David Oyelowo has become the first black actor to play James Bond. Although his performance will be heard rather than seen – in an audiobook – it is a landmark casting as it involves an official Bond book and a direct invitation from the estate of 007’s creator, Ian Fleming.
The announcement on Thursday follows long-standing rumours that Idris Elba is in line to replace Daniel Craig w…hen the latter’s run playing James Bond on the big screen comes to an end, potentially in two movies’ time.
Oyelowo will play Bond, and other characters, in the audiobook version of Trigger Mortis, written by Anthony Horowitz and commissioned by the Ian Fleming estate.
Describing himself as “very honoured”, Oyelowo said: “I am officially the only person on planet Earth who can legitimately say: ‘I am the new James Bond’ – even saying that name is the cinematic equivalent of doing the ‘to be or not to be’ speech.”
He added: “I was asked specifically by the Fleming estate, which is really special.”
Born in Oxford to Nigerian parents, his performance as Henry VI drew critical acclaim, but also “very real resistance”, particularly from one academic. Oyelowo said: “He said that we open ourselves to ridicule if we allow black people to play English kings when English kings have never been black. But I’ve never seen an Egyptian play Cleopatra … so it’s a nonsensical statement.”
The actor received hate mail that came “in the guise of fan mail”. He said: “I had to have my agent filter mail … it was hate mail. It was: ‘How dare you enter a realm that is not yours to enter?’ One slipped through the net … it’s upsetting … I had letters coming through to the stage door.”
He added: “This was over 10 years ago -so you’d hope that wouldn’t be the case now.”
But Oyelowo believes black actors still have huge obstacles to overcome. He is not alone. The director Rufus Norris has said that the UK still lags behind the US in casting black actors, while the comedian Lenny Henry has spoken of work having “dried up” for home-grown black, Asian and minority actors. David Harewood, who stars in the hit drama Homeland, is among black actors who have left Britain to find work.
Oyelowo also left the UK – in 2007 – and lives in Los Angeles. He said: “Part of the reason I moved to America was I could feel my head bobbing against this glass ceiling that wasn’t going to break.” Yet when black actors are given the opportunity, some “great work” happens, he said, adding: “That should be rewarded with more opportunity.”