I LIKE ICE CREAM TOO MUCH, SAYS CHIWETEL EJIOFOR
Chiwetel Ejiofor, the Nigerian called Britain's first genuine black movie star speaks about his life, career and aspiration in this interview excerpted from one published in the Telegraph of London.
AS Chiwetel Ejiofor ambles into the upmarket West End restaurant, a quote from D.H. Lawrence springs to mind: 'One's action ought to come out of an achieved stillness.' Everything about Ejiofor is understated, from his contained demeanour to his workmanlike, if well-cut, jeans and T-shirt combo and his soft, well-modulated speaking voice.
But as he ponders the menu and dazzles the waiting staff -'Hmmm, monkfish I think, with just a tomato and onion salad on the side?' he says, his full-beam grin and fluttering, expressive fingers working on them like a benediction - his natural charisma is laid bare.
Magnetism is a useful quality for an actor to have, particularly when it seems effortless; thus, it's not surprising that even the most hard-bitten of critics and directors have long been lauding the 30-year-old Ejiofor as one of the finest practitioners of the art, but also as 'Britain's first genuine black movie star.'
In role after role - the troubled immigrant Okwe in Stephen Frears's movie Dirty Pretty Things, his breakthrough stage appearance as a schizophrenic in Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange at the National Theatre in 2000 (for which he won both Olivier and Evening Standard awards), even his comparatively showboating turn as a drag queen in the 2005 film Kinky Boots - Ejiofor has shown a knack for nailing what Frears calls 'the ability to act between the lines, to edge subtly into the nuance beneath the nuance'.
He's appeared in hit after hit (Notting Hill, Children of Men, Inside Man), yet we're still obliged to print phonetic pronunciation primers of his name (Chew-ih-tell Edge-ee-oh-four, usually shortened to 'Chewy'; his first name means 'God brings' in Igbo, the native tongue of his Nigerian parents). One reason could be that he prizes some very un-movie star virtues such as anonymity and flexibility.
'I like to disappear into a role,' he says, choosing his words painstakingly. 'I equate the success of it with a feeling of being chemically changed.' He grins sheepishly. 'That's the only way I can express it. You search for the essence of a character - like with Okwe, I didn't know how to get to the heart of him until I went shopping for him in Shepherd's Bush market. I found a shirt for him, but it was only when I did the top button up that everything fell into place.' He shrugs.
'It's a strange thing, but you get this click in your brain; the wonderful feeling that the entirety of a character is suddenly available and accessible to you.' Ejiofor's DNA has been getting particularly knotty of late, with a slew of meaty parts. In two upcoming movies, Talk to Me and American Gangster, he plays a couple of real-life witnesses to recent, troubled American black history in his characteristically protean way (aided by the requisite wardrobe barrage of tab collars, pimp furs and Afros). In Talk to Me he's Dewey Hughes, a buttoned-up radio executive who strikes up an enduring friendship with Don Cheadle's original black shock-jock in the late 1960s.
In Ridley Scott's blood-soaked tale of the Harlem heroin trafficker and mafia supplanter Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), set at broadly the same time, Ejiofor is Washington's 'key fraternal accomplice' Huey Lucas (as he says, he only needs to play a Louis to have the full Donald Duck-nephew set).
'They're pretty good jobs,' he says. 'In Talk to Me, you've got a sweeping historical background - civil rights and race riots - but the foreground is really about these two guys' great and enduring friendship, which is a surprisingly rare thing to focus on in a movie. And it was a great opportunity to work with people I really admired, Don Cheadle especially.'
American Gangster, he says, had a totally different feel. 'The whole thing was epic in scale and scope. There were an extraordinary number of locations, from Harlem to Thailand, and there was a sense of being constantly on the move, getting everything done, with the world whizzing by in a blur. And there's Ridley in the middle of it all, seemingly very relaxed, like a general deploying his various squadrons.'
'I don't actually know how to do anything else,' Ejiofor says. He was born in Forest Gate, East London, the second of four children. His mother, Obiajulu, was a pharmacist; his father, Arinze, a doctor and part-time singer - an intriguing, if glancing, showbiz precedent. According to Obiajulu, her second son was 'a sweet child who did what he was told, was independent and very artistic.' Ejiofor smiles wanly at this maternal recollection. 'I was the classic middle child in some ways, the one who could have been a priest in an alternate universe. Being in the middle was kind of safe; my elder brother, Obinze, looked after me, so I felt free to go my own way.'
In 1988, when Ejiofor was 11, the family went back to Nigeria for a family wedding; on the drive back to Lagos, the car carrying him and his father was involved in a head-on collision, killing Arinze instantly and leaving Ejiofor hospitalised for a month with broken arms and wrists (and a small, permanent scar on his forehead). If this was some defining, galvanising event in Ejiofor's life, he doesn't say so; he's far too measured to deal in epiphanies. However, he does allow that 'when tragedy strikes in a family, there's a sort of unspoken contract you all enter into that you'll pull together and do your best for everybody else.'
As to the lasting effect of the crash and the loss of his father - whom his mother says he was closest to and most resembled - he's prudently oblique. 'I found some letters from my father the other day,' he says ruminatively. 'It was really interesting; he wrote them when he was much younger than I am now, and I'd never seen him in the context of being a "young person" before. I guess it's a relationship that still manages to surprise me with its complexity and flux, even though he's been dead for 20 years.'
Despite her straitened circumstances, Obiajulu was determined to send her children to private schools, and Ejiofor found himself attending the prestigious Dulwich College.'I was already devouring literature and I was the ripe old age of 15 when I decided to be an actor,' he recalls. 'I just thought plays were the most fantastic way of expressing life. I thought I'd discovered Shakespeare - "hey, there's a new guy in town, don't know if anyone's read him." I was just excited about the whole thing, from day one.'
Again, he doesn't say so, but Ejiofor's status as one of a handful of black boys at the school may have helped hone his chameleonic qualities; at any rate, his facility was quickly apparent as he played Angelo and Algernon in college productions of Measure for Measure and The Importance of Being Earnest. He joined the National Youth Theatre at 17, and, a couple of years later, was cast as an African translator in Steven Spielberg's Amistad. Seemingly overnight, he'd become a 'Hollywood actor'.
'I couldn't make head or tail of it at the time,' he cheerfully admits. 'I mean, Spielberg? LA? It felt like my life had turbo-charged way beyond my aspirations. It showed me that any best-laid plans you try and make in this business are pretty useless.'
The fact that Ejiofor's movie CV is now as copious as his theatre one is evidence of his transatlantic versatility; despite this, however, his mother has gone on record as saying she doesn't see him as a 'Hollywood person'.Ejiofor laughs heartily, displaying his dazzling teeth, at this analysis.
'I woder what she exactly means by that? If it means a red-carpet Paris Hilton type, then I'm glad she doesn't see me in those terms. But I could see myself fitting into a certain LA lifestyle, on the understanding that it was finite. I mean, I love London, this is my home; I lived in New York for a couple of years and I could never really shake the feeling that I was on a kind of holiday from my life.' He pauses for a beat. 'And you don't really feel that in Camberwell.'
Perhaps Obiajulu had Ejiofor's innate modesty in mind; this, after all, is the man who forgot to tell his mother that he'd won an Olivier award. 'This is going to sound completely absurd,' he says, sipping his coffee, 'but I do sometimes feel like 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.' He shrugs. 'The doing it is really the bit I'm there for.'
No wonder that Ejiofor continues to resist the 'Black British movie star' accolade that some are still keen to thrust upon him. 'I don't know what those terms mean,' he says, seemingly genuinely bemused. 'I don't know what constitutes a star as opposed to an actor; I guess other people decide those things.'
His range certainly continues to be daunting: in the coming months he'll be seen in Tonight at Noon, the latest quirk from New York indie director, Michael Almereyda, and he'll also star in David Mamet's Redbelt as a martial arts instructor who's forced back into competition fighting, a role involving an 'intense' jujitsu training programme that he enjoyed immensely.
'I'd love to live in a world where every piece of food and every bit of exercise, every moment of the day, was designed to get the optimum performance out of my body - but I like ice cream too much.'
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