November 07, 2014 12:00 PM

For David Oyelowo, it’s the role of a lifetime.

And judging by the tense and powerful first trailer for Selma, moviegoers should prepare for a searing performance by the actor playing Martin Luther King Jr. in the first major biopic of the civil rights leader.

The movie, which opens Christmas Day (with a wide release Jan. 9), is based on the historic 1965 voting-rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, by Dr. King and other leaders. Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey are among the producers, and the latter has a role in the film as Annie Lee Cooper, the activist best known for punching a Selma police officer in the jaw.

But it’s Oyelowo who simmers with quiet intensity in portraying Dr. King at the height of the civil rights struggle.

Oyelowo, 38, a British actor, spoke to the Daily Beast last month about the role. “This might sound a little strange,” he said, “but I prayed to God, having read the script, and I genuinely felt God say to me, ‘You are going to play Martin Luther King in the film Selma,’ and that happened to me.”

Of his portrayal, he added: “It has to be an embodiment and an inhabitation rather than a projection of the person. So, if you’re not able to spiritually depict the person, there’s nothing you’ll be able to do by way of prosthetics that’s going to convince the audience you’re doing a good job of that.”

He did put on 30 lbs. and shaved his hairline back to approximate Dr. King’s. “The rest of it was about internalizing who this man was from what I know, what I read and what I heard, and then positioning myself in the circumstances that he was in,” Oyelowo said. “That’s a better way of getting to the truth, in my opinion.

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