Chiwetel Ejiofor

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Chiwetel Ejiofor

Posted by BBC on 2003/07/27 | Views: 1590 |

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Equally at home in film and theatre, Chiwetel Ejiofor (Chewy to his friends) has been acting since the age of 13. He went from school plays, via the National Youth Theatre, to a scholarship to Lamda and made his movie debut in Steven Spielberg's 1997 abolitionist drama Amistad.

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Equally at home in film and theatre, Chiwetel Ejiofor (Chewy to his friends) has been acting since the age of 13. He went from school plays, via the National Youth Theatre, to a scholarship to Lamda and made his movie debut in Steven Spielberg's 1997 abolitionist drama Amistad.

 His theatre credits include acclaimed turns in Romeo and Juliet, Blue/Orange and as Francesca Annis's son in The Vortex; he was voted outstanding newcomer in the London Evening Standard awards in 2000 and nominated for best supporting actor at the Olivier Awards the following year. On the silver screen, his most high profile role to date is as Okwe, the conscientious Nigerian illegal immigrant in Dirty Pretty Things. His next film outing is in Richard Curtis's Love, Actually.


Romeo not built in a day

Chiwetel Ejiofor sits down in the National Theatre's Mezzanine restaurant after rehearsals and confidently orders an expensive bottle of Italian wine. Is he a wine buff? "No, I just look at the price."

The reply is typical of his unpretentiousness, but, as it happens, he hasn't made too many incorrect choices lately. The wine is delicious.

More importantly, he is in the process of becoming a well-established actor, with notable credits in the classics and new writing, film and theatre. And he is still only 23 years old.

Eighteen months ago, Ejiofor was featured in these pages as a Great British Hope. That early promise is being spectacularly fulfilled. Since February 1999 he has played leading roles at the Donmar Warehouse and Almeida theatres, scored a remarkable success as the disturbed patient in Joe Penhall's gripping new play, Blue/Orange, at the National, and has made a film, It Was an Accident, with Thandie Newton. The movie - a comedy thriller set in Walthamstow - will be released towards the end of the month while he will appearing in Romeo and Juliet (as Romeo) and Peer Gynt (as Young Peer) with the new National Theatre Ensemble. In the spring Blue/Orange will move into the Duchess Theatre, so he can tick off a West End lead too.

Where did this phenomenon spring from? His parents - father a doctor ("and musician," Ejiofor adds emphatically), mother a pharmacist - came from Nigeria, but he is a Londoner through and through. While at Dulwich College, he discovered the National Youth Theatre and played Caesar in Julius Caesar and the lead in Othello, "and I was lovely in Oh! What a Lovely War," he says, sending himself up. A scholarship to Lamda followed. Spotted at the NYT by a Spielberg casting agent, he was offered the role of the interpreter in Amistad and at 19 found himself in Hollywood, which, he says, took a bit of adjustment.

He must be under pressure: it is a Friday evening and, after a Peer Gynt rehearsal which ended at 8.45pm and our meeting, he still has an appointment with Tim Supple, who is directing Romeo and Juliet. But there is no sign of strain. The most surprising thing about Ejiofor is his own lack of surprise at hurtling straight to the top. Supple is impressed: "He's passionate about what he does - but he seems to take everything in his stride."

When preparing roles, Ejiofor naturally delves into his own experience, which is not too difficult for Romeo, whom he imagines to be 16 to 18, "although I'm not consciously playing him younger than myself, even if some of his emotions seem young. He is gentle, motivated, youthfully confused - but he is determined." And he adds, disarmingly, that he hopes one day to experience such overwhelming passion himself. For now, he can empathise with and try to imagine such extreme feelings.

Othello is a different matter. Having played the role two years running before he was 20, he says he wouldn't want to rush into it again for a while. "There are places in Othello that are very hard to reach for a young actor in terms of how you view yourself. Of course I know what it's like to feel the pangs of jealousy, but I can't imagine being driven to such a conclusion."

He has no such anxieties about Macbeth. Having played Malcolm to Pete Postlethwaite's Scottish tyrant a couple of years ago, he can't wait to have a go at the main part himself.

He doesn't always depend exclusively on his imagination for inspiration. For the part of Christopher in Blue/Orange he researched the plight of the disproportionately high number of young black men diagnosed as schizophrenic, reading and talking to doctors and patients.

In the end, he doesn't want to be drawn on whether Christopher is mad or not. While his doctors argue over him with a mixture of concern and career rivalry, we must judge for ourselves.

Ejiofor plays Christopher with the restless energy of the disturbed: pacing, gesticulating, giving in to irrational anger. As Romeo he shows he can be still, allowing the words their necessary space. He says, incidentally, that the verse causes no particular problems and he seems familiar with his Shakespeare, mentioning that it is quite possible to be moved by the plays simply by reading them at home. But his intention as an actor is always the same: "to tell these stories well". And he even offers a profound description of the role of the actor, "to act out the universality of human experience, to explore what makes us laugh or feel sad".

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