As a young girl, I can vividly remember one of my favorite uncles always greeting me with: "Hey little Black child!" To which I would smartly retort, "I'm not Black, I'm brown!" He always laughed and picked me up afterwards, much to my frustration, excitement and utter confusion. Such was the struggle of a five-year-old who had yet come to terms with the concept of semantics. But in spite of it all, what was abundantly clear was the amount of love my uncle and I shared. And in the new Blumhouse thriller Don't Let Go, starring David Oyelowo and Storm Reid, that sentiment is undoubtedly the beautiful undercurrent that steers this psychologically twisted tale.
Shown through an exhilaratingly suspenseful yet understandably confusing lens, what stands out most of all in this film is the loving yet nuanced dynamics of family. Which is a theme Oyelowo admits he was extremely drawn to from the beginning. "I was very just blown away by how much the script packed in. The action, the time travel, the suspense," the Selma star tells xoNecole during our midday chat. "And then in the middle of all of it, is this beautiful and unconventional relationship between an uncle and his niece. And this sort of heart-thumping question of, 'Is he going to be able to save her?' I was just really taken with it."
In Don't Let Go, the 43-year-old Nigerian English American stars as Detective Jack Radcliff, who gets a shocking phone call from his recently murdered niece Ashley (played by the "emotionally mature and very special" Reid). Working together across time, they race to solve and prevent her murder before it can happen.
In this xoChat, we talk exclusively with the Golden Globe nominee about his latest project, being a father of four, and why self-sacrifice is paramount in marriage.
xoNecole: This movie deals a lot with not taking things at face value, without giving too much away. Was there ever a point in time where you walked into a situation and it turned out to be the total opposite of what you were expecting?
David Oyelowo: Oh gosh, I mean you know the adage: don't judge a book by its cover. I think it's very apt. You know, everyday we make judgements based on what's in front of us. And I can tell you for a fact that if someone I love and lost suddenly called and told me they were calling from a different time plane--I would definitely be skeptical and that's what was fun to play in the film. You're watching this character do what I definitely would do and I think most people would do. Where we get to say, "Am I going crazy? What is this? Is someone trying to trick me, is this a prank? Oh my goodness maybe this is real. It is real. How am I going to tell everyone? They're going to think im crazy" (laughs). You know, I just loved that I got to play the reality of that instead of just the fantasy
Lacey Terrell/Universal Pictures
Definitely. This movie also touches on the importance of time and choice in probably a more nuanced way than a lot of other films. And seizing the small moments in our day to day lives. Particularly in the film, Uncle Jack and his niece have these seemingly nonchalant conversations but we soon learn that we should’ve all been paying a bit more attention.
100 percent. You're alluding to a scene where she calls me and I'm busy and as you say, I don't pay her the right amount of attention. I do think the film is about not taking anything for granted. You know, treasuring those relationships. And in the case of my character, what someone would then be prepared to do once they realize how painful it is to lose someone you love and what you're prepared to do to get them back.
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"I do think the film is about not taking anything for granted. You know, treasuring those relationships. And in the case of my character, what someone would then be prepared to do once they realize how painful it is to lose someone you love and what you're prepared to do to get them back."
If you could go back in time and alter an important event in your life, whether good or bad, would you and why?
There were definitely some fashion decisions I made in my day probably in the 90s, particularly. My kids really enjoy making fun of me thanks to the photographic evidence. I did have a Marky Mark, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air phase. Those photographs are devastating (laughs). So yeah.
You know what? I would LOVE to see those.
You will NEVER see it (laughs). Just picture a high top and every opportunity to show off my Calvin Klein underwear possible. That's basically what that one was.
I’m disappointed but that’s actually hilarious to hear. So besides fashion choices, what would you say is the biggest difference between the David at the beginning of your career and the David now?
Oh my goodness, that's a good question. The David now very much recognizes that you have got to really just enjoy the journey and be less focused on the results. I think earlier on in my career, it was all about box office, and the reviews, and accolades, you know--tangible evidence of success. But there's no way of predicting how any project you do is going to come out. And sometimes there are mitigating factors that you just can't control. In fact, ALL the time there are mitigating factors you can't control. And I have in the past allowed those things that I can't control rob me of the joy and achievement of just getting to be in things and tell stories.
Sometimes in the moment you don't recognize that, especially [in] films and television shows. So you know, I have grown into the knowledge of: just do the work, enjoy the journey, and then just trust that that work will eventually be seen and appreciated.
"In the past allowed those things that I can't control rob me of the joy and achievement of just getting to be in things and tell stories... Sometimes in the moment you don't recognize that. So, I have grown into the knowledge of: just do the work, enjoy the journey, and then just trust that that work will eventually be seen and appreciated."
I want to switch gears a bit now. There's often a lot of talk about millennials in particular: what we do right, what we do wrong, what we don't know, what we think we know...
So I’m curious, what do you think millennials get wrong or right about their perception of love and family?
I think there's a notion that independence is the absolute epitome of self-realization. I actually feel people are designed to be dependent on each other. And I think this striving for independence is why you have so many lonely people. It's why "commitment" has become almost a swear word, if you will. Because there is this notion with the younger people--and I don't know what we've done in terms of society--but there's this notion that empowerment, true femininity and masculinity is tied to being able to be self-reliant entirely.
And anyone who's lived on a deserted island for a week will tell you: I just don't think we're designed to be alone (laughs). I think we're designed to rely upon each other. I think we're designed to be vulnerable with each other. And I truly do believe that we are, we are designed to love in a way that is not just about what I can take, whether it be sexually or financially or, or emotionally. But to give, I think giving is the height of who we are. And that is also something that is in short supply these days.
Lacey Terrell/Universal Pictures
"There's a notion that independence is the absolute epitome of self-realization. I actually feel people are designed to be dependent on each other. And I think this striving for independence is why you have so many lonely people. It's why 'commitment' has become almost a swear word if you will... There's this notion that empowerment, true femininity and masculinity is tied to being able to be self-reliant entirely."
What’s the biggest misconception you feel people in general have when it comes to the conversation of love, marriage, and family?
Well, I think something missing in terms of both love and family is just how important family is. There are real challenges to the--and I don't really like calling it an institution--but to the beauty of marriage. I've been married 21 years next month and my parents were married before my mom passed away, for all of their adult lives. And I know there are reasons why people end up breaking up and all of that, but I feel like in society now, I don't know that we work as hard as we should to stay together. I think that there's a misconception that love should always feel like butterflies and be romantic. But there's an element to love that is work. There is an element that is pure self-sacrifice without the desire to get anything back in return.
And if two people are doing that to each other: then you are loving and being loved at the same time. So, I think that the sheer amount of work that needs to go into keeping your family together and keeping a marriage together, is something that we're losing as a skill.
Lacey Terrell/Universal Pictures
"I think that there's a misconception that love should always feel like butterflies and be romantic. But there's an element to love that is work. There is an element that is pure self-sacrifice without the desire to get anything back in return. And if two people are doing that to each other: then you are loving and being loved at the same time."
I know you yourself are married as well. When did you know that you were ready to put in that work to give and receive love? You know, where you knew that this was something you were fully capable of doing.
My dad didn't get married until he was quite a bit older. He was 40 when he got married. And my dad's my hero. So, I just assumed that, you don't get married to you're later in life. But then at the age of 19, I met this amazing girl who was 17, and we became friends. And before I knew it--I had fallen in love. And I was shocked by this because I always had in my head that being with someone for life is something that wasn't going to happen until later. I don't know, there was just something about her. But the moment I realized I was in love and couldn't do without the lady I'm now married to, was when I literally couldn't picture my life without her in it. And that was the moment beyond which I thought, 'Okay, I guess this is my forever person.' It was that revelation that made me feel brave enough to jump in.
That’s beautiful. And so what do you know now about love or family that you didn't know before?
What I know now about love and family-- I'll relate this to my kids. If you have more than one child, what I know about family and what I know about children is that they are all different. You can't apply all of the same parenting methods to one child as you do another. You have to get to know them. I think it's good to have core values, but you have to adapt to your child's needs. And I have three sons and a girl; each and every one of them are different and it has been imperative to respond to who they are as people as opposed to a blanket approach to all of them.
Last question before you go: at this point in your life, what are you most grateful for?
I am most grateful for my faith. You know, I'm a Christian and that has been a bedrock for me since I was 16. And it's been such a relief and a release to know that I am loved by God. That my salvation is secure in Christ and that in this life--I don't have to strive because I already have the greatest reward anyone could ever have: which is God's love. That's just something that releases me from so much of the things I think I would have been preoccupied with if I didn't have that revelation.
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Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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We’ve all been there at least once (or a few times) along our dating journey. Maybe you’ve had a date or two with a potential suitor, but the spark just wasn’t there. Perhaps you convinced yourself that just “one more” date would help you overlook a non-negotiable ick. At this point in the dating cycle, you’ve probably reached the point where you must decide to either communicate “why” things won’t be moving forward or simply ghost them.
What Is Ghosting?
“Ghosting” refers to the act of suddenly and unexpectedly cutting off all communication with someone you've been dating or talking to without any explanation or further contact. It typically occurs in the early stages of dating but can also happen after a few dates or even in more established relationships.
The act of ghosting has become quite a common practice in our modern dating culture and can manifest in a number of different ways. From days of ignored text messages and phone calls out of the blue to not showing up for pre-arranged plans and sometimes disappearing from someone's life without any notice or explanation.
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The Problem With Ghosting
Being ghosted may seem like a harmless act of “self-choosing,” but the person on the receiving end of your decision can be left feeling confused, rejected, and even abandoned, wondering what happened and where they went wrong.
And we get it, what explanation do you owe someone for leaving after a few cocktails and a $100 date? While that may seem like the perfect opportunity to cut and run, taking an alternative approach to fizzle out a fling is a great time to practice clear and effective communication that can pay off in the long run.
While there is a time and a place for ghosting (and even blocking) if your boundaries have been crossed or safety has been threatened, if we’re looking to live out our best healed, secure-girl summer, there are ways to date freely without leaving others with damage of their own to recover from.
Being honest and upfront about your feelings while being respectful of the other person's time is the best way to leave a situationship or fling with both parties emotionally unscathed. So if you’re looking for ways to break things off with care and consideration, we’ve provided five text scripts to send instead of ghosting somebody’s son:
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5 Texts To Send Instead of Ghosting Them
1. If you want to take the honest but gentle approach:
"Hey [Name], I've really enjoyed getting to know you, but I've been doing some thinking, and I don't see this going any further. I wanted to be upfront and honest with you rather than leaving you wondering. I wish you all the best."
2. If you want to express gratitude before saying goodbye:
"Hi [Name], I wanted to reach out and say thank you for the time we spent together. You're an amazing person, but I think we're better off as friends. I hope you understand and that we can still maintain a positive connection."
3. If you want to leave a note of appreciation:
"Hi [Name], I wanted to let you know that I've had a great time with you, but I don't think we're compatible for a romantic relationship. I appreciate the moments we shared, and I hope we can both find what we're looking for."
4. If a face-to-face convo is needed:
"Hey [Name], I've been doing some thinking, and I believe it's important for us to have an open conversation about where we stand. Can we find some time to talk about our relationship and how we both feel? I think it's important to address things honestly."
5. If you want to keep things cute and concise:
"Hey [Name], I've realized that we're not on the same page, and it's best if we part ways. Take care."
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