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'The Water Man': Actor David Oyelowo's Passion For Storytelling Shines In Directing Debut

Lonnie Chavis (left) as Gunner Boone and David Oyelowo as Amos Boone in the adventure and drama film "The Water Man," an RLJE films release. (Karen Ballard)
Lonnie Chavis (left) as Gunner Boone and David Oyelowo as Amos Boone in the adventure and drama film "The Water Man," an RLJE films release. (Karen Ballard)

You may know actor David Oyelowo for his role as Martin Luther King Jr. in the 2014 film “Selma.”

The award-winning actor has now made his directing debut in “The Water Man,” a movie he also stars in.

Actor Lonnie Chavis — who was 11 years old when filming — plays Gunner, a boy whose mother and father, played by Oyelowo, move to a rural town. Legend has it that a nearby forest is inhabited by the Water Man, who’s said to know the secret to immortality.

Gunner is fascinated by the Water Man’s healing powers, especially as his mother suffers from a serious illness.

Oyelowo says his transition from acting to directing felt natural because of his love for storytelling. He’s produced films before, but never directed. He saw it as a chance to craft a certain type of story that he says is lacking in the movie industry.

“If you want to see something exist, the best thing to do is to build it yourself,” he says.

Directing and acting at the same time is “impossible to rehearse” beforehand, he says. The pressure was on: Hundreds of people on set relied on him to keep the film moving along and give a stellar performance at the same time.

When filming began, his wife was on set to “call B.S. on anything I was doing in front of the camera that just felt silly,” he recalls. “And because she knows me more than anyone on the planet, she would happily tell me if I was playing any false notes.”

But Oyelowo is a highly experienced actor, with dozens of roles under his belt. He was able to hone in on those talents to juggle both arduous jobs seamlessly.

The film’s mystical element — the Water Man is rumored to be able to cheat death — is a nod to some of the actor’s favorite movies growing up, specifically Steven Spielberg’s early works that intertwined reality and fantasy, like “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

“They were escapism and adventure but laced with some meaning,” he says. “And I remember watching those films with my parents, with my brothers. And I just saw as a parent of four kids myself, there were less of these films being made.”

So when “The Water Man” script landed in the hands of screenwriting folks at The Black List in 2015, he says he instantly fought for the rights to the timeless tale.

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The story needed a young, experienced actor who could handle the demand of an emotional script that grapples with ideas of loss, love and friendship. Oyelowo says casting “This Is Us” star Lonnie Chavis as Gunner was “the definition of a needle in a haystack.”

The story is filled with adventure, but also documents how a young person navigates loss. Gunner’s character had to find out for himself, something that Chavis expertly achieved on camera, he says.

While the movie’s core characters are Black, that’s not the plot point of “The Water Man.” Recent movies released from Hollywood, such as “Judas and the Black Messiah” or “One Night in Miami,” placed identity and representation at the forefront of their throughlines.

But Oyelowo argues that depicting storylines where a Black family’s racial identity is not at the focus is equally — if not more — important culturally. He says he strives to show “the normalization of the marginalized” throughout his work.

“The Water Man” does just that through combining fantasy elements with a story that any child, parent, loved one or friend can relate to, especially along the themes of loss during a pandemic year, he says.

Off set, Oyelowo engages in various humanitarian efforts, including promoting the importance of COVID-19 vaccines through the ONE campaign. For him, it’s clear that vaccines are the only way out of the pandemic.

He understands vaccine hesitancy some harbor, which is why he joined in on the non-profit advocacy group’s efforts to “hopefully give people confidence that this is something to embrace because we all want to get back to work,” he says. “We all want to get back to our lives.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill RyanSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.