Fresh from playing Denzel Washington's brother in Ridley Scott's upcoming American Gangster, Chiwetel Ejiofor currently finds himself in the rather more genteel surroundings of a Chekhovian country estate. Such disorientating changes of pace and location have long been par for the course for the 31-year old actor. Since being plucked from his first year of drama school to appear in Steven Spielberg's Amistad, he has successfully juggled stage and screen, quietly stacking up awards and experience with an array of major directors from Roger Michell and Michael Grandage to Woody Allen and Spike Lee.
He can now add Ian Rickson to the list, as he is appearing in The Seagull at the Royal Court. When Chekhov's play - about an ageing actress, Arkadina, and her budding playwright son, Konstantin - opened at St Petersburg's Alexandrinsky Theatre in 1896, it was greeted with catcalls. This production is unlikely to suffer the same fate: not only is it the artistic director's farewell to the theatre but it boasts a mouth-watering cast, including Kristin Scott Thomas and Art Malik, and a new translation by Christopher Hampton.
Ejiofor plays Trigorin, a successful writer and Arkadina's toyboy, who visits the family country pile and triggers a wave of emotional crises in the other characters. To get into his first Chekhovian role, Ejiofor has been reading biographies of the writer and went to hear the Russian pianist Konstantin Lifschitz at Wigmore Hall. "When I start working, it takes up my life, which is a good way to work," he says.
This is Ejiofor's first theatrical outing since he caused a sensation as Francesca Annis' son in The Vortex at the Donmar in 2002, the first black actor to play Nicky Lancaster. He is relishing being back on stage. "In some of the films I've done, there's something much more isolated about the whole experience," he muses, playing with his facial hair. "In theatre, it's much more specific, a much smaller group of people. I don't know whether that makes me more comfortable in one medium or the other but it's one of the reasons that I find the prospect of doing plays so exciting."
These days, Ejiofor can cherry-pick parts in theatre and films, but he rejects any suggestion of a game-plan. "I don't sit and think about who I want to work with," he says. "It's not predictable, so it would be futile. What can you do? Write them a postcard?"
Ejiofor was born in Forest Gate, east London, to Nigerian parents; his mother was a pharmacist, his father a doctor and part-time singer. When Ejiofor was 11, he travelled to Nigeria to visit his grandparents and was involved in an horrific car crash, which killed his father and left him with a scar on his forehead. He discovered drama soon afterwards, studying Henry IV Part 1, and performing in Measure for Measure at Dulwich College and Dark of the Moon with the Dulwich Youth Theatre. "It was sport, music or drama at school," he says. "I wasn't that into sport because I could never get into the first team, apart from at football. Everything fell away when I started doing plays. I was pretty hooked." Even now, his life seems unusually dedicated to his craft. "I wouldn't have anything that I would say is a hobby," he explains. "I've never done the stamp-collecting side of life. I know that sounds facetious. Even when I was really young, I was never into that. I just wanted to do one thing." Was his decision to become an actor supported at home? "I never really said I wanted to be an actor necessarily. I was just doing plays. I still haven't really said I want to be an actor!"
Stints with the National Youth Theatre - playing Othello to Rachael Stirling's Desdemona - eventually led to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. At the end of his first year, he was whisked away to play James Covey, an interpreter in the Royal Navy in Amistad. Although the experience was "exhilarating", he decided to return to London. "I was 19 and I felt that if I stayed away I wouldn't do much on stage in LA," he says. His breakthrough stage role was as a schizophrenic in Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange (at the National and, later, in the West End) with Andrew Lincoln and Bill Nighy, for which he won an Olivier for Best Supporting Actor and the 2000 Evening Standard Award for Outstanding Newcomer.
The breakthrough film role was not far behind. Stephen Frears cast Ejiofor as Okwe, an illegal Nigerian immigrant in Dirty Pretty Things, and it remains his defining role; a typically quiet, hugely affecting performance. A role in Love Actually followed, as part of a toe-curling love triangle with Keira Knightley and Andrew Lincoln. In the last two years alone, he has played a flamboyant drag queen in Kinky Boots, the improbably named pianist Ellis Moonsong in Allen's Melinda and Melinda, Julianne Moore's henchman in Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men and Detective Mitchell in Lee's tricksy Inside Man. He is well on course to becoming Britain's first black movie star, so why isn't he better known? He can still walk down the street practically unnoticed.
Frears was reportedly concerned that his leading man would be swamped in the aftermath of Dirty Pretty Things. "If you were in the Big Brother house, it would be different," Ejiofor laughs. "But it would have been a bit optimistic of him to think everyone had seen the film." The bewildering variety of roles that he takes on and inhabits with absolute conviction could be the reason, but he denies that he purposely seeks out ecleticism. "I don't see a role and think, 'That's going to be impossible. When do I start?'" he says. "Challenge isn't the greatest plus sign for me."
Ejiofor has just finished filming Talk to Me with Don Cheadle about the friendship between the 1960s DJ, Petey Green, and his producer Dewey Hughes. And for now he is happy to be back in London, continuing the balancing act of screen and stage, but with his movie star in the ascendant, it seems unlikely that he will be appearing at the Royal Court on a regular basis in future. "It's not that complex to exist within the UK and within America," he says. "I don't think there's any need generally for actors to move lock, stock and two smoking barrels. It's 10 hours away, so if you wanted to go to LA, you can go to LA and be back first thing Monday morning. Everybody can find me."
'The Seagull', to 17 March, Royal Court Theatre (020-7565 5000)Reuse content