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Londoner. Professional. Master of stage and screen. Chiwetel Ejiofor is all of these things. And what else? Alex Bilmes uncovers the man behind the roles to ask why the world calls him an enigma.
Photographs by Simon Emmett.
Fashion by Sophie van der Welle.
Loose and limber, Chiwetel Ejiofor rounds a sunbaked London street corner on foot, alone, and with a smile on his face. It’s a broiling midweek afternoon in Exmouth Market, EC1, the city panting in the heat, and the actor is happy to wander past the cafes and the pubs while we find somewhere suitable to sit and talk. He’s wearing jeans, tatty blue plimsolls and a white Levi’s T-shirt under a lightweight navy jacket, just the right side of scruffy, and he appears perfectly at ease in his surroundings, every inch the off-duty urbanite, which is exactly what he is today, on a week’s break from performing in the title role of Everyman, the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s bold, bracing update of the medieval morality play, at the National Theatre.
After a short stroll, during which we chat about the relative merits of his two homes, London and LA (he’s appealingly enthusiastic about both), we settle on pints of orange juice and lemonade at The Eagle, the famous Clerkenwell gastropub, deserted but for us, where he is on friendly terms with the bar staff. This is Ejiofor’s manor. He may keep a house in California, but the man is a Londoner – born in the east, raised in the south and now resident in the north. ‘It’s just in your bones, isn’t it?’ he says of the culture one inherits as a son or daughter of the British capital. ‘It’s definitely the place where I feel most comfortable. And I think it’s a f***ing fun place to spend the summer. People in London are giddy when the sun comes out. It’s almost embarrassing, it’s so joyful. I think right now London is probably one of the best cities in the world to be in.’
The character Ejiofor is currently playing on stage – the reason he’s here for the summer – is, like a number of the characters for which he is well known, desperate, terrified, facing apparently insuperable odds and a horrifying future, or no future at all. Ejiofor himself, in stark contrast, seems to me as relaxed as Everyman is wracked.
The word that most often pops up around him – by which I mean the description most used in profiles like this one – is ‘inscrutable’. Either that or ‘enigmatic’. Ejiofor, at 38, is well known to the public, in that he is a star of stage and screen: the BAFTA-winning, Oscar-nominated lead in the most talked about film of 2013, 12 Years a Slave, a frequent presence in big mainstream Hollywood productions like Ridley Scott’s forthcoming sci-fi epic, The Martian, and a marquee name in London theatre. But while we might know the basic biographical details of his life, and some personal information – his private thoughts and attitudes remain, for the most part, just that. I tell him he doesn’t strike me as particularly inscrutable. He laughs and says he certainly doesn’t try to be. What he will say, though, is that when it comes to publicity, he’d prefer to focus on the work. There’s a reason for this, and it’s not simply a desire for privacy. ‘I think it affects people’s understanding of the character you’re playing if they know X, Y and Z about you,’ he says. ‘It’s just very hard to convince people of a character if they know all about the actor’s life and thoughts. So trying to contain the conversation within the professional realm is certainly something that I think is useful. Not to everybody, maybe, but it’s useful to me.’
He does not yearn, he says, to find a screen persona and play, as he puts it, ‘slight variations on it for the next 50 years. To me, the great opportunity of this profession is to be able to get into completely different headspaces.’ Then, brilliantly, he quotes from an unexpected source. ‘It’s like that great line of Ice Cube’s: “I’m not one of them guys who’s trying to do a lot of different s***.” I happen to be one of those guys who’s trying to do a lot of different s***.’ (No disrespect to Ice Cube, obviously.)
The fact is that for a decade and more before he was cast in 12 Years a Slave, Ejiofor had been an actor at the top of his game. So director Steve McQueen’s punishing true story of a free man tricked into slavery in 19th-century America – while certainly his most high-profile screen role to date – did not fundamentally alter the course of Ejiofor’s career. What it did was make him more famous. ‘People used to stop me in the street before,’ he says. ‘But it lacked that hysterical component. It was just people being nice because they had seen me on the telly. After 12 Years and the Oscars, people stopped me and they were a bit weird, or freaked out. I have to admit, I preferred it before. I would like to take out the weird.’
There are famous actors, I suggest, who thrive on the attention. ‘That’s true,’ he says. ‘I don’t know if people thrive exactly, but with some people it fits more comfortably into the life they want to have. For me, I’d much rather just live in an absolutely normal way, without having to modify my behaviour because people know who I am.’ That said, ‘There’s nothing that I’m hiding, I don’t think, consciously.’
It’s very hard to convince people of a character if they know about you. Trying to contain the conversation within the professional realm is useful to me.
The facts, then: Ejiofor is the son of middle-class Nigerian emigres to London. His father was a doctor, his mother a pharmacist. He has an elder brother, who works in fashion, and two younger sisters, one who works in medicine, the other a journalist. They were raised principally in West Norwood – Ejiofor is a Crystal Palace fan – in a household of hard workers and high-achievers.
In 1988, when he was 11, Chiwetel was involved in a car crash in Nigeria, where the Ejiofors had gathered for a family wedding. He was seriously injured; the scars are still visible on his forehead. His father was killed. Of his dad, he says to me: ‘He was very loving and very academic and very encouraging and fun to be around.’
At 13, Ejiofor went to Dulwich College, the south-London private school. It’s here that he fell in love with acting. Shakespeare captured him first – Henry IV, Part One – and from there on there was never much debate, at least internally, about what he would go on to do.
Acting suits him, he thinks, because it offers self-expression without too much self-exposure. Unlike writers or painters, whose art is so completely autobiographical – ‘You can tell everything about that person from their work,’ as he puts it, ‘it’s like an X-ray’ – acting allows a measure of protection from prying eyes. ‘You definitely get to hide behind the character a little more,’ he says. ‘You become a little harder to track. I think it’s why I prefer it.’
After school, rather than going to university he took a year out, during which he was cast in an HBO movie, shot in Ghana. He won a scholarship to LAMDA, the London drama school, and in his first term there, aged 19, he was cast in a supporting role in Amistad, Steven Spielberg’s 1997 slave-mutiny saga. This is something, he concedes, that ‘does not happen that often.’
‘All of my hopes had been very localised: spear-carrying at the RSC, then maybe one day a speaking part. And to suddenly have all of that blown out of the water was kind of extraordinary. It was such a bizarre feeling of completely going beyond any expectation I had. It was the first time I learned the biggest lesson of the profession, which is you just don’t know what’s going to happen.’
It was a play, Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange at the National in 2000, and then another film, Dirty Pretty Things (2002), Stephen Frears’ gritty story of immigrant London, that really set him on his present trajectory, he thinks.
At that point, ‘People in the industry knew who I was, had seen my work, were interested in what was going on with me. It changed my relationship to the industry, which is, I think, the most significant thing that can happen to an actor. If you are appreciated within the industry, there’s much more value to that [than simply being famous].’
By any standards his is a glittering career: the breakthrough in Dirty Pretty Things was followed by memorable roles as Lola the drag queen in Kinky Boots (2005), opposite Clive Owen in Children of Men (2006), mixing up blockbusters 2012 (2009) and Salt (2010) with sophisticated mainstream fare – Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006), Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007) – and then 12 Years a Slave. On stage he received the Olivier award for Best Actor for his Othello at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007. He was awarded the OBE in 2008 and the CBE earlier this year. ‘It’s been amazing,’ he says. ‘I’ve been incredibly fortunate. It’s one of the things that is very hard to predict when you get started, whether you’re going to catch that little streak of luck that might just be a flash, or if you can somehow manage to sustain some of the energy of it, because there’s no doubt that there are numerable actors, incredibly talented people, who never had that moment. The stars didn’t align for them.’
His ambitions, he says, are not for more money or more fame, only for the opportunity to do more interesting and varied work: ‘I think there are more stories to tell and I want to be part of telling them.’
There’s plenty to come at the cinema. In The Martian he is charged with bringing Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut home from Mars. Z for Zachariah posits a post-apocalyptic love triangle, the other corners played by Margot Robbie and Chris Pine. Secret in their Eyes is an English-language version of the Argentine thriller from 2009, with Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman, no less, as Ejiofor’s leading ladies. Triple 9 is a heist movie from the Australian director John Hillcoat, co-starring Kate Winslet. Biggest of all, perhaps, Ejiofor has lately been cast as the villain, Baron Mordo, opposite Benedict Cumberbatch, in Doctor Strange, a new Marvel comic book adaptation.
A couple of days after my interview with Ejiofor I trot along to the South Bank to watch him on stage in Everyman. He plays a druggy party boy forced to make a reckoning before God, when Death comes calling. It’s the ultimate bad trip, from prosperous to homeless, carefree to self-flagellating. (In 12 Years a Slave he is whipped; here he whips himself.) For an hour and three quarters he never leaves the stage, and he spends most of that time in abject terror. It is acting of terrific intensity, tremendously physical, and his extraordinarily resonant voice, particularly in his big confessional speech, is penetrating and moving.
Back in The Eagle, I leave the mild-mannered man who delivers this bravura performance happily tucking into a second pint of fizzy OJ and arranging a meeting with a friend on his phone. The night is bright and young; the possibilities are endless.
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in The Martian from 1 October.
Alex Bilmes is editor-in-chief of British Esquire and the Big Black Book.
Photographs Simon Emmett at CLM. Grooming Carlos Ferraz at Carol Hayes Management. Production Tomasina Lebus Fashion assistant Alesha Jivanda. Production assistant Samantha Treyvaud.