One-on-One with Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor

February 7, 2014
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London-born actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, 36, is the recipient of numerous acting awards and nominations including the BAFTA Orange Rising Star award in 2006, five Golden Globe Award nominations, and the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor for Othello, in 2008.  He also starred in Dirty Pretty Things (2002), Serenity (2005), Kinky Boots (2005), Children of Men, all of which has culminated in his Oscar-worthy performance in 12 Years a Slave.

Born to Nigerian parents, his father was a doctor (who died in a car accident on a family trip to Nigeria), his mother a pharmacist, and his younger sister is CNN correspondent, Zain Asher.

Ejiofor began acting in school plays, then attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, but left when he got a role in Steven Spielberg’s film, Amistad.

He was appointed an OBE in the 2008 Birthday Honours.  In the same year he made his directorial debut in the short film Slapper, which he also wrote.  He then starred with John Cusack in the film 2012, in 2009, which grossed over US$700 million.  He also starred in the BBC Two drama, Dancing on the Edge, last year. Now he plays the heart-breaking role of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, based on Northup’s memoir about his experience as a free black man in New York who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana.

Romantically, he is in a relationship with model/actress Sari Mercer, who has accompanied him to many premieres for the movie.

Q:  Congratulations on your performance.  How did you get the role?

Well, I got a call from (director) Steve McQueen about nine months before we actually started shooting.  He asked me to take a look at the script and I did. I just thought it was an incredibly moving, powerful and unique story.  And I had never heard of it before; I had never heard of the book or Solomon’s experience.  So, it was quite a shock and it was a lot to take on.  So I went back and I looked at the autobiography, and then I was just kind of amazed by him, by Solomon, and his insane sort of odyssey that he went through over those 12 years.  It took a moment to try and figure out whether I could do it. I suppose it was sort of double fold, the sense of this responsibility of it all and the responsibility of taking on something like Solomon Northup and what that would mean to him and his descendents and so on. And then obviously the wider issues of slavery and the responsibility and taking that on as an issue, a topic.

Q:  What responsibility did you feel?
I think it’s just the topic of slavery. It’s something that hasn’t been looked at on film in this certain specific detail in terms of the actual day-to-day, inner life of the slaves.  In fact, I don’t think I can really remember since Roots, any story that really talked about that as its main premise.  So, I felt that to try and do a story like that, you would have to get it right in the sense of being historically accurate.  And secondly, you would want to convey all the complexities of that life and what that would mean. In a way it escapes some of the clichés or some of the things that we don’t know, some of the assumptions that we make about that period, about people who were slaves and what their daily lives were like, what their existences were like and make it real for an audience all these years later.  Otherwise, it would seem unnecessary to go into it unless you could bring something fresh out of it, something that could make a new conversation.

Q:  You have a great scene with Brad Pitt.  How was that experience?

That was great.  I mean, Brad was very instrumental in the process of this film coming up and getting made because his company was producing it and so he being a part of it, and him being a producer on it was incredibly valuable.  It was great that he was there; it was great to work with him.  That day of filming with him was another kind of blistering hot day in Louisiana and we had a very delicate, interesting scene to do.

Q:  Were you able to get out of the character easily?  What did you do after a day of shooting to let go of the heaviness?

The bits of myself that I couldn’t shake off in terms of the day, were natural.  It wasn’t that I was imposing that on myself but I wanted to stay in character, and I wanted to take it through to the next day.

So we would all go out, we would go out into New Orleans and we would have dinner, a few drinks and get to know each other as well and chat about other stuff.  And sometimes we would chat about the stuff we were doing, but a lot of the time it was about other things and just the knowledge that we were coming back into the next day to reconnect into this universe.  And then after the whole process, it took a little time actually, once we had finished shooting, it took me almost as much time as the shoot to sort of extract myself from that world.

It was like kind of going down the rabbit hole and it was so immersive being in Louisiana, being in that kind of heat, going through that kind of experience and referencing Solomon Northup and his journey sort of everyday and every hour of the day, apart from the evening, that it took a little while to kind of….. it’s hard to describe….to re-find myself, I suppose.

Q:  So what did you do?

I actually came here to New York.  In fact, and took a flat because I used to live in New York about ten years ago for a couple of years. For me, it’s a nice decompression place actually, (laughs) because I know a few people. I used to live here all those years ago but I don’t know too many people that I can’t be isolated if I want and I can be a little bit engaged if I want.  I thought that if I went straight to London or to LA or whatever, people would think I was crazy, (laughs) because I was so still caught up in what we have been doing. I just needed somewhere else to have a little buffer and get back into the real world.

Q:  Did you learn violin for the part?

I did. I learned how to play the violin.  Or at least I learned how to play this specific song that I was playing.  And it turns out the violin is a very tricky instrument. (laughs)  I think it’s a very difficult instrument if you are going to try and fake it, which I realised quite early on that you can’t fake it, you can’t.  So I got a violin teacher. She was great actually and so we would just practice and then when we had any time, lunch breaks or whatever, we would just carry on practicing, so it was good to learn the tunes, and the different positions because some of the songs, it’s a fiddling thing which is also quite complicated.  So, it was just important to kind of practice it and to try and get the sense of it as accurately as possible.

Q:  Did Benedict Cumberbatch give you any tips?  Because I think he learned it for Sherlock Holmes?

He said, (laughs) that the way that they cut it, he always looks like he can’t play, even if he’s playing.  (laughs)  They cut it in a strange way.  Or they just don’t let it run with the same music that he’s been learning.  So he is always like, ‘I could play that, but now it looks like I can’t!’ (laughs)  But that didn’t happen here.

Q:  2013 was a very interesting year for topics about slavery. There’s The Butler, Fruitvale Station, a lot of black content.  Do you think it’s a special year this year or is it just coincidence?

I don’t know. I mean, we are just going to have to wait and see whether that’s part of a trend or whether it is just a coincidence that these things sort of come together at the same time.  I certainly don’t think anyone was thinking in terms of this kind of timing but there’s an overall connection of these things.  So, in a sense they did all come up independently.  So it’s hard to know whether it’s something that is time specific but I think I like the idea that all of these projects are about the free market because for so long, I think people were just told, ‘Well these films don’t sell; you have black leads, who is going to buy it?’  And apart from one or two people who are big movie stars, they can’t get this kind of thing out to the public, which I think certainly, obviously films like The Help and The Butler are putting play to that, that there obviously is a market and the free market will always decide these things in the end.

If people are interested and do want to see these movies, there shouldn’t be any reason that they can’t get made.

Q:  It seems like the studios have discovered that market.

Maybe.  It seems like, obviously with Django last year and that was again, a very huge success in the box office. So, I think that it was always going to go that way, when films will have themes that are related to black people and black leads which also do well, then that obviously has a large reach and effect.

(*interview provided by Interview Hub)

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