Earlier today I brought you the first part of our interview with a large chunk of the people involved in Red Tails. Now I return bearing more talks of WWII, heroism, planes. This time, however, we have a new set of character with actors Terrance Howard and David Oyelow joining Tuskegee airman Dr. Roscoe Brown to discuss the film.
We get to chat about pretending to be in a plane, making a film that impresses a WWII hero and just how to maintain ones majestic composure at all times. If there’s any ever man you could explain that last part I’m pretty sure it’s Terrance Howard. I’ve got a bit of a man crush on him now.
When you approach a film like this how do you approach your characters when you have somebody who lived through this experience like Dr. Brown on set with you?
David Oyelow: If you’re a any sort of self respecting actor you’re always going to try to fill the characters in your film with integrity, but that’s just your basic responsibility as an actor. Here there’s an added desire and responsibility to get it right when you have someone you truly admire. It was layered in that sense: the combination of us as actors combined with their heroism, integrity and discipline. It made for a rare opportunity to really try and do something. You were aware that you were making an entertaining action movie, but it was clear that this was going to be part of the Red Tail’s legacy. It’s something we took very, very seriously.
Dr. Roscoe Brown: The thing I really enjoyed about this movie is to see these younger people listen to me! And they did listen well, and they did learn well. In a sense they became the Tuskegee airmen 60 years later.
Terrance Howard: And that’s the one thing I like about the legacy of humanity. You will find that the accomplishments and exploits is not indigenous to those of that era or space in time. I love the fact that this film can inspire, globally, people to reach beyond the limitations that someone else has placed upon them.
With such a large ensemble cast it must have been hard to pull together. How was it for you as actors working in such a big cast?
Oyelow: It wasn’t difficult because we were very aware of the opportunity that we were being afforded. It’s a very rare opportunity for any actor — black, white or in between — to have these resources. To have George Lucas god-fathering the project, to have a young director with a vision. We all came together, looked each other in and said we are going to kill this… or be killed. In terms of a big group it was an absolute pleasure for us because we were very aware that this was a special project.
What sort of things did you first ask Dr. Brown to create your characters. What was important to you to understand?
Howard: When I was 14-years-old my uncle pulled me to the side and he made me recite a mantra. He said, “You must maintain your majestic composure at all times.” When I met Dr. Brown what I noticed in him was that magnificient majestic composure in him. With that you can extrapolate what it took for him to reach this point at this ripe old age. At one point I played Nelson Mandela in a film and I didn’t want to learn about Mandela at 83, which is how we’ve grown to know him, I wanted to know about him at 44. So in extrapolating the derivative of Lightning (Oyelow’s character) out of Dr. Brown you’re taken back 60 years and you see that child like exuberance that David was expressing. That’s what you add to him. It’s not so much the questions that you ask, but the silent information that gives you the confidence to move forward.
How hard was it for you, David, to sit in a fake cockpit and picture a dogfight going on around you. And, Terrance, how jealous were you that you didn’t get to do that?
Howard: Oh, I was their teacher. [laughs]
Oyelow: That was actually the most challenging part of doing this film. Partly because we’re depicting the very thing that they were most famous for. That had it’s technical challenges in terms of the fact that we are not pilots. One of the best days for me on doing this film was having Dr. Brown and Lee Archer talk us through flying a plane. They sat in front of us in a hotel room in Prague and they showed us everything — what our feet are doing, what are hands are doing. You combine that with the fact that this was very technically difficult. We were developing technologies that didn’t exist in order to make these planes look as real as possible. We’d be in a gimble and would be getting tossed to and throw and you’d have to learn which plane was going where so that in a run you could react appropriately. You had to learn it like you would learn lines.
Terrance your character fights for the black pilots to get recognition in the Pentagon. Do you think that there’s a similar struggle for black actors getting recognition to get roles?
Howard: I hope that the Colonel was fighting for more than just recognition. I hope that he was fighting with the view of the prize ahead of what this would accomplish for the world. To say if you give us an opportunity I can show you something magnificent. As an actor first, black second, I think that what I’m hoping to accomplish down the line is let me do the best that I can. I don’t care if a white guy plays a black guy as long as he can do it better than the black guy can. That’s what it means when you become an actor. Everything is stripped down.
George Lucas has said that he envisioned this movie as a movie that a young boy can enjoy. Beside the entertainment value what do you hope young boys and girls will get from the film?
Dr. Brown: One this is that most people under 25 don’t even know what segregation was. They don’t know how bad it was. Also, it shows how excellence helped to eradicate or diminish some of the prejudice. So hopefully they’ll see this as a story of challenge and excellence and learn that anybody can overcome obstacles if they work at it and are dedicated to it.
Oyelow: I think one of the reasons why we set out to make a big, action movie is that the message that’s also being made isn’t for a nice market. This is not a black movie made for the black community. This is a story about heroes who overcame obstacles and were saving the world just like Superman. I mean literally. You have your villain in Hitler, you’ve got the world under threat and this motley crew game together and were unified to save the world.
Dr. Brown: Well, we weren’t that motley.
Oyelow: [laughs] No, no. You were all different. That’s what I mean by motley crew. These were individuals within in this community. Films don’t show that very often. Most of the time we’re the best friend or a gangster or an archetype. You don’t see a group of believable young men and identify with them regardless of color.
Howard: [looks over at the film’s poster and points at it] If I had been on the marketing team the slogan wouldn’t have been ‘Courage has no color,’ but ‘Courage has a new color.’
Dr. Brown, how well do you think the actors portrayed the Tuskegee airmen?
Dr. Brown: 101 percent.
And how much does that mean two you, Terrance and David?
Howard: First and foremost I didn’t need his approval to feel good about myself. But having that endorsement that’s like a little child who is going to walk no matter what (it’s in our nature to get up and walk), but when the encouragement of your family and your father standing there telling you that you can do it there’s a nurturing there. It’s such a privilege to know these men. I wish I could have met them all.