Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is immensely proud of his Nigerian heritage. Indeed when he was advised to change his name because he would get offered a lot of African parts, the 38-year-old steadfastly refused to do so. “I’m an African,” he says. “I saw no problem. And it was my name, my identity.” It was a decision that served him well, as a series of starring roles and a slew of awards have firmly propelled the handsome actor towards the status of true Hollywood heavyweight.
Just recently, Ejiofor was honoured with the Richard Harris award at this year’s Moët British Independent Film Awards in recognition of his ‘exceptional service’ to the film industry, both in the UK and abroad. In 2014 he earned his first Academy Award nomination for his powerful portrayal of the enslaved Solomon Northup in the epic period drama 12 Years a Slave.
Life on Mars
One of Ejiofor’s most recent screen roles was in Ridley Scott’s The Martian. The film is based on the 2011 science fiction novel by Andy Weir and revolves around the story of an American astronaut, Mark Watney, who becomes stranded alone on Mars in the year 2035. Ejiofor plays Vincent Kapoor, the head of NASA’s Mars operations, who finds himself at the centre of the rescue mission to save Watney.
“I read the book and loved it,” says Ejiofor, smartly dressed and dapper in a grey sweater and navy shirt. “But actually had no clue of it until I started talking to Ridley. It’s amazing; an amazing journey. But from working off the screenplay and actually working on the film I feel as though I learned a lot about this industry. It was completely surprising to me. It was hard to differentiate the parts that were science fiction and which were science fact. I know that astronauts have not been on Mars but the Pathfinder that is still up there, how all that technology works and how they programme the mission from Earth. And then the possibility of people being up there some day. All of that was a revelation to me.”
Featuring a stellar cast, including Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain and Kristen Wiig, the critically acclaimed film is Scott’s highest-grossing movie to date. Having previously worked with the director on American Gangster, Ejiofor admits that he was “naturally very excited” at the prospect of working with him again, and that the film’s subject was an endless source of fascination for him.
“I loved the technology of it,” he says. “I love space and the existential questions it brings up; in space we can start to understand how we came about and all that comes with that. But the heart, the humanity of the story, was such an important element. And they collated so beautifully together. Sci-fi has not been my genre but that human element, I think that’s the key. Scene after scene, you’re confronted with ‘what if?’, ‘what would I do if I was stranded on Mars?’, ‘what would I do?’ It’s this rally, this overwhelming desire to save one person and the whole world coming together as one to save one person. And that, for me, is the real hook for the movie.”
As part of his research into the role, Ejiofor met with experts from the European Space Agency while filming took place in Budapest. Gaining an insight into the lives of mission directors and immersing himself in the technological aspects of the space programme was clearly a fascinating experience for him.
“As it was around the time of the landing on the comet that sort of celebratory atmosphere was really infectious and jubilant,” says the actor, who recently split from Canadian model girlfriend Sari Mercer. “Like my character, the people I was speaking to were in control of missions before, some that had gone well and some that had not gone well. Discussing the stresses of that, stuff blowing up, problems in space, the difficulty and the nature of human error, they have such overwhelming issues to contend with. It was so fascinating speaking to mission directors who had watched rockets fall out of the sky. We make, in our jobs, what we think are important decisions but on the whole, they really don’t make a big impact, they don’t change anything. Not like this.”
From the beginning
The second of four children, Ejiofor was born in East London to Nigerian parents of Igbo origin. His father, Arinze, was a doctor and part-time singer while his mother, Obiajulu, was a pharmacist. His younger sister is CNN correspondent Zain Asher. Tragically Ejiofor lost his father in 1988 when the actor was just eleven years old. The family had returned to Nigeria for a wedding. He and his father were driving to Lagos when their car was involved in a head-on collision that killed Arinze and resulted in Ejiofor being hospitalised for a month with broken arms and wrists as well as a permanent scar on his forehead. Speaking to The Telegraph in 2007 about the accident, he said: “When tragedy strikes in a family, there’s a sort of unspoken contract you all enter into that you’ll pull together and do your best for everybody else.”
As a teenager Ejiofor developed a passion for reading and acting and by the age of fifteen he had decided to pursue a career as an actor. He attended the prestigious Dulwich College where he played Angelo and Algernon in productions of Measure for Measure and The Importance of Being Earnest. He then went on to join the National Youth Theatre and won a place at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. It was while he was at drama school in 1997 that Ejiofor landed his big break, when he was cast as an African translator in Steven Spielberg’s slavery epic Amistad. Although he wasn’t meant to be attending auditions while at college, the young thespian was allowed to try out for this particular role.
“Because it was Spielberg and they thought it would be good practice they allowed me to go for it but they never thought it would pan out,” says Ejiofor. “I never thought it would pan out. So they figured why not? I did the first audition and I got the call back and then the call: ‘Spielberg wants you to make this film with him.’ That was unexpected. Shocking. I was nineteen years old. Absolutely surreal. So I flew out to Hollywood and was put up in the Universal Sheraton for three months, agog at my surroundings. In LA I couldn’t drive, I just wandered around the Hard Rock Cafe a lot most nights,” he says with a laugh.
Despite getting his big Hollywood break, Ejiofor wasn’t tempted to stay Stateside, and instead returned home to London for what he hoped would be a lifelong career treading the boards with the National Theatre and the RSC.
“I thought it would make a great tale to tell, a wonderful memory,” he says of his time working with the legendary Spielberg. “But I wasn’t going to stay in LA and try to make it. My heart was with the stage and I was immovable about that, which was a little precocious perhaps. I believed I knew my plan.”
Returning to the stage in 2000, Ejiofor starred in Blue/Orange at the National Theatre and the Duchess Theatre. This performance earned him the London Evening Standard Theatre Award for Outstanding Newcomer as well as a nomination for the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actor.
A new chapter
However, a return to the film world in 2002 in Stephen Frears’ gritty immigration drama, Dirty Pretty Things, marked a whole new chapter in Ejiofor’s career.
“Stephen Frears opened the film world up to me and I became so curious with the different styles,” he says. “It was the first understanding that I started to get of film in a deeper way. But I never wanted to be a leading actor, I just wanted to understand the medium. I wanted to understand what filmmakers did. It let me accept the poetic and creative aspects of filmmaking that I never knew of,” he adds. “I learned it’s something far more internal than I realised.”
After this turning point a diverse range of film roles came thick and fast, from the 2003 romantic comedy Love Actually to the 2006 science fiction thriller Children of Men and the 2010 spy film Salt. Ejiofor’s singing and acting performance as drag queen Lola in the 2005 comedy drama Kinky Boots earned him a Golden Globe Award and a British Independent Film Award nomination. He no longer has the fabulous boots though: “I think I lost them at a party,” he laughs.
Ejiofor continued to combine both screen and stage roles and in 2007 he appeared as Othello at the Donmar Warehouse, alongside Ewan McGregor as Iago, for which he was awarded the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor.
However, it was in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave that Ejiofor finally reached Hollywood leading man status with his moving portrayal of Solomon Northup, a free African-American musician who was kidnapped and forced into slavery during the 1840s. Ejiofor earned great critical acclaim for the role, receiving Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations as well as a BAFTA Award for Best Actor. Given the huge success of his performance, one might expect life to have completely changed as a result, but Ejiofor insists that things have pretty much stayed the same.
“The only thing that’s changed is the work,” he says. “I’m not waiting around for good scripts any more – they seem to be coming to me. Or I can get things moving now – you can’t complain about that,” he laughs. “I can ring up directors whom I’m eager to work with and can get something going. Aside from that, it’s life as usual.”
So, what’s next on the cards for Hollywood’s newest heavyweight? Well, filming is currently under way for the latest Marvel juggernaut Dr Strange and there’s the crime drama heist film Triple 9 featuring Woody Harrelson and Kate Winslet, which was released in February 2016.
Ejiofor has certainly achieved a huge amount of success and critical acclaim throughout the course of his illustrious career, but the actor is very much aware of the unpredictable nature of his profession.
“I’ve had the chance to work with a lot of incredible people, from Woody Allen to Steve McQueen to Alfonso Cuarón and Spike Lee,” he says. “It’s been an incredible twelve, thirteen years. But I don’t know what a career is as an actor,” he adds. “You can’t predict it, you can’t schedule when you’re going to hit the next thing. You’re at the whim of so many different components that will affect you positively or otherwise. Calling it a career gives you a sense of control that you don’t really have. All you have is the work. But if I had a plan for the next while it’s to carry on doing what I’m doing, earnestly and openly, developing the skill of being an actor. It doesn’t have to be film, it can be in any medium. Television, stage, film, whatever comes. Just being always engaged, that’s what matters.”