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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
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.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum