In the cataclysmic epic 2012, Chiwetel Ejiofor (pronounced Chew-eh-tell Edge-ee-oh-for, for the record) plays an earth scientist who is just far enough ahead of the world-destruction curve to make an effort to save as many people as he can. I recently sat down with this classically trained actor and we talked about his career, his “complicated” name and how hard it was to sound like he knew what all his egghead jargon meant.
“It’s kind of important to me to know roughly what I’m saying when I’m talking in a movie,” Ejiofor said with a laugh. “So I had to hit the books a little bit about the geology aspect of everything, which was fine. It was good. But when I was first reading the pages as they were coming in, I was like ‘this is Martian! How on earth am I going to say these lines, and then how am I going to make it understandable, even vaguely understandable to anybody?’ So that was my work for the first third of the movie – trying to understand this stuff well enough to communicate it so that even if an audience doesn’t 100% understand what you’re talking about, they kind of get the general region – tectonic plates are shifting.”
Despite this reservation about complex verbiage, he’s not too keen on shortening that lengthy name of his. “I prefer Chiwetel,” he said when asked about nicknames. “My mother sometimes calls me Chi, which is quite nice from her. Occasionally people call me Chi, but Chiwetel, I kinda like.”
The name is a mouthful, though, and he’s aware of it. Yet he says there was never any showbiz pressure to change it. “I think it’s too late for that. I think if I changed my name now, it would be kind of weird, a little bit self-conscious. I started in theater. It would be very old fashioned to change your name if you are a theater actor. I didn’t really know that I was going to be a movie actor, so by the time I started doing movies, I wasn’t ‘established,’ but I had already done a few plays and people had seen my plays. It just didn’t make any sense at that point to change my name. When you’re younger, you don’t necessarily think of yourself as someone who’s going to be doing a lot of movies. Even after you’ve done a couple of movies, you think ‘well, if I change my name now and I don’t do any more movies, then I’ve just got two names.’ I happen to like my name, so I was very happy to stick with it. I know it’s very complicated, it’s not very typical for an actor, but there you are. Them’s the breaks.”
Speaking of breaks, this begged the question of how Ejiofor made the transition from theater to film. “I was at drama school,” he explained. “Quite early on, I went to an audition for a Steven Spielberg film [that would be Amistad], and they let me do the audition because they thought it was good practice for me, just to get out there doing auditions. It wasn’t very standard that people could do auditions whilst at drama school, because obviously they didn’t want to encourage people to just leave their drama school. So I went along and I got the part, which was amazing, and so I came to LA. But even after shooting that movie, I went back to London and carried on doing plays. I didn’t really think of myself as someone who was going to be really involved in doing cinema until doing Dirty Pretty Things with Stephen Frears. That experience with Stephen was an incredibly rich one, and I sort of fell in love with filmmaking at that point.”
On the subject of great experiences with colleagues, the upside of his 2012 experience was how much he got to work with beloved character actor Oliver Platt, who plays his bureaucratic foil as he tries to convince governments to act ethically. The man behind the antagonist is anything but, according to Ejiofor. “Oliver is just hilarious as a guy. He’s just funny on set. Some of our scenes were slightly combative and some of that’s tough because he makes you laugh and then you’re all over the place. But he has just a genuine, absolutely amazing charisma, charm to him, and it’s on screen, it’s off screen. I didn’t see him once get into any kind of thing that was not just genuine and happy and upbeat and fun to be around. Just a great overall guy. You know, you sort of suspect that about him when you watch his movies, and it was just great that it was absolutely on the button what he’s like.”
Ejiofor is such a deeply talented thespian that you might wonder what he’s doing in what boils down to the ultimate popcorn movie like this. He told me it boils down to fearlessness. “It’s a very haphazard career that I seem to have got myself involved in,” he admitted. “I never wanted to be afraid of anything as an actor. I never wanted to be an actor who was like ‘I don’t do this kind of movie because of X, Y and Z.’ It never made any sense to me, because ultimately, you’re probably going to a various amount of films, so why would being involved in a project that is good be complicated by the sense about yourself – ‘I don’t do X, Y and Z’ and then you have to renege on that. It seems overly complicated to me, and pointless. As an actor, you’re experiencing different things and try and build a way of working in the medium that is one of experience and knowledge and really having something of value to bring to a project, which I think comes from really understanding the whole medium. So I’m very excited about different genres and different styles of films and styles of filmmakers. I think that’s really a huge part of the excitement for me. I’m not really trying to make the same film over and over again, or indeed play the same character over and over again.”
That said, he would still definitely consider getting involved in a Marvel superhero franchise which, if successful, could require him to stick with one character for quite some time. The rumor is that he’s the leading candidate to play Black Panther, who is a very unique character in that he’s not some random schlub who gets superpowers and must hide his identity. Instead, he’s actually the king of a small, isolated African nation called Wakanda which is secretly the most technologically advanced society on Earth, striking a very intricate balance between science and spirituality. If done right, it could be an incredibly deep and fascinating story, and Ejiofor certainly appreciates that, although he told me he hasn’t heard anything official about it yet.
“No sausage,” he said, denying any substance to the rumor. “I know that there’s been an internet sort of thing about it, but I don’t know. I think that some of those movies offer really interesting characters. I’m a huge fan of the Spider-Man trilogy. I thought it was kind of amazing, actually, what they did with that character, and also the Batman stuff, The Dark Knight and everything. It’s clear that there’s real potential for these characters to really carry and hold a cinematic experience in a pretty deep way.”
I closed with asking him my favorite question to ask celebrities when I get the chance: are there any films of his he wishes more people would see? “2012,” he said with a smile, knowing that’s what he was promoting at the time. “As far as films that have been released? I don’t know. All of them! Every single film that I’ve done, I wish more people would see!”