London-born stage actor Chiwetel Ejiofor first entered cinema with 1997's Amistad, but his breakthrough came five years later, with his memorably adept, sensitive starring role in Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things. That film put him on the map, and roles followed fast and thick, in Spike Lee's She Hate Me and Inside Man, Woody Allen's Melinda And Melinda, John Singleton's Four Brothers, Ridley Scott's American Gangster, and Kasi Lemmons' Talk To Me. Most memorably, he played the chilly antagonist known as The Operative in Joss Whedon's Firefly spin-off Serenity, the more hot-blooded antagonist Luke in Children Of Men, and the flamboyant transvestite Lola in Kinky Boots. Ejiofor's latest starring role, in David Mamet's Redbelt, has him playing a passionately principled jujitsu instructor trying to navigate moral challenges in a typically complicated Mamet web. The A.V. Club recently sat down with Ejiofor to discuss the process of becoming an instant martial-arts master, his "nervous disposition," and what people don't realize about their favorite actors.
The A.V. Club: Your bios frequently mention that you go by the nickname "Chewie." Is that a voluntary nickname, or something you got stuck with?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: I actually don't like it at all. And I try and get people not to do that. Without being dogmatic. It's just an abbreviation of my name that's stuck with people. It's just one of those things where I'm trying to remove an abbreviation of my name. It's really tough.
AVC: Especially when it's in every bio.
CE: Yeah, exactly.
AVC: What kind of preparation went into your character in Redbelt?
CE: It was mainly centered around the physical side of the role. I started out in London working with the Gracie family, the premier family in Brazilian jujitsu. They're based out of Brazil, but they have academies in various places. So Roger Gracie's academy in London is where I started. I started the basics and the groundwork, and began to learn the philosophies of jujitsu. And then I came to L.A., and carried on working there for a month or so, with the Machado family, Jean Jacques and Renato Magno who runs the gym up in Los Angeles and Santa Monica. They were the group mainly involved in the choreography and the fights in the film, but they were also very instructive in the ideas, the philosophies of jujitsu. Then I went to see jujitsu in action—just went to the fights and met a lot of the people, and got to be really involved in the scene. And that was a way of understanding what was at stake for everybody, what these characters' motivations and philosophies are.
AVC: Is there a pressure involved in all that? People train their entire lives to become martial-arts masters. As an actor, you're told "Here's your two months on the scene. Become a convincing martial-arts master."
CE: Yeah, it's tough. When I first read the script, it's like, you don't know how to do what's required in the script. When I did Kinky Boots, I had the same amount of time, and I just didn't know how it was possible. I wanted to do the part, but I was like, "I don't know." I think the more you do, the more you work as an actor, you realize you have to be a quick study. It is very intense. But most people starting martial arts won't get the high-level people I got to work with, giving them one-on-one training for every day of the week. So when somebody studies a year, maybe what we're talking about is going to two classes a week with a group of 20 other people. I was doing several hours a day with some of the best people in the world, with nobody else. It was able to accelerate my adjustment where I began to feel more comfortable doing the kind of stuff that was required. In no way could I suggest that I was at any kind of level where I could actually engage in a realistic way with any of these other fighters, or even David [Mamet] himself, because their training is sort of beyond me. But I could understand enough of the physical to embody the character.
AVC: Is there any sort of set process you go through in building characters that would have encompassed both Kinky Boots and Redbelt? Were there any similarities?
CE: I think with Kinky Boots and this, there was kind of a parallel in the sense that you put on the immediate facets of this character. You start to grow into the character from there. You start to learn about movement. In Kinky Boots and Lola, it was trying to walk in heels. In Redbelt, it's how to deliver a flying arm bar. Once you get those down, you start to learn how to play a character. In that sense, there was a similar approach, which I've not really applied to anything else. There was a distinct physical aspect to this part and Kinky Boots that just wasn't true for everything else.
AVC: What about when you're playing a historical figure like in American Gangster? Is there a very different process for that?
CE: In American Gangster, it was just being able to get a sense for the world they were in. There wasn't a particularly intensive rehearsal, really. It was reading articles about Frank Lucas and getting to know the context of the time. And you know, things tend to bleed into each other. When I came over to do Talk To Me, for example, I did a lot of research around the time. It just seemed really important to know a lot about the political situation, and the ramifications of what was happening. And I ended up doing American Gangster not long after wrapping on Talk To Me. So a lot of it bled into that. I was sort of up to speed on what was leading into the '60s and '70s.
AVC: Do you tend to find your characters more on your own before the production starts, via research and training, or do you find it more in rehearsal, or on the set?
CE: Well, I like finding things out beforehand, because I'm nervous in disposition, and I worry that if I don't do anything, then I'll turn up and I still won't really have a sense of it, and it might be too late. So I like to get things as organized as I possibly can in my own head, to apply myself to the work before arriving to a late-in-the-day rehearsal, or in extreme cases, the first day on set. But you know, not everybody works like that, and I understand that there are different ways to work. And actually being more open to it—obviously not in a circumstance like Redbelt, because if you turned up on the first day without any jujitsu knowledge, you couldn't do the film. But I understand that some projects, you can come into with much less knowledge of what's going on, and sort of catch up and feel your way around it. I think it's a risky way to approach the work. Maybe I'm not brave enough. I'd rather just work on it, find out what's going on, and use that to apply to a character.
AVC: It seems odd that you describe yourself as having a nervous disposition, given that so many of your key roles are very calm, centered, focused people—in this, Serenity, Dirty Pretty Things. Are you attracted to that kind of character because you consider yourself a nervous person?
CE: I think I liked them all because I found them to be terrifically written roles. I wonder if I end up bringing to them a certain quality, just because it interests me to bring that to a character. It could all be more nervy, I guess. And that would just be a slightly different take on the characters themselves. But I feel like I only select roles based on how they impact me when I read. They're all very strong, incredibly detailed characters.
AVC: Getting back to the finding-the-character process, how much help do you expect from a director?
CE: I suppose it just depends on the director. Some directors are very good at creating a world, creating an atmosphere, the visual, and they expect the actors to arrive prepared to do what they do, and then do it. American Gangster was very much on that basis. Ridley created an extraordinary visual construct for the actors to work in. And apart from specific points where he thought things had gone a little awry, he would just let the actors he'd hired do what they were hired to do and capture the story within his context. Which was really exciting. Other directors are very involved. I actually find both sides very satisfying. It's great to be able to collaborate very strongly with a director on a character and what a character should do, and I love talking about it, implementing it, and experiencing it in many different ways. A lot of that is part of my theater experiences. But at the same time, I also relish the responsibility of just turning up, and the whole street looks like it's out of 1972. You walk on, and you're there to do the guy and fit into that world and exist within it.
AVC: Is there any type of director that you aren't comfortable with? Have you ever encountered a working method that just didn't work for you well as an actor?
CE: It's only when—and fortunately, I haven't experienced this very much, but I think I may in time—it's only when you're working with someone who's hands-on, but you've really different perspectives of what the character should be, or needs to be. And I've never had an extreme case of that, but I'd imagine that's when real problems start to happen. That's the only slight disadvantage of being a very involved director, is that you run the risk of the actor completely disagreeing with everything you're saying.
AVC: Where did David Mamet fall on that spectrum of controlling vs. loose with the actors?
CE: Well, he was very involved in the character, so he—I wouldn't say he was controlling, but he was very much part and parcel in every decision made regarding the character. It was sort of necessary, because the script—it needed to unravel so people could understand the character, so he could sort of sail smoothly through the story and an audience could go with him. I was aware that I needed to have David there in order to work through the details. It's the sort of film that if David wasn't the writer, we would have needed the writer on set as much as possible, because it was very complicated.
AVC: He's known for writing very mannered dialogue, and wanting it performed in one very precise way. And this film mostly moves away from that—it isn't the first film that doesn't have that speaking pattern, but it's on the far end of his signature style. Is he still very precise about how he wants you to read a specific line in a specific moment?
CE: No, he was quite free with the script, I thought. We would go through certain bits and I would occasionally want to change something, because it wouldn't sit right with me, or it didn't feel natural or something. Then we'd come to a way of doing that that still satisfied either what he wanted to do with the rhythm, or through the meaning that he wanted to get across. There was always a way of finding a compromise, or an alternative method that satisfied us both. And there aren't many of his kind of staccato beats—though some of them are there, and I always loved them, I love doing them. When I was working in theater, I became familiar with Dave Mamet's plays. I just found them all very exciting, Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo. You know, the sense of people overlapping and coming in over each other, the five different ways of saying "I." Just that sense of real life. But with a plot like this, you don't want to get too hung up on that. There's a lot going on, and you need to progress the story.
AVC: What's the hardest part of film acting for you?
CE: I'd say it's the very early starts. You're trying to arrive on set basically at sun-up. It sounds ridiculous, but they are very early starts. So the hardest thing for a film actor, especially if you are in a lot of the film, is sustaining energy for the entire length of a production. It's quite tough. With acting, it's not the same as directing. Directors work the exact same hours; directing is incredibly exhausting. The only difference is that directors aren't required to have bursts of energy and focus. They're probably focused the entire day. Actors have this thing of "stop/start." That can be quite draining, actually. This sounds so ridiculous, almost like a complaint, "Why they got to go and make us get up so early?" And I don't mean it like that. I'm just seriously trying to answer your question. It does make me laugh sometimes that people watch their favorite actors doing scenes and whatever, and I don't think they realize that 90 percent of the time, they're watching people that are exhausted. Absolutely exhausted. It's kind of a funny reflection. They are long, grueling days. As much as it's enjoyable, it's managing tiredness sometimes that's kind of tricky.
AVC: What would you say is the most grueling shoot you've been on?
CE: Well, I suppose in different ways, it's different pictures. This one was tiring, because we did all the fight stuff in the middle of the shoot. And that was quite tough, because the last couple of weeks of the shoot, I was really tired, because I had expended so much energy doing all the fight stuff in the middle. If I had done it in the end, it maybe would have been a little easier. It was quite tough and I got tired. American Gangster was quite tiring, but for a completely different reason, which was that the cinematography of the film was extraordinary, and a lot of the times they were doing something very complex indeed, which was shooting from three cameras at the same time, which meant that the lighting rigs would have to be set up to encompass three different angles at the same time, which would mean that the time on set would actually be quite short. You would readjust to get a close-up and readjust to turn around. But the time in between would actually be quite extended. I remember finding that quite difficult after a period of time. Just the idea of being on set for a short period of time, and then being in the trailer for a long period of time. I remember finding that draining in a peculiar way. But on the whole, it's a very exciting job.
AVC: What's your preferred way of spending that downtime? Do you read a lot, socialize with other people on the set, rehearse?
CE: Well, I try to do all those things, mainly reading and so on. But eventually, over a period of time, you lose the will to do anything. Especially if it's over a period of months, into the second or third month of that, you're sort of zoning out. Getting up to do the thing, then zoning out again. It's a weird sort of a paradigm. But most of the time, that doesn't happen. Turnovers and cameras sometimes set up quick, or fairly quick. You're in and out, and you're doing your thing, and there's this sense of constant movement. On Redbelt, there was so much to do, there really wasn't much time to hang out, and any downtime, I was in the gym, trying to get the fight sequences down. So this was an exciting, moving, innovative production to be involved with.
AVC: How did your first film role come about, in Amistad?
CE: I was doing Othello for the National Youth Theater, and somebody in the audience was a casting agent who was aware that there was another agent, who wasn't in the audience, casting for Spielberg's film. They got in contact with me, so I went in and did some auditions on tape.
AVC: Years ago, you told The Guardian that the experience was really scary for you—that you constantly felt you were going to be found out as a fraud, because film was above your level as an actor. Did you ever have that experience again, of feeling in over your head?
CE: Well, I think a lot of acting is about the removal of self-consciousness. The actor is going to be in front of a lot of people, and will naturally feel self-conscious. So a lot of the preparation for that is the removal of that idea. Like you embody or are connected to this character, therefore you can present this character in a way that eventually, when you come back to see it, you feel not exactly ashamed of. Those learning experiences were just that for me, learning how to make sure I don't feel self-conscious.
AVC: Have there been other, similar milestones along the way like that one, places where you've consciously thought, "I'm overcoming something here, this is making me a better actor"?
CE: Yeah, I think so. But I think the main thing that happens is life. I think just experiencing life improves your work as an artist, as an actor. I feel I get better as I get older. Not necessarily because I'm working more, or working as much as I was. I just feel my connection to the world is getting deeper and richer as I get older.
AVC: You've often said in interviews that what's good in acting for you is disappearing into a character. Is that largely an instinctive process for you, or is there an intellectual process as well?
CE: I think it's sort of both. I think it's intellectual to begin with, and then it's instinctual in emotion. When you're no longer seeing yourself, in some ways. You're not performing. You're as close to being as you can be. And I suppose that's consistent with the moment that the mind actually turns off, and is no longer questioning what you're doing. When the questions stop, that's when the real acting takes over. And trying to get to the point where the questions stop, "Would I do this? Would I do that? How do I feel about this? How do I feel about that as a character?" When those stop, and it's just doing X, Y, and zed, because that's what you'd do as this character, because you're inside this character somehow—that's when it really kicks off.
AVC: That disappearing act is presumably harder on film, with the big downtimes, than when you're in a play, telling one story straight through.
CE: Once you click into a character, to a certain degree, you can do a lot else. You can do other stuff, then come back and click right into the character. It's sort of funny that way, the way the mind works. Once it's there, it's sort of there. For the stage, for example, all through the day, you're not onstage. You're living your life, la-la-la, then the lights go down, then boom! All of a sudden, you're in this thing. There's a kind of reflex muscle trigger that happens, and all of a sudden you're back into the role. It's just getting there in the first place that's tricky. That's that thing of sort of swimming, if you're not there and you don't know where you are, you've taken a few days off and you're not back, and you never really connected with your character, that's when acting becomes sort of tough.
AVC: If it's that reflexive, if it's that much clicking into somebody and being part of them, do pieces of characters ever stick with you? With Redbelt, for instance, do you think any of the philosophy or practice of martial arts will stay with you?
CE: In a sense, no. I would like it to, in a number of ways, but Mike Terry is not who I am. For me, it tends to disappear, which is good, because, you know, I've just been playing Othello, and I'm not prone to psychopathic, jealous rages, which is fortunate. It can be a positive and a negative. You want the good things in the good characters to stay with you, but lose the bad things with the bad ones. When I finish a project, I walk away, I just go back to being me, and looking at scripts like I was before the project. There may be some inherent lessons learned, things that I know, and blah-blah-blah, through experiences, but it would be trying to be a character, and I'd be very aware that I was doing that. It would be very clear to me that I would be trying to be Mike Terry, and I would find it ridiculous.
AVC: Are there any actors or directors that you've worked with in the past that you're particularly eager to work with again?
CE: Yeah, practically everybody I've ever worked with, I'd like to work with again. I had a great time with the people that I've worked with, and the directors, and a lot of the casts. There's really nobody where you'd say, "Oh, I got X, Y, and zed again! Gahhh, no!" It really brings a smile to my face, because in 95 percent of the cases, people I've worked with, I'd be thrilled to work with again.
AVC: Is there anybody out there that you haven't worked with yet that you really want to?
CE: Loads of people, really. It's sort of hard to know. It's funny in a sense that I spent my teenage years writing about, quoting, and watching David Mamet plays and films. Some of the David Mamet films, I knew back to front. Yet if somebody asked me two years ago who I'd really like to work with, I probably wouldn't have said David Mamet. It just never occurred to me that that was a possibility. I just didn't think. Yet when the opportunity came up to work with David Mamet, I was, of course, completely thrilled. "Of course, I always wanted to work with David Mamet! Why else would I have been studying his work in this way for so long?" I think it's funny, it's impossible to really know how much you want to work with someone until it happens, and then you judge it.
AVC: So you've never gone after a role because of the people involved in the project?
CE: I don't think so. I think I've done things that I got excited about because of a kind of package. Like in Dirty Pretty Things, I was a great fan of Stephen Frears' films, but the decision was still because of Stephen Frears' films in connection with the part itself, and the screenplay. It was kind of irresistible. It is true that I hadn't read Redbelt. When I heard that David was going to send me a script and he wanted me to play the lead, I was aware that I was going to do it, regardless of what it was. It would have been a very peculiar set of circumstances that would have led me to say, "No, I'm not going to do this." It so happened that I loved the part and the script, so it worked out.
AVC: You've made films in Britain and here. Do you find them different at all in terms of production?
CE: It's funny, I was thinking about this the other day. It's been a couple of years since I actually shot a film in England. I think the last film I shot in England was Children Of Men. That's not to say that's the last film I've done with an English production, but the last film physically shot in England. At any rate, things aren't much different. I think it's just a question of money. I think the only thing that separates, in most ways, styles of filmmaking, is how much money there is in the production. So a big-budget movie will be very different anywhere, I think.
AVC: What about stage work? You have extensive UK stage experience, but have you done plays here?
CE: No, I haven't, actually.
AVC: Is there any particular reason?
CE: No, not really. I find theatre sort of synonymous with London for me. But I'd love to do plays here. I'd love to do plays in New York. I would be thrilled to come out here and do some plays.
AVC: The media seems to want to present you as a package: "stage actor who broke into film," or "British actor who works in America," or "breakout black actor." Is that kind of labeling a problem for you?
CE: I don't actually notice it that much. It certainly doesn't bother me. Certainly what constitutes a stage actor, what constitutes a film actor, I don't even know what that is. And both things are very accurate, in a sense. In terms of people's needs to concentrate on race, I wonder if it's completely necessary, but it's not something that is so dynamically relevant to me that I feel it should be one thing or another.
AVC: Do you feel race has ever been an issue, in terms of roles you get or don't get, or in terms of how people treat you?
CE: No, I haven't, actually. I don't feel like it's a massive thing in terms of my working life at all, thankfully. I've felt like I've been able to work on a number of different things. I work on a career, and it's not something I particularly notice or feel that I have to adjust my thought processes around or something.
AVC: What about being labeled as an American actor? You've been doing so many films with American accents lately. Are people surprised when they meet you and hear what you actually sound like?
CE: Yeah, actually. It was funny, I was doing a radio show the other day, and the host said "We have here a great American actor…" I think here more than anywhere, there is some kind of ownership sense that America has. I moved to New York for a while, and somebody who lived in New York said, "The true New Yorker really feels that anybody talented who says they're from somewhere else is just kidding. Everybody's really a New Yorker deep down." I think that's something that can probably be applied to America in general. There's a sense of ownership to anybody on American soil. "They're really Americans, really."