Ten years ago, on March 11 to be exact, Brian Nichols, who was to be tried for rape, savagely escaped the confines of the Fulton County Courthouse jail in Atlanta, Georgia, murdering four people in his path: Judge Rowland W. Barnes Judge, court reporter Julie Ann Brandau, Fulton County Sheriff’s Deputy Sgt. Hoyt Teasley U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent David G. Wilhelm and injuring Fulton County Sheriff’s Deputy Cynthia Hall. His escape, driven in part by his desire to see his newborn son, triggered a frantic manhunt spanning the city that eventually took him to an apartment complex Duluth where he showed up on the doorstep of meth addict and mother Ashley Smith. During the seven hours that he held her hostage, she read to him from “The Purpose Driven Life,” a wildly popular book by Pastor Rick Warren and gave him meth. By that morning, Nichols let her go and she in turn called the police. Miraculously, they apprehended him in the parking lot of the apartment complex without incident. Brian Nichols’ deadly escape and his subsequent encounter with Smith is highlighted in the movie “Captive,” which debuts today.
“Captive” is based on the book “Unlikely Angel” by Ashley Smith with Stacy Mattingly. Smith is portrayed by Kate Mara and Nichols is portrayed by David Oyelowo. Below is my interview with him. If you would rather listen to the audio, please go to the end of the interview.
I’m not sure if you know that I am a blogger in Atlanta where the Brian Nichols’ shootings happened. When I posted about the movie on my blog earlier this summer, I got lots of emotional feedback from people who think Brian Nichols was simply an animal and that Ashley Smith was just a meth addict. What do you think having made this movie?
When you watch the headlines, when you see the press coverage on that day, I think anyone and everyone, and understandably so, and I would say, quite rightly so, especially when it comes to Brian Nichols, you know you can’t get away from the fact that he killed four people and he bludgeoned Cynthia Hall, the prison warden. She has never regained her faculties fully again since that day. What he did was monstrous! And he is serving multiple life sentences for that reason. Ashley Smith, by her own admission, was a meth addict, who lost custody of her own daughter and had made several bad choices with her life. Now that’s the surface. That’s the headline.
Why we wanted to make the movie is something happened in those seven hours in that apartment that led to a situation whereby Ashley Smith didn’t become Brian Nichols’ fifth victim, where Brian Nichols didn’t end up committing suicide by cop. He had three guns in that apartment. He could have gone out blazing knowing that he could have gone down shooting, maybe taking one more cop with him. What ended up happening is that he let her go, gave himself up. She never touched that drug again. She got her life back together. And her story has brought healing to thousands of people because she was able to step into forgiving herself, step into the grace of God to accept her second chance which she didn’t think she was worthy of when Brian Nichols turned up on her door. She felt that this was God’s way of saying, ‘You’ve messed up too much. It’s time for you to die.’ So you know, it’s not like these are two people who we are celebrating what they did. We are just talking about the fact that somehow God’s grace intervened in the lives of two people who were undeniably on a downward spiral, and that in and of itself is miraculous.
Something that I found very interesting about the film is how you have the power of good and the power of evil as it relates to religious faith juxtaposed throughout the movie. For instance, Brian Nichols talked about his father going to church every Sunday but he was mean drunk and then he said, ‘I got a demon in me.’ And on the other hand, you have ‘The Purpose Driven Life,’ that book being read. So you have these two things going on talking about being a person of faith, but they are coming from opposite ends. Was that interesting to you?
You know, it’s just the truth. In looking into Brian Nichols’ life, he had been brought up in the church, but he had developed very negative thoughts and feelings about the church. He felt that a girlfriend of his had been stolen from him by one of the church’s pastors. He felt like he had been wronged in several different ways, wrongly or rightly. As Christians, we all know and must admit that the Church isn’t perfect, God is. And you know, in him saying, ‘I have a demon in me,’ which he did say that on night. Also, the Bible says, ‘Teach a child in the way he should go and he will not depart from it when he is older.’ I believe when you are brought up with the truth of who God is, no matter where you go or what you do, there is residue of that teaching, there is residue of that truth, and I think that is partly what helped Brian realize that he had evil within him that needed purging. But it doesn’t take away from the reality that his church experience was, for whatever reason, was a negative one. I think that, again, one of the things we tried to do with the film is not make everything be black and white or coloring with perfect lines. Life isn’t perfect. The Christian life is not perfect. You only have to look at the Bible to see that. We wanted to make a film that really reflected the truth of the challenges of earth life and spiritual life.
In preparing to portray Brian Nichols, did you meet with him or his family? Did you meet with the families of those he killed? How did you prepare as far as making it authentic?
I couldn’t get to Brian Nichols because the nature of his sentence means he’s not afforded the privilege of seeing anyone other than his parent. He’s been in solitary confinement pretty much the entire time since he went to prison. So I couldn’t do that. But I did spend a lot of time with Ashley Smith whom he took hostage that day. And she was, of course, a huge source of information. I also met Candy Wilhelm, who is the wife of the customs officer who was murdered that day. And of course, there was a lot of footage, a lot of articles were written about Brian and then the ensuing trial which also had a lot of footage of him. I had to cobble him together in ways that were imperfect. Of course, meeting him would have been perfect, but that was a luxury I couldn’t be afforded.
It was said in the movie that he never thought he committed a rape, do you know if he thinks that today, the whole crime that led to all of this?
I don’t. But he maintained throughout the trial that he did not rape his girlfriend. In his mind, that was partly why he felt the need to break out of the court jail because he was looking at a potential sentence of 25 years, that combined with hearing that he had a newborn son, he felt caged and wrongly so as far as he was concerned and that was the impetus for breaking out. But the fact remains that he then went on to murder four people. You question someone who was able to do that, and engaging them in the fact they didn’t believe they raped someone was very, very difficult. At the end of the day, he even said, because I have now spent time spent with Brian Nichols’ mother, Brian Nichols himself feels like he is where he is supposed to be.
Now did he leave that message on the phone for his son as he was getting ready to turn himself in?
In terms of his relationship with Christopher. Well, his real son isn’t Christopher. We wanted to protect his son because, of course, you know that’s a young man who you don’t want to have what his father did be something hanging around his neck because of a movie. There are things in the film where you have to conflate, if you like, what it is that happened. So what you have there is what he expressed to Ashley Smith during the night. There were conversations that went on for a long, hours long. And so we wanted the audience to see how he felt about his son. That’s why we made it a telephone message that may or may not get through to Christopher, but we wanted you to see what he was saying in relation to his son.
I also thought it was amazing that Ashley chose not to do drugs on that night even though she had up until that night. Was that true?
That’s true. That’s absolutely true. He held her at gunpoint and asked three different times to take meth with her. And the way Ashley says it, is that she felt Jesus literally took over Brian Nichols’ body at that point and said, ‘Are you going to choose life or are you going to choose death?’ And that was the choice before her. She also said that if she was going to die, then she would rather die with her system clean than it filled with that drug anymore. And I think that part of the miracle of the story is that for all the deadly things that Brian did that day, his life and I guess the demon that was residing in him was a mirror to Ashley of where darkness can take you, where a downward spiral can take you, where bad choices can take you. And it literally, like the Bible says, ‘In your weakness, I am strong.’ I think she accepted and could see that she hit rock bottom when confronted by her weakness, and God was able to take over.
I think of you mostly associated with “good” characters in films where it be in “Selma” or the nice pastor in “The Help” or even though you weren’t the nicest of sons in “The Butler,” you still weren’t a murderer. So what attracted you to this particular “bad” role?
Ashley Smith. She’s given her story in its entirety. Anyone that has read the Bible, that is an R-rated book. That is a book full of murder, rape and pillage and darkness, but the overriding theme of the Bible is that the light always overwhelms the darkness and God’s grace, when it is allowed to infiltrate, will turn things around. And so you know, for me, I don’t discriminate about the nature of the role as long as what is ultimately being said through the story in its entirety is not glamorizing the darkness or glorifying the darkness but showing it to be the way not to go. And then to me, there is not much difference in terms of why I would want to do “Selma” or want to do “Captive” because both films are about how light can overwhelm the darkness. And as an actor, I am committed to that. I want to be part of telling stories that do that. And the nature of the role as long as it is interesting and complex, but ultimately doesn’t glamorize those negative things, then I enjoy mixing it up.
Speaking of “Selma,” you said earlier this year at the ecumenical service at Ebenezer Baptist Church that God told you that you would portray Dr. King in a movie seven years before the movie came out. I’m curious as to how you actually heard the voice of God. What was that like?
Well, God speaks to everyone differently. To me, in a way I can describe it, it was a knowing in my spirit. It’s the same voice I heard for the first time when I was 16, and it was the reason why I became a born again Christian, the same voice that spoke to me about marrying my wife, about the names of my kids before they were even conceived. It’s often a voice that also crosses my will. It’s one thing to hear God saying, ‘You’re going to have a Porsche’ when that’s something you’ve wanted for years and years. It’s another thing when it’s something that is not on your mind at all is being told to you. Seven years ago, eight years ago, there was no way I’m thinking of myself as Dr. King, but I know that voice, and it was very clear.
I wanted to find out from you, as I’m a big fan of ‘Americanah,’ what’s going on with that right now?
The script is being written as we speak so yeah, it’s in the works.
Any date as to when it’s going to come out?
No. Until there is a script that everyone is happy with, there is no point in dating anything. The writer is working and hopefully, he will deliver.
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