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Eyes on the Prize

Chiwetel Ejiofor may not have won an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, but his powerful portrayals of continually diverse characters leave no doubt of future accolades

Author Marie-Noëlle Bauer Photography Greg Williams

chiwetel

Chiwetel Ejiofor has an odd habit of avoiding eye contact, spending a good deal of our interview in curious communion with his left shoulder. Maybe this tic is what has caused other magazine profiles to invariably describe the 38-year-old British actor—who played the lead in 2013’s landmark drama 12 Years a Slave—as “inscrutable.”

“I know, what is up with that?” Ejiofor says of his reported inscrutability, a goofy grin spreading over his face. He is sitting on the terrace of a café on London’s casually chic Exmouth Market, in an equally casual green cashmere sweater and jeans. “I have never had a family member, a friend or a girlfriend, anybody who actually knows me, describe me in that way,” he continues. “Yet it seems to come up in every single article. I mean, what the hell is wrong with my face?”

From where I’m sitting, nothing at all. In fact, Ejiofor’s face is appealing enough that he’s been cast as an FBI agent romantically entangled with both Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts in next month’s Secret in Their Eyes, a remake of the 2009 Oscar-winning Argentine murder mystery. Another release will see Ejiofor co-star this month with Matt Damon in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi thriller The Martian.

Ejiofor describes Kidman and Roberts as being “ultra-gracious, professional, the epitome of Hollywood glamour.” By the same token, I sense that he has not been dazzled by his own fame. He rescheduled this interview because he needed to let out his dog—a Pyrenean something-or-other—and when we finally meet, near his Islington home, the part of his most recent film that he seems most interested in discussing is the science-nerd minutia of his efforts to rescue astronaut Damon from the surface of Mars.

As a kid growing up in London’s Crystal Palace, Ejiofor had an unusually keen enthusiasm for sci-fi and graphic novels, which he kept mostly under wraps. “Back then, there was only a tiny group of people you could talk to about that kind of thing—your nerdy mates in the school canteen,” he says. “Whereas today, being into graphic novels and sci-fi is about as unusual as drinking water.”  

Ejiofor is, in fact, set to capitalize on his childhood hobby, having reportedly signed up to star alongside Benedict Cumberbatch in the upcoming Marvel extravaganza Doctor Strange. He’s said to be playing the villain, Baron Mordo, but is remaining tight-lipped about the project—more out of superstition, it seems, than a desire to be inscrutable.

In the meantime, Ejiofor recently made a number of superhero-worthy entrances in the London production of the modern morality play “Everyman,” which sees him crashing onto the boards from above to represent, he says, “the fall of man, or Icarus plummeting from the sky into the sea.” The kinetic show mixes song-and-dance numbers with a drama that sees Ejiofor playing a drug addict who finds himself confronting his 40th birthday and, as it happens, Death. In an effort to avoid his fate, he desperately recruits a succession of character witnesses.
So, with his own 40th not too far off, will Ejiofor aim for similar spirited celebrations? “Yeah, I might not be going for the full Scarface binge,” he says.

Ejiofor had a near-death experience of his own as an 11-year-old. It happened while he was on holiday in his parents’ native Nigeria. He was involved in a car accident that killed his father and left Ejiofor in a 10-week coma with serious head injuries, the scars of which are still visible today. He spent years afterward stating his intention to become a doctor, but fate had other ideas. At the age of 17, Ejiofor was awarded a scholarship to the London Academy of Dramatic Art, but left three months into his training after getting a role in Steven Spielberg’s slave-ship drama, Amistad.

In the intervening years, he bounced between disparate roles in a variety of venues—including searing turns in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things and the lead role in the acclaimed 2007 Donmar production of “Othello”—but it was another film about slavery, Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, that established him as a star.

12 Years was an unusual box-office hit, in that it provided an unflinching, painfully brutal portrait of America’s original sin. Ejiofor—who I sense has spent a lot of time defending this movie—refuses to be riled. “Well, you know, there are a lot of movies featuring some really twisted stuff out there,” he says with a shrug. “Remember, in Back to the Future, Marty McFly makes out with his own mother? Now that’s what I call shocking.”

He is equally taciturn when describing the intrigues of last year’s award season, which saw him lose the Oscar for Best Actor to his old Amistad buddy Matthew McConaughey (who won for Dallas Buyers Club). That nomination, I suggest, must have been a pretty sweet kiss-off to everyone who told him that if he didn’t change his name he wouldn’t make any headway as an actor, that he’d just end up playing Africans. “No,” he replies. “I had to get over that a long time beforehand in order to move forward.”

All the same, he opted to take several African roles in the wake of 12 Years, notably in the film Half of a Yellow Sun, set during the Nigerian Civil War, and the play “A Season in the Congo,” in which he starred as political activist Patrick Lumumba. You can tell he’s keen to further mend his relationship with Africa, understandably complicated by his father’s death; but, for now, it’s the U.S. that’s foremost in his sights.

Ejiofor currently divides his time between the U.K. and LA, along with his actress/model girlfriend, Sari Mercer. (They own a London houseboat, which, he says, isn’t as romantic as it sounds “because there’s always something broken.”) He’s frequently identified as a key member of the Bright Young Brits—whose ranks include Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne, Emily Blunt and Felicity Jones—who in recent years have been taking Hollywood by storm.

Not everyone is enamored of this British invasion: Michael Douglas recently bemoaned that U.K. actors have been taking prime roles from American actors. For his part, Ejiofor points out that, even back in its so-called Golden Age, Hollywood was littered with British stars, including his self-confessed cinematic man-crush, Cary Grant. “He could do everything,” he says. “He’d go from being funny in one scene, heartbreaking in another and then funny again. He had such versatility.”

When asked why he doesn’t do more comedies (he had a blink-and-you’d-miss-it role in Richard Curtis’ Love Actually), Ejiofor shakes his head. “No, I’m the kind of guy who finds humor in tragedy and drama,” he says. “Sure, I can sit here and come up with a few one-liners. But there are guys out there who are so much better at it than I am. It’s really hard to be funny.”

Well then, what about James Bond? Surely Ejiofor’s suave demeanor and snowballing box-office pull make that one a no-brainer, at least a little further down the line? He smiles bashfully and returns his attention to that left shoulder of his. It’s a very nice, broad shoulder, and kind of hard to take your eyes off once you start looking.

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