2 Dec 2007: As he prepares to open in Othello, the man who made such an impact on Stephen Spielberg has gone far beyond being touted as Britain’s first black movie star – now he’s acclaimed as simply one of the world’s great actors
When Chiwetel Ejiofor went to drama school, he had a plan: if he was really lucky, he thought to himself, he would spend 10 years carrying a spear at Stratford. Perhaps by the time he reached his late thirties, he’d progress to a speaking part. Then one day, in some very distant future, he’d get a big part. Three months after he started at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Ejiofor was offered the lead in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad – not a bad debut for an actor resigned to standing around looking pretty on stage.
- American Gangster
- Production year: 2007
- Country: USA
- Cert (UK): 18
- Runtime: 156 mins
- Directors: Ridley Scott
- Cast: Cuba Gooding Jr., Denzel Washington, Josh Brolin, RZA, Russell Crowe
A decade on and Ejiofor, 30, is proving himself to be one of our most talented young thesps. For years, he was ‘Britain’s first genuine black movie star’; now he is simply a great actor. Spielberg was smart to spot something special in this young man. He’s not only in two major Hollywood films currently on release – American Gangster and Talk to Me – but is also starring in the hottest play in town. For a while, it looked as though he would move permanently to the United States, but after a spell living in New York, Ejiofor is back. And how.
Tickets for the Donmar’s West End production of Othello, with Ejiofor as the vulnerable Moor, Ewan McGregor as the scheming Iago and Kelly Reilly as beautiful Desdemona, are selling on eBay for £350 and on ticket agency websites such as Viagogo for a staggering £1,200. Before it opens on Tuesday, it seems that Michael Grandage’s production will generate even more excitement and plaudits than Trevor Nunn’s current production of King Lear with Ian McKellen in the title role.
No doubt, plenty of McGregor fans were among the first to snap up tickets, but it is Ejiofor who is set to steal the show. He has just the right brooding presence to capture perfectly Othello’s devastating descent into uncontrollable jealously. He is the sort of actor who need say nothing to emote; the sort of actor, as Grandage says, who is born, not made. The director should know: he worked with Ejiofor in 2002 on a production of Noel Coward’s The Vortex and waited almost three years for Ejiofor, McGregor and Reilly to be available at the same time.
Grandage says that Ejiofor is simply a joy to work with. ‘He has a natural dignity and is very free of ego. And the fact that I’ve been able to direct him in plays as different as The Vortex and Othello shows how incredibly versatile he is. This play is an immense collaboration but it’s also wonderful to behold an actor like Chiwetel who wants to bring another layer to the character, who’s so receptive to building the character. I can’t find a bad thing to say about him.’
Othello is a part Ejiofor knows well – he played it in successive summers while at the National Youth Theatre – but recently admitted he’d never quite cracked it: ‘I felt I didn’t really do it justice because I’d never experienced a memorable jealousy at that point.’
Now, however, he’s lived a little. ‘Oh, definitely. I have a lot more access now.’ Which is about as much as he will ever say about relationships. He prefers the Kevin Spacey school of acting, in which the less that is known about the actor’s personal life, the more convincing each role will be, although he did once talk of searching for a volcanic love that would devour him: ‘Well, there’s no point in living without being romantic, is there?’
Actress Sally Hawkins was in the year above Ejiofor at the sister school of Dulwich College, the private school in south London he attended and where he started to act aged 13. ‘He’s a very fine actor, but Shakespeare is his forte,’ she says. ‘I remember watching him rehearse Measure for Measure when he was a teenager. He was hard-working, very bright. He takes acting very seriously. I acted alongside him when he was Caliban in The Tempest; he was incredibly powerful. I don’t say this lightly, but he was born to act like no one else I know.’
Ejiofor says acting has always been ‘a strong impulse. I immediately recognised it was something I needed to do.’
Since his breakthrough in 2002 in Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things, in which he played Okwe, a Nigerian doctor relocated to London and forced to work as a minicab driver and receptionist in a seedy hotel, Ejiofor has often been described as well-spoken and polite, but also as remote, willing to talk only about snippets of his complex and sometimes traumatic life so far.
His father and mother, Arinze and Obi, met in their native Nigeria. After the civil war, they moved to England; Arinze, who had been a part-time singer in Nigeria, studied to be a doctor and Obi worked in a chemist’s shop in Brixton. Ejiofor – or ‘Chiwe’ as his family and friends know him – was the middle child. His mother says he was a ‘sweet child who did what he was told, but was independent and very artistic. Chiwe was the child who was most like his dad’.
Then in 1988, when Ejiofor was 11, tragedy occurred during a family trip to Nigeria for a wedding. After the celebrations, Arinze and Chiwe were driving to Lagos when their car was involved in a head-on crash with a lorry. Arinze was killed, but Chiwe, badly injured and unconscious, survived.
Devastated, his mother promised to do everything she could to get her three children through private school. Back at Dulwich College, Chiwe sought sanctuary in plays. His father’s death is something Ejiofor has avoided discussing, despite constant questions about the scars on his forehead. ‘It fucked me up quite a lot in the end,’ he finally conceded in 2004.
Given such an extreme experience during his formative years, it is unsurprising that Ejiofor is able to go deep with his acting. He based his Dirty Pretty Things character Okwe on his father (‘I wanted to look a little like my dad. I just related to him through the script very, very strongly’) and in Blue/Orange, which was staged by Roger Michell at the National Theatre in 2000, he played a crazed schizophrenic so convincingly that he was voted outstanding newcomer in the London Evening Standard Awards.
He can hold his own in Hollywood too: he has worked with Spike Lee twice (She Hate Me and Inside Man) and Woody Allen (Melinda and Melinda) and now he’s appearing alongside Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington in American Gangster and opposite Don Cheadle’s late Sixties’ shock jock in Talk to Me. Forthcoming projects include David Mamet’s Redbelt and Danny Glover’s Toussaint
Even Stephen Frears feels slightly envious of Ejiofor. ‘He’s having such a wonderful career. I saw 10 minutes of the Mamet film and he’s just terrific in it. He’s just a very splendid person. Denzel [Washington] told me that he’d have him assassinated – Chiwe is the one he’s threatened by. When we were doing Dirty Pretty Things, I told him that he’d go to America; he’s heroic and we don’t make heroic films over here. I bloody well hope he’s getting me tickets for Othello.’
He’s is not as choosy about roles as you might imagine and has often spoken of being happiest mixing parts. ‘It’s funny because you either end up chasing bugs across the galaxy or you’re in some deeply emotional, 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.’
Which is why he turned up in Love Actually, effortlessly playing Keira Knightley’s nice husband, and pulled on a dress to stagger around in high heels as a drag queen in Kinky Boots. So although Ejiofor has variously been described as having an air of moral authority and being a bit holier than thou, as being mesmerising on stage but ‘politely cross’ in interviews, he actually takes himself less seriously than you would expect.
He tells stories of wearing slightly baggy white trousers with white Pierre Cardin trainers when he was around 14, of his family being much more beautiful than him. He may cite One Hundred Years of Solitude as a favourite novel, but he also wishes he’d written ‘In My Life’ by the Beatles and talks of being in awe of Cary Grant in Once Upon a Honeymoon as a child.
At odds with his smart-talking, public-school boy image, Ejiofor is also a ‘weekend beergutter’ who actively supports Crystal Palace and once took Spike Lee to see Arsenal. He even calls himself very ‘boysy’. Fascinating though it is, none of this celebrity trivia really matters. What’s at the heart of Ejiofor is quite simply a compulsion to act.
‘I do sometimes feel that the enjoyment of an awards ceremony or the pride in the finished article hasn’t ever surpassed the joy of doing the work, of making it.’
Grandage is quick to agree: ‘Even with all the hyped-up talk of tickets for Othello costing thousands, Chiwetel is still phenomenally focused. He believes utterly in the process of acting. Nothing else matters.’
The Ejiofor lowdown
Born 10 July 1977, Forest Gate, London. His parents left Nigeria after the civil war and moved to England. Father Arinze was a doctor, his mother worked in a chemist’s shop. Chiwetel attended Dulwich College, then Lamda. His name means ‘God brings’ in Igbo, the language of his parents.
Best of times Working with Don Cheadle, an actor he admires greatly, on Talk to Me. The epic scale of American Gangster: ‘It was mind-boggling.’ Whenever Crystal Palace win.
Worst of times His father’s death when Chiwetel was just 11. Chiwetel was so badly injured in the car crash that he was almost left for dead.
What he says ‘I think I was the child who should have been a priest, the quiet, middle one.’
‘I mean, in the end, so what, I did a couple of plays, I had some tragedy in my life, I had some happiness, I mean, you know, who cares in the end?’
What others say ‘I don’t think that Chiwe is a Hollywood person; so maybe he might do the odd job in Hollywood, but he’ll come back here. And how did you guess? Yes, I want him to stay near me!’
His mother Obi
‘He’s brilliant. A star.’