Chiwetel Ejiofor has finally arrived. And the proof comes when he doesn’t — at least not immediately.
He is now 15 minutes late for his breakfast interview. The owner of the Beverly Hills cafe is anxiously awaiting the appearance of the actor, whose reservation was made in his name. “We’re trying really hard not to freak out,” she quietly confides to a journalist.
Ejiofor laughs good-naturedly when the story is relayed to him. He’s still not quite used to all the attention, but feels fortunate that people have responded so positively to his new film “12 Years a Slave,” for which he has collected top actor awards from several critics groups and nominations from SAG and the Golden Globes. His standout performance as the film’s lead character, Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery, is considered a surefire bet for an Oscar nom.
“There are many different ways the public can respond to actors — they can see you on TV and feel they know you and own you, and there can be something quite cornering about that,” he notes. “No doubt the energy around me has increased remarkably lately, but it’s always been from a place of loving and connecting to this film.”
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Though Ejiofor has been acting for two decades, gaining recognition as the lead in Stephen Frears’ 2002 dark crime thriller “Dirty Pretty Things,” it is his role in “12 Years a Slave” that’s thrust the 36-year-old actor into the limelight. Independently financed by River Road Entertainment, New Regency and Britain’s Film 4 for about $20 million, the Fox Searchlight release has garnered nearly $40 million domestically since its Oct. 18 debut, and the film’s box office is sure to grow as the awards pile up.
Unlike others who might be compelled to seize the moment, the British actor doesn’t feel the need to instantly capitalize on his newfound stature. “I’ve been working as an actor for 20 years, and I have to really connect to something before I’ll sign on,” he says. “I can’t change that process just because there’s some kind of requirement to push it. I have to find the right connection, and that can be rare, whether a million people are phoning me or the phone is silent.”
Growing up in London, Ejiofor always saw himself as a stage actor only. “I’d never really considered film,” he confides. “If I’d thought about film more growing up, I probably would have changed my name. I had no concept of my name in lights.”
In fact, one significant benefit to his newfound fame is in the pronunciation department.
“I’ve noticed people are growing in confidence about how to say my name,” he admits with a chuckle (it’s CHOO-it-tell EDGE-ee-oh-for). And more and more, he says, they’re getting it right. He does not care for the nickname “Chewy,” despite what you may have read. But it’s only in recent years that he’s started to tell people that. “It was a nickname from school I didn’t really like, and it managed to follow me around. Finally I was like, ‘I don’t want to be a dick, but … ’ I try to do it with humor, if I can.”
He was born Chiwetelu Umeadi Ejiofor in London’s Forest Gate, to Nigerian parents; his father, Arinze, was a doctor; his mother, Obiajulu, a pharmacist. Though he was raised in London, his family kept close ties to Nigeria. It was while on a trip there when he was 11 years old that a car accident claimed the life of his father and the driver of their taxi. Though Ejiofor survived, he spent more than two months in a hospital recovering, and bears visible scars on his forehead.
He and his three siblings (the youngest of which is CNN correspondent Zain Asher) were raised by Obiajulu, who instilled a deep love of Shakespeare in Ejiofor; one of his first school plays was “Measure for Measure.” He was hooked. By age 17, he had enrolled in the National Youth Theatre, and two years later earned a scholarship to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He was only a few months into his studies when he landed the role of the translator in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 slavery epic “Amistad.”
Though the film brought him to America, he was eager to return to London and the theater. “I did take some meetings with agents and managers, but it never struck me as very genuine,” he recalls. “It all sounded a little forced and promise-heavy. So I decided it wasn’t for me.”
In 2000, he received glowing notices for his turn as Romeo in the Shakespearean tragedy and as a schizophrenic in “Blue/Orange.” It was the latter performance that caught the eye of director Frears and casting director Leo Davis, who were looking to cast the lead role of an African doctor residing illegally in London in “Dirty Pretty Things.” Davis recalls how the part was written for a 45-year-old man; Ejiofor was only 25. “I lied and said he was in his mid-30s,” she admits. “We had to fight to get him. There was immense pressure from the studio to go with an actor who was more of a name.” But Frears coveted Ejiofor, and held his ground.
Ironically, years later, one of the producers who opposed casting the actor wanted him for another movie. Says Davis, “In a few years, Chiwetel went from ‘This guy isn’t a name’ to ‘This guy is brilliant!’ ”
Making “Dirty Pretty Things” inspired Ejiofor to reconsider a film career. “The whole experience opened up cinema in a way I hadn’t recognized before,” he says. “I found the depth and the nuance and the urgency of it. For the first time, I aggressively wanted to work in film.”
Ejiofor met again with American agents and managers, noting that “the conversations seemed a little more grounded and part of the real world this time.” He signed with John Burnham at ICM, with whom he remained until moving to CAA earlier this year. Great directors, from Woody Allen (“Melinda and Melinda”) and Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”) to Spike Lee (“She Hate Me,” “Inside Man”), came calling, and he booked supporting roles. In between, he made a memorable singing drag queen in the British comedy “Kinky Boots” and returned to the theater to play, among other gigs, the title role in “Othello” alongside Ewan McGregor.
When Joss Whedon cast him in 2005’s “Serenity,” the film spinoff of his TV show “Firefly,” lead actor Nathan Fillion remembers being thrilled. “We were all shocked and amazed, because it immediately classes up our project,” Fillion says. “We were a cancelled Fox show and he brought some real legitimacy to us.” Fillion found Ejiofor to be a generous presence on and off set. “He does what he does not just for himself, but so the whole thing works. He is built for this career. Some people find acting hard or difficult or are insecure about it. He is none of those things. I don’t think he finds acting hard; he just works hard at it.”
Fillion recalls dining out with Ejiofor in London shortly before he was about to film “Kinky Boots.”
“He would break out into song in public — and loudly!” Fillion says. He was enjoying sauntering around, and his whole face would transform and it was brilliant to watch. If any of my friends were to do that, I would ask them to stop. But by the end of the night, I was requesting songs.”
Ejiofor’s first American lead came in David Mamet’s 2008 martial arts drama “Redbelt”; Mamet is a Burnham client, and the agent had introduced them years earlier. “We were in a restaurant and there’s this skinny kid and John says, ‘I want you to meet this kid, he’s the greatest actor in the world,’ ” Mamet recalls. “He told me his name; I couldn’t understand what the hell he was talking about. Then John sent me copies of ‘Dirty Pretty Things’ and ‘Kinky Boots’ and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this guy really is the greatest actor in the world.’ ”
Mamet made an offer to Ejiofor without asking for an audition. “Everything I do now, I call him up and ask him to be a part of,” says Mamet, who directed Ejiofor in the TV movie “Phil Spector” earlier this year, and says his dream is to direct “Hamlet” onstage starring Ejiofor. “We used to ask, ‘Why isn’t this guy a huge, huge star?’ I guess that question is answered by ‘12 Years a Slave.’ ”
Ejiofor’s schedule is insane — he has residences in Los Angeles and London, but he’ll spend the next four days in three different countries. He hasn’t made a film since “12 Years a Slave” wrapped in the summer of 2012, though he’s starred as the leader of a black jazz band in BBC miniseries “Dancing on the Edge,” a performance for which he received a second Golden Globes nomination Dec. 12. He also went to the Congo to research his role as Patrice Lumumba, the man who helped liberate the African nation from Belgian rule, for a London play, “A Season in the Congo,” directed by Joe Wright. His days are packed with meetings and press for “12 Years,” and he is considering his next move carefully.
He will always return to the stage. “It’s part of who I am. I wouldn’t be the same actor if I couldn’t do theater,” he says, noting he would like to try Broadway at some point. “I love the theater community and theater life, and would love to figure out the distinctive differences between Broadway and the West End.”
He’s reticent to talk too much about any film projects he has in the works before anything is finalized. He is hoping to do a film adaptation of “A Season in the Congo” with Wright, whenever they can make the scheduling work.
With all the acclaim “12 Years” has brought Ejiofor, it’s interesting that when director Steve McQueen first offered him the role, he turned it down. The two had met a couple of times since McQueen’s 2008 debut, “Hunger,” to talk about other projects. While developing “12 Years” with writer John Ridley, Ejiofor’s name popped up. “His name was there from the beginning,” Ridley says. “He’s an actor’s actor, every step of the way.”
For Northup, McQueen says he knew he needed someone with a certain kind of stature, comparing Ejiofor to Sidney Poitier. “He had to be this presence to carry us through this territory of inhumanity,” says the filmmaker. “I knew he was the man to do it. I don’t know if he knew he was the man to do it, but I did.”
McQueen admits he was caught off guard when Ejiofor first said no, but he had no backup plan — Ejiofor was his Northup. “I just had to give him time,” he says. “He called me a few days later and said, ‘I can’t get this out of my mind. I have to do this.’ ”
Ejiofor says he was “blown away” by the script and the book, but admits it wasn’t an immediate yes. He notes: “You can read a script sometimes and see yourself in it. This wasn’t like that. This was the first time I’d ever read a story that was from inside the slave experience. And I felt the responsibility and the weight and the significance of that. So you have that moment of self-doubt where you question if you’re the person to do it.”
It was re-reading the book that brought the actor around. “In the end, I realized I didn’t have to worry about telling the history of slavery, my job was to tell his story. So I went back to Steve and said, ‘I’d like to try.’”
Aside from Ejiofor himself, there was no hesitation on anyone’s part about who should play the lead. Dede Gardner, a producer along with Brad Pitt at Plan B, who developed the project, says she, too, couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. “Having been a longtime admirer of Chiwetel and very familiar with his body of work, we were completely supportive of him playing Solomon,” she notes. “There’s no one else who even comes to mind.”
Though the material was difficult, Ejiofor says the experience of making the film was amazing. “If you ever find it easy, you probably don’t want to be doing it,” he notes. “The challenge is in how you connect to the part.” He bonded with the other cast members, even playing paintball with Michael Fassbender (“Michael is a terror at it!”), with whom he shares a number of intense scenes.
With “12 Years” in theaters the same year as so many other acclaimed films starring black men, including “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” “The Butler” and “Fruitvale Station,” Ejiofor recognizes it’s an exciting time for cinema. “What’s great is to see how different all these films are,” he says. “There have been attempts to bracket them together as all about the black experience, but what’s truly exciting is how varied they are.”