As you get older, it becomes really distinct, the significance of your heritage, what your cultural ecology is, the sort of fundament of your DNA . . .That’s very much nigeria to me.Chiwetel EJIOFOR
When has an actor really made it in Hollywood? What is the barometer for that? Is it getting nominated for an Oscar? Is it headlining a prestige picture across from Julia Roberts? Or, these days, is it something more along the lines of making a postapocalyptic thriller or a sci-fi spectacle? Indeed, is an actor only to know they’ve really arrived when they jump into the Marvelverse? By any of those metrics, Chiwetel Ejiofor is in. Finally.
Finally, in the sense that Ejiofor has been one of our more arresting performers since his film debut in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, in 1997. And finally, in the sense that people are now really getting to see what he can do. From his work with Stephen Frears, across from Audrey Tautou in Dirty Pretty Things (2003) to his wonderful performance in Kinky Boots (2006) and as a martial artist in David Mamet’s Redbelt (2008), Ejiofor’s been turning in the goods—but almost always in underseen movies. His higher-profile work, even, tucked him into a dense ensemble with megastars (Love Actually, 2003) or just straight misfired (Roland Emmerich’s 2012, 2009). But so endearing is his presence that whenever it was you did first see him, you remembered him—whether it was in one of his Spike Lee joints or in action with the likes of Denzel Washington (Inside Man, 2006; American Gangster, 2007) or Clive Owen (Children of Men, 2006).
Things changed a bit with his performance in the 2013 Oscar darling 12 Years a Slave, for which he was nominated for best actor. With the fervor over the movie, everyone got a good look at Ejiofor and got to see the great Everyman at his most superlative. Now, at 38, Ejiofor is reaping the benefits. In the recently released Z for Zachariah, Ejiofor, Margot Robbie, and Chris Pine see the end of the world and its aftermath. Next month he and a raft of stars will attempt to save astronaut Matt Damon in Ridley Scott’s The Martian, and in November he will battle psychological demons alongside Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman in Secret in Their Eyes.
Just after celebrating his birthday in July, Ejiofor, a born and bred Londoner, got on the phone with his friend, the director Cary Fukunaga, to talk about their adventures in the screen trade, about looking for one’s roots, and about finding one’s place in the world.
CARY FUKUNAGA: So, you spent your birthday at Wimbledon?
CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: I was at the men’s semifinals, which was a great day, great tennis. I was sad to see Andy Murray lose, but Federer was on fire.
FUKUNAGA: 38. Both of us.
EJIOFOR: We are both 38 years old; that is true. How are you feeling about it?
FUKUNAGA: It’s such an important birthday. It’s not quite 40, but it is well into the thirties. It’s the take-stock year.
EJIOFOR: Did 28 feel different?
FUKUNAGA: At 28 you have a feeling that you’re losing your youth, but when you’re in your thirties, you just don’t give a shit anymore.
EJIOFOR: Well, your feeling that you are losing your youth is confirmed. [laughs] And it surprises you how little you care.
FUKUNAGA: In terms of taking stock, it seems like you’re doing okay. You got your first film role at what age?
FUKUNAGA: Eighteen. So 20 years in this business. The crazy part is how fast it goes, right?
EJIOFOR: It’s fast and slow, you know? Deadly Voyage  and Amistad were the first two things that I did, and the time since has just breezed by.
FUKUNAGA: Can you imagine 20 years more in the future? We’ll both be 58 and definitely not young anymore.
EJIOFOR: That’s true. But 58 is the new 48. [both laugh] I don’t know, I feel like, gosh, you can get so much achieved in that time, though. Maybe for a director it’s slightly different.
FUKUNAGA: Yeah, you can stuff more into a year. You have how many movies coming out this year?
EJIOFOR: Well, there’s Secret and The Martian, and, next year, Triple 9. And then I’ll be shooting the Doctor Strange movie.
FUKUNAGA: It’s exciting. And I’ve done one thing that whole time. [Ejiofor laughs]
EJIOFOR: That’s what I’m saying: 20 years—to me it seems like there’s a lot that can be crammed in to that time. What have you been doing?
FUKUNAGA: I’ve just been doing Beasts of No Nation. I finally finished up my last little details last week, and I’m a free man.
EJIOFOR: Fantastic. And when do we get to see it?
FUKUNAGA: In October. On television screens, laptop computers, and select cinemas near you. I was thinking about when I first heard of you. I got to London several years ago, and I had just missed your Othello [in 2007]. And my friends, especially the big theater folks, were raving about it. And, in terms of FOMO, people were saying, like, “This is the best Othello you’ll ever see, but you’ll never get a chance to see it because it’s done.” [laughs]
EJIOFOR: That was an extraordinary time, actually. These plays are up for grabs, you know; there are conversations to be had about the Shakespearean plays that haven’t really been had before. And it turned out I had a slightly different opinion of the play than most people. With the help of a great director and a great co-star in Ewan McGregor, I was able to realize a slightly different version than the traditional idea of what Othello is as a play.
FUKUNAGA: You’d played Othello before, right?
EJIOFOR: At the National Youth Theatre when I was 18. The two [productions] bore no real relationship to each other. In the earlier version, when I was 18, all of the feelings were imagined. I’d never been in love, for example. I didn’t have any access to jealousy as a real emotion. I could imagine what it was, and I could read about it and so on, but I had no access to it myself, not with the kind of cataclysmic force with which Othello is experiencing the green-eyed monster. So everything was a reach—all of the jealousy, the rage, the relationship, the dynamics within the society. To a degree, even the racism just wasn’t something that I had experienced in the way that makes this man very insecure.
The excitement of it is trying to fight away from any of the tricks that have worked in the past, to be braver as I get older. Chiwetel EJIOFOR
FUKUNAGA: So when you’re prepping the latter one, was 30-year-old Chiwetel patting 18-year-old Chiwetel on the head, saying, “Oh yeah, good try, lad.”
EJIOFOR: Well, by the time I was 30, I had experienced all of those things, and it made me laugh to think back on my 18-year-old self trying all these things. It’s obviously a massive decade, going from 18 to 30. You experience all of these aspects of life, and so, suddenly, you’re not reaching for the romantic, the jealousy, the sexual, the racial, all of these things you’ve been part of. So I suppose I was like, “Thank God I’ve got another go at it.” [Fukunaga laughs] Also, the play itself was sort of a revelation to me. Coming to terms with it as a kind of sequel to Romeo and Juliet, as the very beautiful, romantic story, about the potential for love to be corrupted—I think they’re sort of twin plays in this way—was the access point for me and the way I tried to tell that story.
FUKUNAGA: Othello was originally from Timbuktu, correct?
FUKUNAGA: Being from immigrant parents from Nigeria yourself—where you’re coming from, what you’re representing—did that come into play at all in the latter role?
EJIOFOR: I think so. All roads lead home in the end. You’ve got to keep that in mind always—in your work and in your life. But as you get older, it becomes really distinct, the significance of your heritage, what your sort of cultural ecology is, the sort of fundament of your DNA, of your structure. That’s very much Nigeria to me. I made a film in Nigeria not that long ago, Half of a Yellow Sun, and it was a very powerful time for me, to be in Calabar and to spend a lot of time doing the thing that I love and think I was born to do. To do that in a place of my own kind of cultural ecology, where the tradition is still so strong—there are storytellers around every corner—recognizing that that’s where a part of this need to communicate comes from increasingly becomes part of your work. Or at least helps you understand why you are going on these journeys. I was born and raised in London and am very much a Londoner, but I’m surrounded by these completely different and exhilarating flavors that have enriched my life in a way that I couldn’t possibly live without at this point. I wonder whether that also is what brings Othello around. You know, he never really leaves Mauritania in the sense that he never leaves the oppression that he felt there. His war with the people that he’s slave to is kind of continuous and it’s the reason that he becomes such a great general and the reason that he is so valuable to the Venetians, because of his attack on the Turks, who he blames for his incarceration.
FUKUNAGA: When you were shooting Half of a Yellow Sun and spending more time in Nigeria, did you feel more English?
EJIOFOR: It’s funny, when I landed in Nigeria and was getting my bags, the woman at the Calabar airport asked my name. I said, “My name is Chiwetel Ejiofor,” and then I began to spell my name, “C-H-I…,” which I had done all my life. And she looked at me like I was crazy, because I was calling her an idiot. The idea that she wouldn’t know how to spell a name as simple as Chiwetel Ejiofor. I was pretty humiliated that I had been so disconnected from Nigeria that on reflex I was spelling my name. Chiwetel in Igbo, means “God brings.” It’s a very ubiquitous construction. So I suppose that kind of foreignness is very striking to me.
FUKUNAGA: Did you go straight from there down to do 12 Years a Slave?
EJIOFOR: Yeah, I left Calabar—and, in fact, the last thing I did was the Slave History Museum in Calabar—and then, in slightly different style, took that same geographical journey to find myself in New Orleans. That obviously just heightened the sense of the universality of that experience—the internationalization of the trade, and everybody’s involvement in it, and this brutal history.
FUKUNAGA: I went to New Orleans right after you finished shooting. We started pre-production on True Detective when you guys wrapped, and we met in August briefly at a dinner. But Louisiana is, to me, probably the most foreign of all the states, with its Caribbean influences and the great mix of cultures. Having just spent that much time in the sort of motherland, how was Louisiana for you?
EJIOFOR: When I left Nigeria, the last meal I had was okra and plantains, and that’s the first meal I had in New Orleans. That hits you. Like, “Wow, there’s just so much West African influence here.” It’s still tangible. There’s the other thing, this heat, this sense of oppression—the colonial, European sense of everything. And the mess of New Orleans is kind of interesting. As you go out through Louisiana, into the swamps, you’re confronted by extraordinarily beautiful landscapes and this oppressive heat. It’s like everything is fighting your ability to survive. It’s so rough and hard and hot and the bugs and the alligators—it’s just such an alive place, and so interesting to make a film about times when people were dealing with that without any kind of the creature comforts. And also isolated, without family, incarcerated, enslaved, the levels of depression and oppression, in something like that, it’s almost unbearable to think about, let alone experience in any way.
FUKUNAGA: It still exists there. It’s just in different forms, economic oppression as well as educational oppression. They say the new slavery is the prison systems. Incarceration is a new form of chattel.
EJIOFOR: Well, incarceration is a new form of incarceration. That link has never really been broken. The door is always locked from the outside. And the truth is, in this day and age, there’s a lot that can be done about that. It’s going to take a determined political momentum. Politics and finance is a very destructive combination—for any democracy, for any free country. And without a break in that link, I don’t know how anyone can get out to actually make effective change.
FUKUNAGA: We were talking about how you changed between playing Othello at 18 and 30. In that time you did a lot of work with some pretty incredible directors, actors, and actresses. I would love to be a fly on the wall watching other directors and actors to see what their process is like. What have you learned through all of that interaction?
EJIOFOR: Well, I fell in love with film. I didn’t start out to be a film actor. I wanted to be a theater actor. I auditioned for Amistad. I didn’t think I’d get the part. And even through that process, as exciting as that was, with an amazing director in Steven Spielberg, I still came home with the hopes and the aspiration of continuing a theater career. I think that finally changed for me when I met and worked with Stephen Frears [in Dirty Pretty Things], who really introduced me to the poetry of cinema and the poetry of film acting in a way that I hadn’t seen. He was very careful with me. I was only 24 and I was playing significantly older, in a slightly darker, murkier universe, but he was very correct. He was just very good at introducing me to the poetic nuance that can be performance on film. That is possible on stage, but it isn’t the requirement of the stage in the way that it is a requirement for cinematic achievement.
FUKUNAGA: How did you do that? Was that in the rehearsal process?
EJIOFOR: We didn’t rehearse. We’d just do the scenes, and, for example, I remember one scene where Audrey Tautou was going to do something slightly hysterical. She’s going to sell her kidney. And I arrive in the apartment, furious with her, with this decision that she’s made, because she wants to get a passport. So I come in and I scream at her, and after the first take, Stephen said to me, “I think that is really great. I really felt all of those things. It’s just that when we do it again, I think you have to hold her while you are doing all the rest of it. Not physically, you understand. Just hold her.” So the scene then played out in a completely different way, as the anger was also a way of being protective and loving and romantic, almost, but channeled through all this shouting. A very beautiful bit of direction.
FUKUNAGA: It seems that in contemporary theater there is a movement toward the nuanced qualities of cinema.
EJIOFOR: That’s true. Theater’s not a close-up. You can’t read insecurity, you can’t read vulnerability. Theater needs stagecraft. You need to be able to hit the back. You need to be able to play stage left and right. You’re going to have to inject a kind of poetic realism at some point because it is just people staring at you in a room. None of that stagecraft is required in cinema. You can sort of forget about that and focus on just these delicate moments.
FUKUNAGA: Are you doing a play right now?
EJIOFOR: I am, Everyman, at the National Theatre in London. That’s a 1,200-seat theater, so that has a completely different energy. The cost of it, physically, is quite a lot. I’m exhausted by the end. But I’m loving the show.
FUKUNAGA: In the theater, you have the reaction of the audience to invigorate you. What do you get out of cinema, where it’s just a bunch of crewmembers standing around, watching you, waiting for the next setup?
EJIOFOR: That’s true. I mean, the thing about film is it is a very precise form. You know if you have it and you know if you don’t have it. There’s not really a middle bit where you’re like, “I think we kind of have that scene.” Either you’ve got it—all the stuff that one needs in order to put it together—or you haven’t. And that’s exciting.
FUKUNAGA: There must be a mystery, too, in cinema. Not every director is going to let you know whether you got it or not.
EJIOFOR: You can’t really rely on a director too much to let you know. It’s not his or her secret that is being revealed to you. After a while of doing this, you get a sense of whether something is working, whether you feel that it is connected, whether it is locked in, whether it is telling the story. I think that feeling is very exciting. The thing about a film is that, depending on how many setups you’re doing and how your days are, you can have four or five of those moments a day for the entire shoot.
FUKUNAGA: That’s a real skill, to know instinctually what you’re trying to do. For example, you worked with Woody Allen [in 2005’s Melinda and Melinda]. He doesn’t necessarily always tell his actors what’s going on at any given moment.
EJIOFOR: When I worked with Woody Allen, I only got the parts of the script that I was in. I mean, I was able to piece together the narrative from that, but I remember being quite excited to watch the movie—the movie that I was in but didn’t know what happened in, like, 65 percent of. I’d love to do that now. I found it very intimidating then, and so I made choices that kept me in my comfort zone. That was over a decade ago. If put back into that same position, I would probably go completely the opposite direction and double down on the feeling of being slightly unbalanced, because it’s quite an exciting place to be.
FUKUNAGA: Do you think that learned autonomy is also a survival skill, given that, in film, with the carousel of people that come in and out of productions, you never know quite what you’re walking into, and you have to be able to operate in that vacuum?
Incarceration is a new form of incarceration. That link has never really been broken. The door is always locked from the outside.Chiwetel EJIOFOR
EJIOFOR: Absolutely. Otherwise, it’s not survivable. There are just so many variables, so you have to be as sure as you can be that what you are producing is worth it. It doesn’t have to be genius, but something you could be proud of. I would love to experiment with not knowing anything. The more I am pushed in that direction, not knowing and being unsettled, the more you have to risk stuff, to make decisions on the fly. The excitement of it is trying to fight away from any of the tricks that have worked in the past, to be braver as I get older.
FUKUNAGA: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
EJIOFOR: The best piece of advice I ever got was from Arthur Abraham, the professor at the University of Sierra Leone. He said, in essence, “If you walk into a room and you realize that your sink is broken and there’s water flooding everywhere, you go out to get a wrench to try to stem the flood. But then you realize the door is on fire, so you put down the wrench, go get the fire extinguisher, but as you’re doing that, you realize your light bulb is broken, so you put down the fire extinguisher and you go to replace the bulb. You’ll soon find that you’ll drown, burn, and be electrocuted.” His point was that the only way to operate is through crisis management. You’ve got to take time to deal with the issues one at a time. I wish I’d taken that advice more. Sometimes I’ve tried to do things in a slightly more chaotic fashion. But when I have remembered Arthur Abraham’s words, I’ve always felt like, “Okay, let me apply myself to this and then conclude it and then move on.” It’s actually a very difficult discipline to hold yourself to. When done, it can really work.
FUKUNAGA: We had cast in Beasts from Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, obviously, Liberia, and Sierra Leone as a pan-West African crew and cast. And one of the unifying things between these guys from all over West Africa was their approach to crisis situations—many of them were former combatants of wars. I don’t want to call it stoic, because it wasn’t stoic, they did get excited about certain things, but they were unfazed. It was something I learned in terms of trying to manage groups. In many of these places, a group doesn’t respect or respond to someone getting angry, for example. They respond to a comment and simple direction for everyone to go in. If you get mad or angry, they will tune out and stop listening to you, pretty much. There is something quite military about a film crew, in terms of the division of labor and authority.
EJIOFOR: We use military terms, don’t we? We “shoot.” And the way that that works when you’re in a foreign country, when you’re thinking about a British cast and crew is that people tend to sort of channel their inner colonialist. Like, “How would my great-grandfather have ruled these masses?” It’s ridiculous.
FUKUNAGA: Where do you see yourself in the future? What’s 58-year-old Chiwetel going to be doing?
EJIOFOR: [laughs] Hopefully, quite a lot. Certainly acting. I enjoy writing and directing. So a combination of all those things over the next 20 years would be quite interesting to me. But it’s all about the stories. I think we’re similar in the sense that we don’t have an oeuvre, particularly. We don’t have go-to narratives. Perhaps that’s what’s exciting, for both of us, about the next 20 years.
FUKUNAGA: So what I’m hearing is: Let’s keep it a mystery in terms of what’s going to be exciting us in the future.
EJIOFOR: Or at least, I don’t 100 percent know, but I think there’s a watchful eye and a powerful voice. It’s just keeping an open mind to what is happening and to the world, to be a brief chronicle of the times. To find the most beautiful and engaging and truthful ways of doing that can be challenging, can be upsetting, but it can also be honest and enlightening and humorous and entertaining. I guess we are constantly trying to produce the best work that we can for our time. That’s what we are tasked with, which is exciting. And it’s difficult. [both laugh]
CARY FUKUNAGA IS AN EMMY AWARD-WINNING DIRECTOR, WRITER, AND CINEMATOGRAPHER. HIS NEXT FILM, BEASTS OF NO NATION, IS OUT IN OCTOBER AND WILL SCREEN AT THE TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL LATER THIS WEEK.