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
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone