warren’s inspirational book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” for guiding her and her captor through the harrowing ordeal.

“The real Ashley Smith was a huge source of information for me,” Oyelowo (pronounced oh-yellow-oh) said in a recent phone call. “She was on set with us for quite a bit of the shoot. Her book, ‘Unlikely Angel,’ was also a great source because she wrote that book soon after the events, and so it has her fresh recollection of what happened, but — as you can imagine — such a traumatic event seared itself on her brain.

“In talking to her, it almost feels like something that happened the day before. ... And then there’s quite a bit of footage around the day these events happened and then the trial afterward, so those were also great sources of just how he talks, how he moves, who he was. I was able to piece him together that way.”

Oyelowo may be best known for his meticulous, moving portrayal of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma,” which failed to earn him an Oscar nomination, but gave him box-office muscle to make other projects happen or land distribution. He has been nominated for an Emmy for the HBO movie “Nightingale,” as a war veteran who begins to unravel, thread by thread.

He stayed in character during filming for those two projects, but not “Captive.”

“Any role I play, my job is to inhabit the mindset of the character and to not judge what they do, but to understand what they do. This was one of the toughest characters I’ve ever had to play, from that point of view, because what Brian Nichols did that day is reprehensible, but when you’re playing him, you can’t approach it that way.”

In fact, Oyelowo met Nichols’ mother for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and she confided, “I can’t believe this is my life, and I can’t believe that that was my son who did that.” His mother thinks “something in him snapped,” but Oyelowo acknowledges, “The truth of the matter is, no one truly knows other than Brian himself.”

“Captive” arrives on the heels of “War Room,” a family drama with a Christian message about the power of prayer that landed at No. 1 at the box office Labor Day weekend.

“I personally am less interested in bashing an audience over the head with a story that has faith both imposed into it, and imposed onto the audience,” the British-born actor said of faith-based projects in general.

“What I love about ‘Captive’ is that faith is just an intrinsic element because it just is,” he said, citing the role the evangelical pastor’s book played, the effect the experience had on recovering meth addict Smith, who never touched drugs again, and the dramatic turn of events for both hostage and hostage-taker. Smith thought Nichols was God’s punishment for her bad choices; instead, she found sobriety and salvation and the ability to encourage others in recovery.

“My hope is that ‘Captive’ appeals to an audience that gravitates toward faith-based movies, but broadens out from that to people who just want to see kinetic storytelling that is meaningful, thought-provoking, challenging and, in some ways, thrilling.”