Chiwetel Ejiofor Used Shakespeare and Spielberg to Find Gold: The Treasure Hunter

By Desai, Anuj | The Fader, October-November 2006 | Go to article overview

Chiwetel Ejiofor Used Shakespeare and Spielberg to Find Gold: The Treasure Hunter


Desai, Anuj, The Fader


AS A VERY YOUNG BOY growing up in South London, Chiwetel Ejiofor went through a phase where he constantly dug up his backyard. "In my kid's brain," he explains, "because we lived on Boleyn Road and I'd made a connection between Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, I'd concluded in this sort of childlike fashion that there must be treasure in the garden." His digging concluded, according to Ejiofor, when the mischievous girls next door, Samjit and Pamjit, "poured freezing cold water down my neck." The story doesn't end with Ejiofor finding gold bouillon or a long lost time capsule--but what it does reveal is a seemingly placid mind filled with curiosity and a florid desire for the exotic, even in the humdrum weeds and dirt of a South London backyard.

Ejiofor's resume today reveals a mind still seeking the unknown. Though he has yet to reach his 30th birthday, the roster of film directors with whom Ejiofor has worked includes Woody Allen, Stephen Frears, Spike Lee, John Singleton and Steven Spielberg. His co-stars include Willem Dafoe, Jodie Foster, Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Clive Owen, Audrey Tautou and Denzel Washington. The roles he has taken on range from a rebel leader to a classical pianist, a detective to a Detroit gangster. Through moustaches and uniforms and high heels, Ejiofor has the ability to transform his appearance to a degree that sometimes makes him unrecognizable from film to film, but what he consistently brings to each performance is an ability to project a quiet, natural decency--making him a fitting co-star for outsized personalities like Denzel Washington, and someone who deftly, consistently steals the scene. While the silver screen is too often overlit with the work of Penns and Crowes and Pacinos, Ejiofor is the rare actor able to work in shadow and subtly craft a convincing persona. He is also one of the very few black character actors working in Hollywood today. "If you're coming out of the theater," Ejiofor says of his roots, "you're able to dive into roles that are very, very different. And if you dive into roles that are very, very different, then by definition you explode the mythology of doing only one thing."

This December, Ejiofor stars (alongside Michael Caine, Julianne Moore and Clive Owen) as the leader of a political faction in 2027 in Children of Men, the new film by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien). The film, which is set in a near-apocalyptic but familiar-looking world in which the human race has 50 more years to live, has the kind of pedigree that even unseen gets a project buzzed as potentially Oscar-worthy. In addition to Children of Men, Ejiofor has wrapped Michael Almereyda's Tonight at Noon, based on a Jonathan Lethem story and co-starring Lauren Ambrose, Ethan Hawke and Nick Nolte. He is also filming an HBO film on the winter 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, a film about activist and former convict Ralph Greene that co-stars Don Cheadle, and American Gangster, a Ridley Scott project produced by Bryan Grazer that stars Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe and Common. Based on a true story, Ejiofor plays Huey Lucas, the brother of heroin dealer Frank Lucas (Washington) who moves to New York from North Carolina in order to help with drug-running. It's his second film with Washington and Children of Men is his second with Clive Owen (he worked with both on Spike Lee's Inside Man). Ejiofor enjoys the effect that familiarity has on the working process. "If you develop a friendship," he says, "you just develop a shorthand which is really useful. It's easier for the world to disappear if you have a connection with somebody."

Born in East London in July of 1977 to Nigerian immigrants, Ejiofor was raised Roman Catholic in a neighborhood that had a "tiny black community at the time, a very large Indian community and a pretty large fascist community as well." By age eight, his family had moved to the southern London neighborhood of Dulwich; Ejiofor was enrolled in the prestigious Lambda School and eventually Dulwich College. …

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