He may be most well-known for his recent portrayal of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, but Chiwetel Ejiofor has been on the Hollywood hotlist for quite some time – even if he never planned it that way. Karen Anne Overton meets him.
“The only thing that’s changed is the work. I’m not waiting around for good scripts anymore, they seem to be coming to me,” says Chiwetel Ejiofor, explaining how his Oscar-nominated performance in the magnificent 12 Years a Slave changed his life. “I can get things moving now, which is something I can’t complain about; I can ring up directors whom I’m eager to work with and can get something going. Aside from that, it’s life as usual, nothing really changed.” This is the charm of the actor who is, by all accounts, a rather reluctant Hollywood star. He is unmoved by fame and maintains a philosophical attitude. For example, when asked about the meteoric rise of his acting career he replies: “I don’t know what a ‘career’ is as an actor. You can’t predict it, you can’t schedule when you’re going to hit the next thing. You’re at the whim of so many different components that will affect you, positively or otherwise.” He goes on to explain that “calling it a career gives you a sense of control that you don’t really have. All you have is the work.” Now aged 38, it seems that the actor is finally taking his place in the spotlight, especially after being cast in upcoming Marvel monster movie Dr Strange alongside fellow Brits Benedict Cumberbatch (playing the title role) and Tilda Swinton. In addition his latest film, Ridley Scott’s The Martian has received rave reviews and already grossed over $200million worldwide.
It’s important to understand that, originally, Ejiofor had no designs on Hollywood – but it had designs on him. Born to African parents in East London’s Forest Gate, he began acting at the age of 13, joining the National Youth Theatre, a world famous company which also counts Daniel Craig and Daniel Day Lewis among its alumni. Ejiofor went on to study full time at the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art but was obliged to drop out in his first year when a certain Hollywood director named Steven Spielberg offered him a part in his slavery epic Amistad. It was a role he nearly didn’t audition for, as drama schools generally forbid students auditioning whilst they are still training, but Ejiofor reveals that his tutors made an exception in this case. “Because it was Spielberg and they thought it would be good practice, they allowed me to go for it but never thought it would pan out. They figured, why not?” he smiles. However, it did pan out and the then 19-year-old Ejiofor was flown out to Los Angeles, where he would spend three months working with the legendary director. He describes the experience as surreal; “I was agog at my surroundings. In LA, I couldn’t drive, I just wandered around the Hard Rock Café a lot most nights.”
On his return to London Ejiofor had no plans of pursuing his film career, or returning to Hollywood. “I thought it would make a great tale to tell, a wonderful memory. But I wasn’t going to stay in LA and try to make it… my heart was with the stage,” he says. He admits that his attitude was a little ‘precocious’ but he also believed that a life treading the boards was more realistic than one spent on million dollar film sets. In fact, Ejiofor didn’t truly appreciate the “poetic and creative aspects of filmmaking” until he worked with Stephen Frears on Dirty Pretty Things; “This whole world opened up to me. I learned it’s something far more internal than I realised, that’s much more complex.”
Now, Ejiofor is best known for his role as Solomon Northup, the born free African American who is sold into slavery in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, but he was in a huge slew of blockbuster films prior to that: Love Actually; Salt; 2012; Children of Men… to name but a few. In 2004, he was cast by Woody Allen in the quirky New York comedy Melinda and Melinda and, having previously worked with Ridley Scott on 2007’s American Gangster, the pair have joined forces again on current sci-fi epic The Martian. The movie stars Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars and Ejiofor as the man at the helm of NASA who is trying to save him. “I love the technology of it, I love space and the existential questions it brings up; in space we can start to understand how we came about and all that comes with that. But the heart, the humanity of the story was such an important element. And they collated so beautifully together,” says Ejiofor on what attracted him to the film. However, playing a sci-fi role is rather different to having any real understanding of space… when asked what research he did for the role he jokes: “Anything I didn’t understand, I just went straight on Wikipedia!”
Despite his astounding success, there are still those who believe that he could have risen to the top even faster, had he followed a more conventional route. For starters, he straight up refused to change his name to anything more conventionally ‘Hollywood’. For Chiwetel Ejiofor there was only one reply to that idea: “I remember being advised, ‘if you don’t change your name, you’re going to play a lot of African parts,’ which to me was great. I’m an African; that’s fantastic. I saw no problem. And it was my name, my identity.”