3 Nov 2002: He has impressed on stage, then in minor movie roles and now his compelling performance in Stephen Frears’s brilliant new film confirms him as one of Britain’s finest young actors. But Chiwetel Ejiofor isn’t fazed by fame.

It doesn’t happen very often. Perhaps once every few years. Maybe less. Along comes a young British actor with talent to take your breath away. There are plenty of good actors but few truly great ones. Even fewer whose magic works on both stage and screen.

  1. Dirty Pretty Things
  2. Production year: 2002
  3. Country: UK
  4. Cert (UK): 15
  5. Runtime: 107 mins
  6. Directors: Stephen Frears
  7. Cast: Audrey Tatou, Audrey Tautou, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sergi Lopez
  8. More on this film

Regular London theatregoers may well be familiar with 25-year-old Chiwetel Ejiofor, may have seen him in Romeo and Juliet at the National or in Blue/Orange in the West End alongside This Life’s Andrew Lincoln. Some might have heard the comparisons: ‘Samuel L Jackson without the violence.’ Others will quite simply be wondering how to pronounce his name.

Not for long. By Christmas Chiwetel Ejiofor will be a name that trips off the tongue. Perhaps he will even become known by his nickname, Chewy. Later this week Stephen Frears’s astonishing new film Dirty Pretty Things will open the London Film Festival; in December it will open nationwide. Ejiofor plays opposite Amélie star Audrey Tautou in a tense urban thriller which tackles a very modern issue: immigration.

Ejiofor plays Okwe, a Nigerian doctor with a terrible secret who fled to London, works round the clock as a minicab driver and receptionist in a seedy hotel, and one night makes an appalling discovery. Tautou is Senay, a Turkish maid working in the same hotel. Both are working illegally and live in fear of deportation. It’s a political film, yes, but without being worthy or sentimental; as you might expect from the director of The Grifters and High Fidelity, Frears never loses sight of either the suspense or the comedy.

Tautou gives a wonderfully understated performance as Senay, but it is Ejiofor who steals the film. Okwe is a character who internalises his feelings and has learnt to disguise his pain, with beautiful subtlety and dignity. As with many great cinematic performances, it is all in the eyes.

In a relaxed bar in London’s Soho on a crisp Friday afternoon, Ejiofor leans back into the battered sofa and smiles. Well-spoken and immaculately groomed, he exudes low-key charisma. ‘As soon as I read the script for Dirty Pretty Things I knew it would make a really interesting film. An original, unique movie. And I’d been a fan of Stephen Frears for a long time; my favourite film of his was Prick Up Your Ears because the performances were just out of this world.’

Ejiofor recalls the agony of waiting three weeks to hear back from Frears. ‘It was a very difficult time,’ he says. ‘Here was this role that everything in me was screaming to play and I just didn’t know if I’d be asked to do it. Okwe is fascinating because beneath the guise of a completely invisible man in London, he’s a classic hero.’

Frears, having been impressed with him in Blue/Orange, knew that Ejiofor was his man. But even he didn’t realise the depth of Ejiofor’s talent at first. ‘I had no idea he would be so powerful. We were all rather nervous at the start, but within a week we were all relying on him. He’s a very good actor. And he’s articulate and considerate, he has a moral authority. You could only make a film like Dirty Pretty Things with an actor like him. If I hadn’t had Chewy, you wouldn’t be saying you loved the film. He has a very impressive presence. And what calmness! I phoned him the other day, I was worried about the attention he’s beginning to attract. I wanted to see if he was all right.’ Frears laughs, incredulous. ‘He just said he was fine.’

Chiwetel Ejiofor was born in Forest Gate, east London. His parents are both Nigerian, his father a doctor and his mother a pharmacist. He wasn’t taken to the theatre as a child; he remembers being in awe of Cary Grant in Once Upon A Honeymoon when he was ‘tiny’ and then falling in love with plays while attending Dulwich College. He started acting at 13, both in school plays and in the National Youth Theatre. ‘It was a strong impulse. I immediately recognised that it was something I needed to do. I’m not sure where it came from, but it was something I needed to be part of.’

He went to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and, at 19, was given a small part as a translator in Steven Spielberg’s movie Amistad. Four years later, in 2000, he was voted the Outstanding Newcomer in the London Evening Standard Awards and the following year nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Olivier Awards. Does he never worry about it all happening too fast? He shrugs. ‘In the end there is no way of rationalising it. You can only trust yourself. Only trust that whatever happens, you will attempt to deal with it well. It’s like during the periods when you’re not working; you have to hope you won’t completely fall apart and lose any sense of self.’

Theatre, however, allows its actors a degree of anonymity; movies tend to create stars. After all, even Stephen Frears has been showing concern recently. Ejiofor smiles. ‘It’s impossible to know what all that celebrity stuff means. I’m just not that person yet. I’m very happy and perhaps if my life changes, it will affect my happiness. But really I can’t analyse what being famous might be like because I have nothing to base it on.’

Although he is clearly thrilled by the experience of acting on stage, Ejiofor isn’t remotely precious about it; he is just as happy turning his talents to the big screen. Neither is he dismissive of Hollywood. ‘It’s funny because you either end up chasing bugs across the galaxy or you’re in some deeply emotionally moving film. I certainly don’t believe in limiting myself to one oeuvre; I don’t want to be seen as a serious young actor. I’m happy to have a go at anything.’

Ejiofor connected with Okwe because he has a great affinity with Nigeria; he regularly goes to visit his grandparents and extended family. ‘I don’t think I could have played Okwe if I hadn’t related to him. He is somehow stunted. Somehow he doesn’t exist. He is damaged psychologically. I don’t know if he’s a character you can invent as an actor.’

After finishing Dirty Pretty Things, Ejiofor took a small role in the new Richard Curtis film, Love, Actually, to be released next year. ‘It was about as different as you could get from Dirty Pretty Things. Richard Curtis is very funny. And he’s got such a keen eye. He knows what works and what needs nudging a little. Almost in a mathematical way. And if something is funny or charming, he knows straight away.’

Given how much emotion he puts into his roles, it is perhaps surprising that Ejiofor isn’t thinking of taking a pre-Christmas break. But he says that as long as he is exhilarated, he can keep going; at one point he was at the National rehearsing Romeo and Juliet by day and performing in Blue/Orange by night. His languid repose on the battered sofa evidently belies a great energy; he is just about to start rehearsals for the Donmar Warehouse’s new production of The Vortex, Noël Coward’s play about drug abuse among the upper-classes. Francesca Annis will play Florence Lancaster and Ejiofor her son Nicky. The play, which made Coward famous overnight, is already generating some controversy, simply because Annis is white and Ejiofor black.

While Ejiofor has been diligently doing his research, reading Coward’s diaries and his other plays, some critics have been wondering how convincing the play can really be. For the first time, Ejiofor struggles to find the right words. ‘It strikes me that… I don’t know… I mean I think the people who say these things don’t go to the theatre very often. In the end theatre is all about interpretation and to think otherwise is… rubbish. Nonsense. But I don’t give it any value. It’s completely insane.’

He pauses, composes himself. ‘For me the only way Noël Coward will survive is by making sure his plays are not just the domain of certain people. Of a certain type of actor. Because that’s the surest way to kill his work off for ever.’

Of course, Ejiofor wants to be seen as a great actor, not a great black actor; he is flattered by the Samuel L Jackson comparison but doesn’t really see the point of it, beyond the fact that they are both black and talented. ‘The comparisons people draw between actors are based on strange things. They are rarely actually about acting at all. And that’s all I’m interested in: the acting.’

He reaches for his lemonade, shakes the ice around and drains the glass. ‘When I start acting, everything else fades. I really can’t help it, the role becomes everything. It’s always on my mind.’ He grins. ‘So let’s just say I’m glad that at the moment I have absolutely no idea what I might do when The Vortex finishes in February. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see if any offers come in.’ As one of Britain’s most exciting young actors, Chewy surely won’t be waiting long.

· Dirty Pretty Things opens the London Film Festival on Wednesday and opens nationwide on 13 December; The Vortex opens at The Donmar Warehouse on 5 December (020 7369 1732)