Chiwetel Ejiofor interview: ‘I’m still not sure I feel like a movie star’

Acclaimed for ‘12 Years a Slave’, Bafta winner, and mooted as the next Bond villain, Chiwetel Ejiofor is big box-office. But it’s not going to his head

The man catapulted to Hollywood superstardom on the back of this year’s Best Picture Oscar-winner 12 Years a Slave is a master of inscrutability.

An actor known for his extraordinary ability to convey endless layers of emotion in a single, quiet glance, off-screen he is peculiarly indecipherable, controlled, his face a closed book.

Unless he is talking about the Nigerian Civil War – the subject of his latest film, Half of a Yellow Sun, and a subject close to his heart – he answers with a determined politeness, segueing neatly wherever possible away from the emotional or anecdotal and into the professional.

"As a child, I was just never that interested in the lives of my favourite actors, like Cary Grant. I do wonder whether knowing too much about someone’s personal life interrupts an audience’s ability to suspend disbelief, to really invest in the characters. My preference would always be that people engage with the work."

He steadfastly refuses to talk about the Bond rumours too (Variety reported this week that he is in line to play the villain in the next Bond film, to be directed by Sam Mendes), though he is so very adamant about not discussing it, that it seems there must be something not to discuss.

"I don’t want to talk about that." Does he have a favourite Bond villain? "I can’t talk about that." That’s not a denial then? A stern gaze.

Who can blame him? After steadily, solidly, building a very respectable career in Hollywood for years, and an even more acclaimed one back home in London’s West End, this last year has seen a serious gear-shift for the 36-year-old.

There has been a surge of interest in his professional and personal life, including paparazzi snaps of him and his long-term girlfriend, the Canadian model, Sari Mercer, doing ordinary things like shopping, something he had not really experienced before (although he was “not surprised”).

The moment Steve McQueen’s brutal slavery epic 12 Years a Slave premiered at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals last year, Ejiofor was considered a shoo-in for the Best Actor Oscar nomination, and, by many, for the Oscar itself.

He lost, of course, to Matthew McConaughey for his portrayal of an entrepreneurial Aids victim in Dallas Buyers Club – an admirable performance, though for many still inferior to Ejiofor’s towering embodiment of Solomon Northup, the kidnapped freeman sold into slavery.

As it happens, Ejiofor did his first proper film with McConaughey, in 1997, when he was plucked from obscurity at drama school to appear in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad.

"The Oscars night was great because Matthew and I hadn’t seen each other since then, so we got to chat and catch up.” Did they say anything about the award? “Well, yes, I said congratulations to him."

What did he say? "Oh, you know, I think he said something similar to me. Congratulations. It was a great performance he put in in Dallas Buyers Club, it really was. And it’s not a competition..."

It is a competition, though, isn’t it? I mean, someone has to win. "Well, it all depends on how  you look at it." He did, however, walk away with the Bafta several weeks earlier, of which he is  enormously proud.

Chiwetel Ejiofor poses with the award for a leading actor for his work on the film '12 Years a Slave' Chiwetel Ejiofor poses with the award for a leading actor for his work on the film '12 Years a Slave' It’s strange, given how reluctant Ejiofor seems to talk about himself, that his next project relates so strongly to his family background and the major events that have shaped his life.

Half of a Yellow Sun, a beautifully shot romantic drama with the quiet elegance of a Merchant Ivory film, is based on the book by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007.

It is set during the Nigerian Civil War, or Biafran War, which took place during 1967 and 1970, seven years after the end of British colonial rule, as south-eastern Nigerian provinces tried to break off to form the Republic of Biafra.

Ejiofor plays a revolutionary professor, Odenigbo, who is caught up in the war along with English-educated twin sisters, idealistic Olanna (Thandie Newton) and business-minded Kainene (Anika Noni Rose). They are Igbo, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, millions of whom were massacred in the conflict.

Ejiofor’s own family hails from Nigeria, although he grew up in London after his parents fled Africa in the Sixties.

"My grandparents were about the same age as the characters in the book and film during the war. My grandfather is very similar in some ways to Odenigbo. He was an Igbo accountant, they were both professionals, both fleeing from village to village when the Nigerian forces tried to crush Biafra."

He talked to his grandfather for hours about his experiences. "He hadn’t talked about it for years before that, which might be because it felt so traumatic. Then again, it’s sort of normalised because everyone of a certain age there went through a similar thing. At the time [C. Odumegwu] Ojukwu, the leader of the Biafran military forces, lived down the road from my grandfather. I met him. They had all lost people. But they are trying to move on."

When the Nigerian-born playwright and novelist Biyi Bandele, a friend of Ejiofor, decided to adapt and direct Half of a Yellow Sun, Ejiofor jumped at the chance to be involved.

Actors Anika Noni Rose, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton arrive at the 'Half Of A Yellow Sun' Premiere during the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival Actors Anika Noni Rose, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton arrive at the 'Half Of A Yellow Sun' Premiere during the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival The film has "connective tissue" with 12 Years, he adds. "The last day on set in Nigeria I went to the slavery museum in Calabar, the port city where lots of slaves left the African continent. The next day I headed off to New Orleans for pre-production on 12 Years. It was pretty strange, that juxtaposition, and fascinating, in a horrible way, to think that that was the journey many of Solomon’s peers took.”

Ejiofor has a complicated relationship with his homeland: beyond historic tragedy, there is a personal one too. When he was young his family returned regularly to Nigeria on holiday. "Friends at school were always quite shocked that we holidayed in Nigeria, but it was all pretty middle-class really." It was there, when back for a family wedding, that his father, Arinze, died suddenly in a car accident, aged 39.

Ejiofor was just 11 and in the car when it happened. He was in a coma for 10 weeks. When he came to he was informed that his father was dead. "It was all a blur. After that I didn’t visit Nigeria again for four years. I think I came to associate it with dad’s death. But then when I was 19, I travelled round from Accra to Lagos, on my own, and my perception of the country changed again."

He hesitates when talking about his father, a musician who retrained in medicine when the family relocated to the UK, though he "knew that doing the film would mean talking about the family."

He beams with pride at the mention of a comment his mother made saying that he is the most similar of her four children to their father, independent and artistic. Indeed, recent activity seems to suggest Ejiofor is keener than ever to explore his heritage.

Months before he agreed to do Half of a Yellow Sun he spent time in Nigeria, talking to family members and friends of his father, trying to piece together memories of his father’s life "I have an evolving relationship with my father, and his memory, especially the older I get. I know that some of the things that interested him are things that interest me. I think... I think he’d be proud of the work that I do."

Ejiofor’s own childhood was spent in Crystal Palace, south-east London.

Arinze, before his death, and his wife, Obiajulu, a pharmacist, worked all hours to send the children to private school. "Chiwe" joined his brother at the prestigious Dulwich College.

It was after the accident that he threw himself into acting, reading Shakespeare sonnets (his father’s favourites) at home in the evenings and playing Angelo in Measure for Measure. The National Youth Theatre followed at 17, and then a scholarship to London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, which he left after three months for Amistad.

He might only just have become a household name – "I’m still not sure I feel like a movie star" – but his awards cabinet is already chock-a-block, even without the Oscar.

Brad Pitt, Chiwetel Ejiofor and director Steve McQueen celebrate the Best Picture award for '12 Years A Slave' at the Oscars. Brad Pitt, Chiwetel Ejiofor and director Steve McQueen celebrate the Best Picture award for '12 Years A Slave' at the Oscars. He won Best Actor at the British Independent Film Awards playing a Nigerian doctor opposite Audrey Tautou in Stephen Frears’s 2002 thriller Dirty Pretty Things (Frears called him “phenomenal”) and a Laurence Olivier Award for his praised lead in Michael Grandage’s Othello at the Donmar Warehouse in 2008.

An OBE followed shortly after. He also has five Golden Globe nominations, one as a drag queen in Kinky Boots, and countless others on stage and screen. Indeed, once you start looking you find him everywhere.

He has been married to Keira Knightley in Love Actually, been an immigrants’ rights activist in Children of Men, and an American geologist in the blockbuster disaster movie 2012.

He has rubbed shoulders with Angelina Jolie in Salt, and his performances in thrillers Inside Man and American Gangster were so good they led Denzel Washington, who was in both, to joke that he’d like to have him assassinated.

Next up is Z for Zachariah, a dystopian piece starring Chris Pine and Wolf of Wall Street star Margot Robbie, in which Ejiofor plays Loomis, a cold, calculating scientist.

It is this that 007 fans may look to to try and predict what kind of Bond baddie he might make. He certainly has the capacity for the sort of icy cool that would give Daniel Craig’s Bond a run for his money, as evidenced by his great turn in Joss Whedon’s 2005 sci-fi flick Serenity, as a black-ops agent so dispassionate he forces his victims to commit suicide by falling on their swords, quite literally.

Ejiofor’s greatest strength, one of his former directors, Stephen Poliakoff, once said of him, is in his capacity for "stillness".

"I think nearly all great leading actors are still," Poliakoff, who directed Ejiofor in last year’s BBC drama Dancing on the Edge, once commented. ‘They don’t fidget, they don’t over-emote. Chiwetel has that to a  wonderful degree."

These days he has mostly decamped to Los Angeles with Sari, although he still keeps a flat in London, and a houseboat.

Along with his brother, who works in fashion, he has one sister who lives in the US, and is a reporter for CNN (she broke down in tears live on TV back when his Oscar nomination was announced) and another, a doctor.

He doesn’t really mind the paparazzi intrusion he insists. "Although I should probably chat to my sister more about how the media works!" And anyway, it’s more than outweighed by the benefits: "The biggest change since 12 Years has been work-wise really. I feel that I don’t have to wait around for good scripts anymore, that I can get things moving more quickly. I can ring up directors I like and say I’m keen to work with them, which is pretty great."

Like Sam Mendes? "I couldn’t say."

‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ is on nationwide release

Read more: Half Of A Yellow Sun, film review
Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own