Chiwetel Ejiofor was born in London on July 10, 1977 to Nigerian immigrants, Arinze, a doctor, and Obiajulu Ejiofor, a pharmacist. By the age of 13, he was already appearing in numerous school and National Youth Theatre productions, and he subsequently attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, as well as Dulwich College.
In 1996, the versatile stage thespian caught the attention of Stephen Spielberg who cast him in Amistad. Chiwetel returned to the stage before making another big splash onscreen in the critically-acclaimed thriller Dirty Pretty Things. He went on to co-star in Love Actually, Slow Burn, She Hate Me and Melinda and Melinda. His more recent film credits include 2012, American Gangster, Talk to Me, Kinky Boots, Four Brothers Inside Man, Redbelt and Children of Men.
Here, he talks about his life, his career, and his powerful performance in Endgame, for which he just landed a Golden Globe nomination.
Ladybrillemag.com: Hi Chewitel, thanks for the time. What brings you to New York?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: I’m just finishing up shooting Salt.
Ladybrillemag.com: Let me start by congratulating you on the Golden Globe nomination for Endgame.
CE: Thank you very much.
Ladybrillemag.com: What interested you in the film?
CE: There were a number of things that excited me, starting with the historical context of what was happening in South Africa at the time. I remember being very affected by what was going on there towards the end of Apartheid. And the subject is still very pertinent, politically, to what’s happening around the world today, in terms of negotiating peace talks. I had always been interested in this period of change in South Africa, generally, for a variety of reasons. And I specifically became fascinated by Endgame’s taking you behind the curtain, and telling the story of the behind the scenes machinations between Thabo Mbeki and the Afrikaner government. That was incredibly eye-opening, and a story that I hadn’t heard before. And Mbeki himself is such an interesting character. He played an instrumental role in changing the direction of the country, in putting the ANC [African National Congress] in a position to effectively govern.
Ladybrillemag.com: How did you like working with Pete Travis as a director? I loved his super-realistic docudrama Omagh about a terrorist bombing in a town in Northern Ireland.
CE: Great! He’s a very engaging guy to work with. He has an amazing b.s. detector. His style is very different from anything I’ve ever done before. He really pushes for authenticity. He’s very keen to get to the essence and the truth of the matter.
Ladybrillemag.com: Three of your films have made my Top 10 Lists: Dirty Pretty Things (2002), Love Actually (2003) and Kinky Boots (2005). What is it about your acting style that enables you to help elevate a project to be among the best?
CE: I don’t know. When I read a script, I try to get right down to what I feel is the heart of it. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what the subject is, and it doesn’t have to be universal, as long as the story has something meaningful to say. Conversely, I’ve often had the fortune to work on projects with a small theme I find very interesting enough to pursue and to be passionate about in the context of the story, then it may turn out there’s a universality about my character which still resonates with many people as well.
Ladybrillemag.com: Aspiring actor, Tommy Russell asks: Did your success as an actor build on itself, or has it been one thing here, one thing there and then boom you were suddenly getting good, consistent work?
CE: That’s a good question. I started working as an actor, semi-professionally, when I was 16, and got my first professional gig at 19. I guess I’ve kind of worked pretty consistently since then. I started off doing plays as a theater actor. But I never thought of it in terms of it leading anywhere. I was just trying to be the best actor that I could be in the context of what I was doing.
Ladybrillemag.com: Laz Lyles asks, if you have one genre that you have a special affinity for?
CE: Well, I do like sci-fi. When I was a kid, I was always sort of locked into sci-fi stories. So, sci-fi has always had a special place in my heart.
Ladybrillemag.com: Is that what drew you to do 2012?
CE: I suppose so. I found a role in the movie, and was excited about the spectacle of the visual style envisioned for it by director Roland Emmerich.
Ladybrillemag.com: Speaking of directors, documentary filmmaker Hisani DuBose asks: How did you become an insider who constantly works?
CE: I’ve always enjoyed doing a huge variety of roles, which I think helps, instead of settling for the things I might be most comfortable with.
Ladybrillemag.com: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
CE: The very last book was a John Coltrane biography by Lewis Porter.
Ladybrillemag.com: The music maven Heather Covington question: What are you listening to on your iPod?
CE: My music tastes are often 20 years behind.
Ladybrillemag.com: Me to, I was listening to Annie Lennox’s Diva this morning.
CE: That’s a great album! I’m constantly discovering things. Like Bobby Bland. Right now I suppose I’m into the Eighties, which turned out to be a great musical period.
Ladybrillemag.com: The Laz Alonso question: How can your fans help you?
CE: [Laughs] I don’t know. By just continuing to enjoy the movies. I feel that audiences are very sophisticated, and part of my challenge is to keep them engaged because they are so complex.
Ladybrillemag.com: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
CE: I’m slightly obsessed with making sure everything matches at the moment, because I’m working on this movie, and there’s been a bit of a gap in the shooting. So, I’m constantly looking to see whether I look the same as I did earlier, whether I’ve put on or lost any weight. So, right now the mirror is movie-related.
Ladybrillemag.com: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
CE: Interesting, I was just thinking about that today, because reporters tend to launch on what seems to be the clearest, most stark aspects of someone’s life in terms of an interview. And in my case, a lot of people ask me about my father’s passing when I was young, which I’m never comfortable with. I invariably move around that subject.
Ladybrillemag.com: Would you like to share a little about your father’s life in celebration instead?
CE: My father, Arinze Ejiofor , was a musician and a doctor. Nobody’s ever asked me about that combination and what growing up in that environment was like.
Ladybrillemag.com: So, what was it like?
CE: [Laughs] It was great! It was great! We had a very solid, practical scientific upbringing. Yet because he was a fairly famous guitarist in Nigeria, we also had a palpable sense of a creative and cultural synthesis. Working in this industry, I do feel that science and creativity turned out to be a very useful combination for me.
Ladybrillemag.com: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
CE: Yeah, I think fear is a very healthy motivator.
Ladybrillemag.com: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
CE: Yes! Everyone has their days, but overall I’m very happy.
Ladybrillemag.com: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
CE: Yesterday I had a couple of good chuckles. There’s always something ridiculous happening on the set, especially when people get so tired because of the long days. We were doing a shot in a very cramped space, feeling very cooped up. If you’re there for 10 hours, a kind of gallows humor develops. A certain hysterical humor as well. I don’t know if it was a good laugh in the sense of reckless abandon and joy, but it certainly brought tears to our eyes.
Ladybrillemag.com: Who were you shooting the scene with?
CE: I was with Angelina Jolie and a camera crew in a very cramped space.
Ladybrillemag.com: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest memory?
CE: It’s from Christmas, of 1982, I think. Maybe because I was smaller, or maybe because it used to snow more back then, but all I remember is watching from the window of the first house I ever lived in as the snow seemed to completely swallow our car, a Honda Accord. It was parked outside the house in front of a very large tree.
Ladybrillemag.com: The Mike Pittman question: Who was your best friend as a child?
CE: We moved when I was 8, but I’ve been very fortunate to have made a number of close friends I’ve known ever since. They’re still my closest friends.
Ladybrillemag.com: What is your favorite dish to cook?
CE: My favorite thing to cook is anything that comes out okay. I’m very fond of certain pastas and sauces that I can just about cook from scratch. So those are what I like to cook, as well as roasted potatoes and chicken. Anything that tastes alright.
Ladybrillemag.com: Which is your favorite of all your movies?
CE: I like all of them, and for different reasons. I know that sounds trite, but I do. But I have to say that when I was shooting one of the films that you liked, Dirty Pretty Things, I did have an amazing time. That was my first time playing a film lead, and my first exposure to a director [Stephen Frears] who paid attention in such incredible detail, and my first experience doing a project of that scale.
Ladybrillemag.com: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
CE: That global poverty would end. That people would be able to eat. It’s the worst shame in the world that people go hungry.
Ladybrillemag.com: Uduak Oduok asks, how do you see Africa as affecting American culture?
CE: I think Africa will have a crisper impact on Europe, as it has traditionally, and then that will filter into the American cultural psyche, in the way that India has. Look at how Slumdog Millionaire had to come out of England, even though it was ultimately well-received in America.
Ladybrillemag.com: Uduak also asks, who is your favorite clothes designer?
CE: Good question. I’m not really a clothes horse, but I’ve really enjoyed wearing a lot of Dunhill lately. Their suits are quite chic and elegant without being button-down conservative.
Ladybrillemag.com: Tommy Russell has a couple of political questions. Do you think America should adopt the Copenhagen Accords on global warming?
CE: I can’t answer that. I don’t know enough about it. I’m aware that it’s a green issue and that Obama was over there trying to broker a deal. My instinct is that it should pass, but I haven’t paid close enough attention to all the specific details to comment. I’m in favor of anything that promotes greener solutions.
Ladybrillemag.com: Let’s see if you can answer Tommy’s other one: Do you think the healthcare bill will pass and prove to be one of the best pieces of legislation in a generation? Or will this cornerstone of Obama’s domestic agenda prove to be his Achilles heel, on par with the Vietnam War for LBJ?
CE: As much as everyone wants sweeping changes, the truth is that the healthcare bill and the concessions that have been made simply reflect how government and politics work. It seems that there’s only so much you can change with the system as it is, if you don’t have the requisite number of senators’ and congressmen’ votes.
Ladybrillemag.com: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
CE: I think the crucial thing about being an actor is to be doing it. I believe people instinctively know that about writing, yet people get confused about that when it comes to acting. The only way to be an actor is to find ways to work as an actor, even if that means doing a one-man show by a river.
Ladybrillemag.com: How do you want to be remembered?
CE: I don’t know. I’m not going to think about that. I’ll have to get back to you in a few decades.
Ladybrillemag.com: Thanks again, Chiwetel, best of luck at the Golden Globes, and I look forward to speaking with you again down the line.
CE: Great, thank you.
Photo: David Livingston/Getty Images North America
~Interview by Kam Williams