It has been over ten years since Brian Nichols besieged Atlanta on the morning of March 11, 2005. On trial for rape, Nichols escaped custody leaving court guard Cynthia Hall critically injured and killed Judge Rowland Barnes, court reporter Julie Brandau, and Sheriff’s Deputy Sgt. Hoyt Teasley within minutes. That same afternoon, he murdered David Wilheim and by evening, held Ashley Smith hostage in her apartment in Duluth, Ga. for hours before releasing her and surrendering to authorities. This harrowing ordeal is now retold in the film, Captive starring David Oyelowo and Kate Mara.
Oyelowo, who plays Nichols in the film, was not familiar with the incident when the story was brought to his attention. “I was living in the U.K. at that time,” Oyelowo says. “My entry into the story was actually Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life.” Smith reportedly read passages from the book to Nichols during her time held captive.
The acclaimed actor began his career after graduating from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in 1998 and has been working nonstop on stage and screen ever since. A recent Golden Globe nominee, Oyelowo won critical acclaim for his portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the film Selma in 2014, and was nominated for an Emmy for his role in HBO’s Nightingale in June of this year.
Olyelowo admits Playing Nichols was difficult. In Selma and Nightingale, the actor stayed in character throughout filming, an acting method he accredits to Forrest Whittaker while filming The Last King of Scotland and Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. But when preparing for his role as Nichols, he decided against this technique.
“Playing Brian Nichols was a very tough thing because you have to get your head into the space of being able to kill four people in the morning cold-heartedly,” he says. “One of the things I learned early on as an actor is you have to love your character, you have to not judge them in order to truthfully play them. I had to find reasons in my mind as to why he did what he did and justify them moment to moment. Personally it was one of the hardest characters I had to do that with, but I did it.”
To create Nichols, Oyelowo relied heavily on the consult of Smith. “She remembers it like it was yesterday,” Oyelowo says. “As you can imagine, those seven hours were very traumatic. She was on set with us for most of the shoot and I relied on her quite heavily for how he moved, who he was, what he said, what he didn’t say.” He admits they made several changes to the script to not embellish or “Hollywoodize” Nichols or their ordeal.
At the time of the incident Nichols, a former college football player, was six-foot-one inch tall and weighed 210 pounds. Oyelowo trained rigorously to develop a muscular physique to play the role but Nichols’ physical image was just one element the actor had to tackle. “As it happened, he was wearing a black suit with no shirt on, had two guns killing people. In normal films that’s the hero,” he says. “He was a cold-blooded killer — what he did that day … there are people alive still dealing with the pain and the fallout of what he did, so glamorizing him, making him cool in any way was the opposite of what I wanted to do. You see this big black guy taking a white woman hostage, no matter who you are; that’s provocative imagery. The fact that Ashley Smith attributes part of her salvation to Brian Nichols, you have to see that there was something in him that made her humanity awaken.”
Mara plays Smith, a widowed, struggling meth addict coping with losing custody of her daughter at the time of the incident. From the beginning, Oyelowo, also a producer the film, knew she was the right woman for the job.
“She is one of my best friends in the world and I’ve known her for a long time,” Oyelowo says. “The film was in my life for three years before we shot and other names were suggested and I wouldn’t entertain it because I think she is a phenomenal actress, but she also has the qualities you’re looking for. She’s a fearless actress, she threw herself in feet first and I’m very proud of the performance she gives in the film.”
Captive was written by veteran screenwriter Brian Bird along with Smith and directed by longtime television director, Jerry Jameson. Oyelowo says Jameson had a real passion for the story and he, along with Bird all saw the same vision.
Though the real-life events happened in the state, Oyelowo explains Georgia was not as gracious when originally planning to shoot the film in Atlanta. “We didn’t feel as much love as we would have liked,” he says. “It’s a story that is tough in terms of what happened in the courthouse that day. Anyone who knows the story of what happened would have to accept it’s a bit of an indictment on courthouse security in Atlanta and it shouldn’t have happened.” The film was shot in parts of Mexico and Charlotte, N.C. instead.
In the end, Oyelowo feels Captive is about redemption and second chances. “Ashley [Smith] said to me one night she was aware of who he was and what he had done, and then there he was on that same day in her apartment. She had been a slave to meth for a long time and she felt this was God’s way of saying, ‘You’ve run out of chances. You deserve death.’ And the opposite is what happened. It was the day she gained life,” Oyelowo says. “So to me, my hope is people watch the film and get the fact that no one is beyond a second chance, no one is beyond redemption. I just find that to be a very powerful thing.”