My interview with Chiwetel Ejiofor in yesterday's Irish Examiner.
Let’s start with the name: Chiwetel Ejiofor. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? “It’s pronounced ‘Chew-it-tell Edge-oh-for’,” he explains patiently with a smile, while stirring a cup of coffee in London’s Soho Hotel. Friends can call him ‘Chewy’, and his first name actually means ‘God brings' in Igbo, the native tongue of his Nigerian parents.
Still, I wonder if some agent ever suggested to him about adopting a more marquee-friendly stage moniker? “You know, I never thought I’d be a film actor; I always thought I’d be working in theatre,” he replies. “So by the time I started acting in movies, it was too late to change, because nobody would then know about the theatre work I’d done.”
The 32-year-old Londoner is right to protect his theatre credentials, for his past performances in productions of Romeo and Juliet, Blue/Orange and in the title role of Othello have helped to establish Ejiofor as one of the UK’s brightest and most in-demand stars of stage and screen (his Othello won him an Olivier Award, and was hailed as by critics as “the best Othello for generations", and a performance that would "transform the history of the play”).
One might ask then what Ejiofor is doing in 2012, the new mega-budget, special effects-laden extravaganza from director Roland Emmerich, helmer of such disaster flicks as Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow? In 2012, Ejiofor stars as Adrian Helmsley, a scientific advisor to the US president (played by Danny Glover), who discovers a geological cataclysm (predicted by the ancient Mayan calendar, apparently) that causes the Earth’s crust to collapse, ushering on the end of the world as we know it.
The standard race for survival begins, as Ejiofor, along with John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Amanda Peet and the by-now permanently scowling Thandie Newton make their way towards a purpose-built rescue-spaceship as entire cities slide into the sea behind them.
Anyone who has seen the trailer for 2012 will have soon sense of the movie’s scale, but, to give Emmerich credit, it manages to be even more vertiginously spectacular to watch than anyone expected (it could be summed up as Apocalypse Wow or Independence Day After Tomorrow). Indeed, even an executive from Sony, the movie’s backer, has been quoted as saying that 2012 turned out so much better than the trailer had indicated.
So what is Chiwetel Ejiofor - OBE, no less - doing acting alongside blue screens, and delivering lines like, ‘Mr President, we have to evacuate the planet?’
“Man, if the planet’s in danger, sometimes you have to say a line like that,” he answers with a laugh.
“But what I like about this film is that the set-up is so strong. Plus there’s also a resonance with the way things are now. I mean, there’s a real understanding in our consciousness about the fragility of the planet, so it’s not like it’s that fantastical.”
Ejiofor doesn’t seem to be a snob about this type of explosion-packed blockbuster, and in fact argues that the likes of 2012 are works of art in their own right. “Everyone talks about what the real process of storytelling should be,” he says. “The argument goes that real film-making is about getting an audience to think very deep about certain things, but I think the real essence of film-making, and I see it in Roland’s work, is an absolute passion to give an audience a rich experience in the cinema.
“Roland is to the forefront of using the technology this way. I really like his films because, even though they cost so much money, they’re not commercial for the sake of commerciality. He isn’t cynical about how he approaches and makes these movies, and so I had no trouble signing up for it.”
It’s clear from talking to Ejiofor for even just a short while that he is a thoughtful and often self-effacing actor. Decked out in a black suit with open-necked shirt, he is impeccably groomed, and speaks in a collected, methodical manner. He takes his work very seriously, and indeed is taking full advantage of the industry buzz that has surrounded him for the past few years: he’s starred in almost a dozen movies since 2005, and there’s another five due over the next two years (including Salt opposite Angelina Jolie).
Ejiofor was born in London in 1977 to Nigerian parents. His father was a doctor, who also played music in a band, while his mother worked as a pharmacist. When Ejiofor was aged 11, the family visited Nigeria for a wedding. On the journey back to Lagos, the car carrying Ejiofor and his father was involved in a head-on collision. His dad was killed instantly; Ejiofor was in hospital for a month with broken arms and wrists (and still bears a small scar on his forehead).
He has always been reluctant to attribute any serious life lessons to the tragedy, and has reluctantly spoken about it in the past. These days, however, he politely draws a veil around his family history, and his private life in general.
“I don’t regret talking about what happened to my father,” he says. “I wanted to talk about it, because people were piecing parts of the story together. But it’s an indication of how talking about private matters can spiral out of control and suddenly it becomes common fodder. That’s slightly weird if it’s something personal and hurtful. My personal life isn’t copy, it’s not entertainment. There have always been certain actors where I didn’t care what was going on with them. I just love watching their movies. I think it’s good if people can come to an actor and his work with a blank canvass.”
Having started out in youth theatre, Ejiofor made his professional stage debut at age 18 in the role of Othello. This led to a small part in Steven Spielberg’s historical epic Amistad (1997), followed by more acclaimed stage work in the UK. In 2002, Ejiofor really grabbed the industry’s attention with the central role in Stephen Frears’ gritty immigrant drama Dirty Pretty Things, and parts soon followed in Hollywood movies like Love Actually, Serenity, Children of Men and Kinky Boots (for which he received a Golden Globe nomination).
Most recently, he starred opposite Denzel Washington twice in American Gangster and Inside Man, as well as playing Thabo Mbeki in the mini-series Endgame. Somewhat inevitably, Ejiofor has been crowned as the ‘best British black actor of his generation’. I ask if that tag drives him crazy?
He smiles and replies: “It’s funny, that title has disappeared recently. It could be because people are a little more sensitive about it. They’re like, ‘We don’t have to mention that he’s black every time we talk about him. He knows!’
“Or it could be that people don’t care as much, or that it doesn’t mean as much anymore. What does that title even mean anyway? People go to watch a movie because they’re interested in the actors and the story, and not all that other stuff. At the moment, there seems to be movement towards a place where people are more inclusive, and are capable of not worrying about what race someone is, but focusing more on what they do and who they are.”