After parallel successes on stage and screen, Chiwetel Ejiofor is being lauded as one of the greatest actors of his generation
Andrew Pulver / The Guardian,
Chiwetel Ejiofor. His fellow actor Tom Hiddleston, who played Cassio to his Othello, calls him 'a deep thinker, very wise, very kind and very funny'. Photo: Suki Dhanda
However good they are, actors always need a defining role to transform them into a film star, and as the kidnap victim Solomon Northup in the Steve McQueen-directed 12 Years a Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor has found his.
Always an impressive performer on screen – certainly since his breakthrough role as a refugee doctor opposite Audrey Tautou in 2002's Dirty Pretty Things – Ejiofor is now on the cusp of joining the global film-acting elite. He has already been the recipient of scores of year-end critics' awards for 12 Years a Slave, as well as Golden Globe and Bafta nominations – and the industry will view it a significant scandal if an Oscar nomination doesn't materialise on 16 January.
Northup is the central figure in McQueen's project to confront the US with its slavery past. The co-author of an 1853 "slave narrative" – subtitled "Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plantation near the Red River in Louisiana" – Northup has to endure a journey from middle-class respectability to bestial captivity, and back again.
Ejiofor is the actor who has to make Northup live; a character who is, in McQueen's hands, often seen under the most extreme conditions. One of the most astonishing scenes – destined to become a classic – is a sequence where Northup is left hanging from a tree, a lynching halted in mid-hoist, feet just touching the ground, until official permission can be obtained from his owner to cut him down.
Though, as cinematographer Sean Bobbitt told the Guardian, Ejiofor wore a full-body harness to shoot the scene, the discomfort it involved speaks clearly of acting of absolute commitment.
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave. Photograph: Jaap Buitendijk/AP
That's certainly the impression given by Ejiofor's collaborators. Michael Grandage, the theatre director who, as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, gave Ejiofor two key lead roles – in productions of Noël Coward's The Vortex and Othello in 2002 and 2007, calls him "phenomenally focused" and possessing a "wonderful" work ethic.
"When he accepts a role, he is utterly immersed in it, both inside and outside the rehearsal room," says Grandage. "It's so exciting for a director to have someone who comes in with a wealth of ideas every morning.
"Because of his need to place the character inside himself, you end up having a constant dialogue that moves a project forward through his investigation of that character."
His fellow actor Tom Hiddleston, who played Cassio to Ejiofor's Othello in Grandage's production, and who has gone on to an impressive screen career himself, is equally admiring. Calling him "a deep thinker, very intelligent, very wise, very kind and very funny", Hiddleston says Ejiofor "has a natural and forensic curiosity about the bigger picture – a need to understand the power and purpose of the whole piece".
Both men stress his sense of humour; in fact, Grandage considers it key to Ejiofor's ability "to hold on to a sense of himself", despite his habit of total immersion.
Ejiofor's progress towards what is likely to be a watershed few weeks in his career is the product of a steady upward curve ever since he was forced to drop out of acting school as a 19-year-old after bagging a small part in Amistad, Steven Spielberg's attempt to do for slavery what he did for the Holocaust with Schindler's List. That he played a slave in his first film role is perhaps only a coincidence: Ejiofor told Slant magazine he "didn't reach back to that experience" while making 12 Years a Slave. "It was completely different. Amistad was a court case … it didn't feel connected."
Now aged 36, Ejiofor was born in London to prosperous Nigerian parents (father a doctor, mother a pharmacist) who sent him to Dulwich College, a private school that has alumni including PG Wodehouse, Ernest Shackleton and Raymond Chandler. Though they left Nigeria to escape the civil war of the late 60s (that produced the short-lived Biafran republic), Eijofor's parents regularly went back, and it was on one of these trips, when Ejiofor was 11, that his father was killed in a road accident; Ejiofor still bears the scars on his forehead.
He started acting at school, doing his first play when he was 15; having won a place at one of the UK's most prestigious top acting schools, Lamda, he quit when Spielberg called.
Ejiofor, the director Joe Wright and artistic director David Lan on a visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to research Aimé Césaire's play, A Season in the Congo. Photo: Francesca Tosarelli/Oxfam
Despite that early start, and a subsequent lifestyle that sees him equally at home in London and Los Angeles, Ejiofor's progress was that of a critic's darling and actor's actor, rather than an audience favourite. He had to go back to theatre for his next leg-up, playing a psychiatric patient in Blue/Orange, Joe Penhall's award-winning play that premiered at the National Theatre in 2000. Two years later he caused theatre-world ripples after being cast by Grandage in The Vortex, Noël Coward's sex-and-drugs social comedy, playing a role Coward wrote for himself. .
His sober, restrained performance in the Stephen Frears-directed Dirty Pretty Things in the same year put him on the map in his parallel cinema career; playing an illegal immigrant entangled in an organ-transplant scam earned him admiration, but hardly star status.
Ejiofor proved astute at picking film roles in its aftermath. Some – Melinda and Melinda for Woody Allen, She Hate Me and Inside Man for Spike Lee – put him in the company of A-list directors; others – Four Brothers, Serenity, Slow Burn – were chances to make a little headway in Hollywood; and yet others – Love Actually, Kinky Boots, Twelfth Night – were a reflection of his status in the goldfish bowl of the UK acting world.
As the decade moved on, the parts got a little better, a little more heavyweight each time. A chunky role in the 2006 dystopian fertility fable Children of Men, directed by Alfonso "Gravity" Cuaron, may have been his most noticeable film role until that point; it was then that Ejiofor re-entered theatre, playing Othello for Grandage at the Donmar after a run at the Royal Court as Trigorin in The Seagull.
It was this mid-decade period that saw Ejiofor start attracting serious awards heat. He won the Bafta Rising Star gong in 2006, scored his first Golden Globe nomination for Kinky Boots, and an Independent Spirit award for his role opposite Don Cheadle in Talk to Me, about US talkshow host Ralph "Petey" Greene. He even got an OBE in 2008. Having secured a gig in a proper "big" movie – playing one of Denzel Washington's brothers in the Ridley Scott-directed epic American Gangster in 2007, Ejiofor finally worked his way to the top of the bill in – of all things – a David Mamet karate film called Redbelt.
Ejiofor as Peabody in Salt. Photograph: Andrew Schwartz/SMPSP
One of Mamet's typically convoluted screenplays, and a very odd confection indeed, Redbelt did not set the box office alight, but it suggested Ejiofor could now be trusted to carry a picture. Hollywood was now calling regularly – he played a geologist in Roland Emmerich's biblical-scale disaster movie 2012, and a CIA man in Angelina Jolie spy thriller Salt.
And so to 12 Years a Slave and the kind of role any actor prays for: the acknowledged lead in a culturally significant film that – done right – will make an impact on cinema history. With it Ejiofor has apparently escaped his accustomed situation – one accorded to many fine stage actors: of toothsome roles down in the ensemble.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Ejiofor has reached a similar position on the small screen: his other big awards contender is his bandleader Louis Lester in Dancing on the Edge, Stephen Poliakoff's BBC drama about a jazz band in 30s London.
Yet, as has been pointed out, Ejiofor is facing fellow Brit Idris Elba in both TV and film best actor categories in the Golden Globes (Elba is up for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Luther), and much has been made of a flowering of black British acting talent in this generation.
Grandage suggests that we should have got past thinking about race issues – "if they were both white no one would have paid the slightest attention" – and in any case, Ejiofor has done his best to remain a neutral figure, showing no great desire to be a poster boy for ethnic empowerment. That goes for 12 Years too: he has left nearly all of the articulation of the film's anger to director McQueen – restricting himself to a mild statement that "we can draw parallels and relevancies from stories like this" when speaking recently to the Guardian.
He will also star in Half of a Yellow Sun, the yet-to-be-released adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Orange prize-winning novel about the Biafran civil war in Nigeria.
In six weeks there's every chance that Ejiofor will be walking off with the best actor Academy award; an amazing outcome for an actor who never actively appears to seek the limelight. "He's been one of the greatest actors of his generation for some time," Hiddleston says. "It gives me so much pleasure to see that the world is starting to catch on."