Chiwetel Ejiofor on exploring humanity and its creativity as an actor
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Michael Miller/Stella Creative Artists
With a career that spans almost 30 years, Chiwetel Ejiofor has built himself up to be a truly versatile thespian of various acting avenues, and one whose name is prominent in the UK and beyond. From theatrical stages for the Shakespearean plays Othello, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth; to the contemporaries like Blue/Orange and A Season in Congo. Whereas on television, he has appeared in the 2011 TV series The Shadow Line, and the 2013 award-nominated drama series Dancing on the Edge.
Upon the silver screen, Chiwetel’s debut role was James Covey in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad in 1997, and he also played Peter in Richard Curtis’ beloved Christmas themed film, Love Actually; the “third wheel” in the love story that involved the “You are perfect” cue card guy, whose romantic gesture exploded as distinctively as the movie when it was released in 2003. In Roland Emmerich’s exaggerated apocalyptic disaster film, 2012, he was geologist Adrian Helmsley, who flew halfway across the globe to learn that the impossible had happened — “the neutrinos have mutated”, and the end of the world was imminent.
Of course, who could forget his role in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, when he was Solomon Northup? During the awards season in 2014, the historical film picked up the Best Picture awards at the Oscars, the BAFTA and the Golden Globes, to name a few; while Chiwetel himself won a few Best Actor accolades concurrently. Not to mention, he was one of the latest inductees into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Karl Mordo in 2016’s Doctor Strange, as well as in the sequel later this year, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Having played all these above-mentioned characters found within the folds of human nature — real or fictional, where else could an actor explore further in his career, but beyond the reaches of space for a change?
While Walter Tevis’ science fiction narrative may not have enjoyed the same mainstream favoritism towards the likes of George Lucas’ Star Wars, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek and more recently, Frank Herbert’s Dune; creators Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet are hoping to give The Man Who Fell to Earth a new lease of life, as they embark on the next chapter of the story. It picks up where the late David Bowie left off in the 1976 film, with Chiwetel as the adjacent Anthean.
By the time we caught up with Chiwetel, he was done and dusted with shooting for the Showtime series, and was currently in Brussels, filming The Pod Generation with Emilia Clarke; yet another sci-fi genre project, but of the romcom nature, in which the couple plan to start a family via detachable artificial wombs or pods.
Hello, Chiwetel! How’s it going over there?
Hello! Yeah, I’m good. I’m in Brussels, doing something called The Pod Generation, and we’re shooting in and around the city at the moment.
What do you usually get up to on the weekends?
Oh, nothing much! I’ve actually just got back from the gym. I just went for a little run, which is how I like to start the Saturday, and then I don’t think I’m going to be doing much today. I might be watching maybe a couple of films a bit later on.
Which films have caught your attention recently?
I still have to watch some of the foreign language films that were nominated. I just watched Flee the other day, which I thought was amazing; I don’t know if you’ve seen that yet. I loved Parallel Mothers, I thought it was really beautiful. There was The Hand of God as well, and I also really liked The Worst Person in the World.
I’ve only seen The Power of the Dog and The Eyes of Tammy Faye so far, but the ones you’ve mentioned are on my watch list.
Yeah, I think it’s a really strong season this year.
Right, so let’s talk about your upcoming TV series, The Man Who Fell to Earth. I read that it picks up from the movie in the ’70s with David Bowie.
Well, it is that; it is the continuation, 40 years later. The story picks up from where we left David Bowie in the film. This character that I play, Faraday, is from the same planet, Anthea, and he’s come to Earth for much the same reasons: to search for water, and also, this need for Earth to try to help the planet of Anthea survive. He is in this process of understanding what he needs to get from humanity; how he can also help humanity in return, as it is also on the cusp of its own destruction in several ways. In the midst of that, he goes on this really radical journey of understanding the human condition, and feeling himself becoming, in some ways, more human as a result.
“I ended up just going on these journeys in my mind, of all of the times that I had felt slightly outside of everything. All of those aspects of your life that you start to look back, and channel, and think about, in order to build an understanding of what it might be like to be a sentient being, and trying to meaningfully interact with other people; that process becomes very personal and individual in a way. So, by the end of it, your particular alien doesn’t really feel like anybody else’s particular alien, because it’s your alien — and that’s a beautiful journey for me.”
Was that a Bowie tribute I caught in the first two episodes, when Starman was playing in the background?
(Laughs) Yeah, yeah.
How did you get drawn into this project?
I was excited about Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet (the show creators); I just thought that they are really exciting, interesting and innovative creators. Also, I loved the film, in the sense that I absolutely loved what David Bowie did in it; the strangeness of the original film, and just the world that it created. So, I was quite excited about what they were going to create with that material. And then, I was drawn into this really fascinating, very layered script of the human condition, and the struggle of the human condition right now, right at this point in our development, and where we are as a species. My initial thought was that it was a really interesting journey to go on as a character right now; to see humanity from the outside is a very unique perspective. It was very exciting for me as an actor, but also, as somebody who has been interested in these kinds of themes as well.
I thought the opening sequence, when Faraday first landed on Earth, was one of the more meticulous and more thought out opening sequences I’ve seen recently. But following that, it does make me wonder how many gallons of water you have to chug down in the initial scenes during shooting.
A lot of water drinking, definitely! Yeah, I did look it up online. Can drinking lots and lots of water very quickly cause any serious damage? (Laughs) Erm, luckily, it’s very rare, so I felt like I was OK.
How did you even begin getting into the mindset of an alien, and his metamorphosis into a human?
For me, like anybody, from when you watched ET for the first time, you have this relationship to this question of what would an alien feel like emotionally, not necessarily just what they would look like. There have been so many ideas and portrayals of extraterrestrials and aliens in cinema and on television, things like Starman, Brother From Another Planet, K-PAX… and that’s just off the top of my head. I was really looking for what was going to be unique, and what the angle is going to be that would make it different and challenging — and the truth is, it was all different, you know; it was all unique to me.
“What I love most about humanity is humanity’s creativity. You know, the ability to transfer an inward feeling into an outward object or thing; and to do it accurately, in a way that everybody can recognize the feeling… I think it’s probably one of the most remarkable things that can be achieved.”
We are humans, after all, and you could say that it’s all natural for us. Surely, we wouldn’t know what it’s like to feel human for the first time, and experience humanity for the first time.
Yeah. Like anything else, you have to start to rebuild it for yourself; you can’t rely too much on anything else that’s been done, it’s just not possible to find the interiority that way. You have to consider when you have maybe felt like an alien (laughs), when you have felt like you are outside looking in, and what that feeling was like. I ended up just going on these journeys in my mind, of all of the times that I had felt slightly outside of everything. That can be experiences that everybody has, you know: your first day at school, and what you remember of that; your first interaction with people. Maybe later on, when there have been times creatively, you felt in a completely different zone to other people, in trying to communicate what you understand. And then, in the very practical senses of when you’re in foreign countries: maybe you don’t speak the language, maybe you’re trying to make yourself understood, not just in communication, but to make yourself emotionally understood… All of those aspects of your life that you start to look back, and channel, and think about, in order to build an understanding of what it might be like to be a sentient being, (to be an intelligent alien that’s arrived on Earth), and trying to meaningfully interact with other people; that process becomes very personal and individual in a way. So, by the end of it, your particular alien doesn’t really feel like anybody else’s particular alien, because it’s your alien — and that’s a beautiful journey for me. It was a great journey to go on, and it’s also a great and fulfilling journey as an actor.
How do you think Kurtzman and Lumet have done for this TV series, in telling the continuation of Walter Tevis’ 60-year-old story from his novel? I mean, Tevis’ novel was “among the finest science fiction novels” out there when it was first published, and that “it might be read as a parable of the ‘50s and of the Cold War”. But, how have they made the story fit into the world we are in today?
Well, I mean, in terms of the Cold War (laughs), it’s hard to be more in tune with the current zeitgeist, but I think the novel speaks not just to that time; it speaks to these very perennial human truths that just keep coming back and resurfacing. I think that the novel, the film, and the show, in some ways, speak to the human condition. It speaks to our avarice, our greed, and our capacity to think in very narrow terms. So, where it fits within the context of the ’60s and ’70s is in thatslightly more destructive ideas of what humans can do to each other, and therefore, what they can do to foreigners, to aliens. While on the one hand, it continues to encourage, as what the source material did: these really big questions about ourselves, about humanity, and about our relationship to the planet. It doesn’t necessarily have any answers particularly for humanity, but it’s really an interesting place to start. To have an alien come in with a perspective that is so informative, telling us: I don’t know what is in store for humanity, but I can tell you what happened to me, and what happened to my planet; this was the result of certain actions we took and didn’t take, and this is where we are now. But, I think where (the TV series) expands in a way, is that it also engages with a lot of the positives of humanity. It isn’t as bleak as some of the iterations, especially from that period; it sees in humanity a lot of good, a lot of potentially beautiful things.
“For me increasingly, it’s an inward and an outward sort of mixture. It’s about how a part makes you feel: what part of your emotional landscape does this role interact with in a dynamic way? How does it shift you emotionally? You then accentuate that in performance, to hopefully communicate the same thing for other people.”
How do you think that has played out through Faraday’s alien point of view?
This show is very invested in what is beautiful about people, about humanity, and the way that we interact with each other, and the people that we love. Part of how we grow these connections is because we’re fortunate enough to exist on a planet that is working with us, that is still working with us, regardless of how much we try to push it away. It’s still, at this particular moment in time, assisting us in our development. Faraday comes from a planet that has stopped doing that, and that difference means that his existence has to be very functional: his way of looking at the world, and his way of looking at problems, because he’s from this planet that’s dying, and he has all of these very practical decisions to make at any given time. So, suddenly, being on Earth, where he’s on a planet that is still so rich and abundant and giving to the human inhabitants; it allows him to see what all that actually offers people psychologically and emotionally: to have that time and space, to be able to have connections, to have love and romance, and engagement with family… not just trying to survive day to day. You know, to have the freedom that humans have been afforded by a planet of abundance, and obviously, witnessing what humans are doing with that, and the sense of taking that for granted, and what that then means to Faraday… that is the balance that he recognizes.
What about you, personally; what do you think is beautiful about humanity?
Well, I think there’s so much, you know! The reason that I do the job that I do, is because what I love most about humanity is humanity’s creativity. You know, the ability to transfer an inward feeling into an outward object or thing; and to do it accurately, in a way that everybody can recognize the feeling… I think it’s probably one of the most remarkable things that can be achieved. When I was first engaged with reading plays when I was a teenager, I just couldn’t believe that people were able to express things that I thought were very private emotions or thoughts, that only I was experiencing. Creativity is still the most miraculous thing that I see in people. I just find it constantly surprising and delightful. It never ceases to amaze me that some people can paint something, perform something, write something, compose something — and everybody who experiences that has an intrinsic understanding of the emotional capacity that the person was engaged in at the time of its creation. I think that is miraculous!
Do you think aliens are real, Chiwetel?
Well, I mean, I think it’s probably quite likely that they are. It’s one of those things that the more you think about it, the more likely it is. If it were to happen tomorrow, it wouldn’t exactly surprise me, and so therefore, some part of myself must feel that it’s quite plausible.
How do you imagine it will go down?
I’ve wondered how we live in this three dimensional world, and maybe our interaction with aliens needs a couple more dimensions, you know. Maybe as we develop our own understanding, they will be much more accessible to us, whoknows? And also, I think what we’d find is that we’d possibly have a lot of convergence. Say, when the Portuguese arrived in South America, these were two communities of people that had no connection for potentially millions of years. Yet, they can immediately, through a little bit of translation, understand that they actually exist more or less in the same way: their individual Gods, their family structures, their belief systems, their hierarchies, their kings… all of this stuff that they’ve all built completely independently, but almost exactly identical. This kind of convergence is probably what we’d end up having with another community in space; that actually, we’re all really connected in this universal tapestry.
You worked with Bill Nighy again in The Man Who Fell to Earth, who played David Bowie’s character in the film, Thomas Jerome Newton. Of course, most of us knew you were in Love Actually together previously, more than 20 years ago now, although without any scenes together. Not to mention before that, there was also the Blue/Orange play with another Love Actually alumni, Andrew Lincoln.
For us, the fans of actors like you and Bill, whenever we see you working together again, in our heads, we can’t help thinking: “Aww, it’s a Love Actually reunion!”
But, how is it for you guys, the actors themselves, when you see a familiar name on the cast list?
It’s always different. I remember with Benedict Wong, for example; I’ve worked with him a few times over the years. We did Dirty Pretty Things together with Stephen Frears (in 2002), we did The Martian (in 2015), and there was also Doctor Strange after that. So, every time I’d hear that he was being talked to for a certain part, I’d immediately call him up, and be like: “You’ve got to do this. We’ve got to be able to do this again!” It’s always great, when sequentially, you get to work with close friends, and every time, in totally different guises, relationships, characters… It’s a real additional bonus to the process.
What about actor friends that are going up the same roles as you are? Does it ever get tense between friends?
It doesn’t happen as much as you would think! I suppose, when we were young and were just coming out of drama school, you could end up bumping into the same people, and inevitably, I’m sure, it creates its own tensions. But, I haven’t really had that kind of dynamic with many people. Right from the beginning of my career, I was working (in the UK), and I was working in America quite a lot. I was always doing television, as well as film, and I was mixing that with working on stage. Then, I started making films in Nigeria, South Africa, and Ghana. I was always in different places, I wasn’t on one channel, and therefore, I necessarily bumped into the same person with the same interest, and the same capacity to move around as I had. I was fortunate that way, I think.
You’ve done a mixture of true and fictional characters over the years. How different, would you say, are the preparation process between playing real life characters like Solomon Northup (12 Years a Slave), Thabo Mbeki (Endgame) and Trywell Kamkwamba (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind); compared to fictional ones like Simon/Lola (Kinky Boots), Karl Mordo (Doctor Strange) and Faraday?
For me, a lot of the process of acting has a kind of meta process that you end up thinking about how you should think about it: how you begin when you start your journey, is a lot of how the project ends up; and how you feel about the performance by the end of it, is how accurately you decided what to do. It’s different with every part, which makes it fascinating and a bit mysterious. There’s no real template, for me anyway, that I can approach every part with. For me increasingly, it’s an inward and an outward sort of mixture. It’s about how a part makes you feel: what part of your emotional landscape does this role interact with in a dynamic way? How does it shift you emotionally? In understanding that, and leaning into that — especially if it’s a good feeling, a role that makes you feel positive about the world, but you can’t articulate why exactly; in understanding what the (emotional) mechanism is, what the part is doing to you (emotionally), you then accentuate that in performance, to hopefully communicate the same thing for other people.
Was there a character’s psyche you enjoyed exploring while playing the character?
It’s funny that earlier on I was talking about Benedict Wong, and I mentioned The Martian. I remember playing that part in The Martian, and being so joyful in that character’s headspace throughout the process of filming. (Vincent Kapoor) approached the world in this very reasoned scientific way. Even though there was something very tense and stressful about this character’s journey, there was also something really lifted and joyful; about somebody being able to utilize the skills that they have spent their life accumulating in this extraordinarily positive way.
What about a character’s psyche that’s a challenge to play? Characters that make you go: “Great, I’ve done that, but I’m not doing that again.”
There are characters whose headspace is quite cloudy and difficult. They struggle with the world in some fundamental ways that’s complicated and hard. Not that I wouldn’t ever do it again, but I remember there were clouds in characters like Luke in Children of Men. He was fascinating to play, but I had a real heaviness to it that felt very centered in the real world. I mean, it can be rewarding playing those parts, but it can also be difficult, because you have to sit in that place, and that psyche can feel quite oppressive at certain times. You’re in this very fractured state, and it’s impossible not to carry that through a little bit into your life, or your day-to-day dynamics. These elements of humanity, when they get into that texture, can be incredibly destructive. But, that is what you’re playing with — essentially, you’re playing with fire.
“It’s nice, when those stories aren’t otherized too much, that they aren’t put into a separate category. They’re just part of mainstream cinema that in its definition expresses all of these different dynamics, people, interactions and communities. I think that the celebration of all our individuality should be so full, that it doesn’t feel like anything needs separate characterizations; it’s just different stories from different people.”
Carlos Ferraz/Carol Hayes Management using Dr. Barbara Sturm
You are one of the many talented Black actors out there, who are telling stories of the community’s rich history that the world would otherwise not know about. For someone who has a completely different cultural upbringing, I appreciate that there are many talented Black actors and storytellers like you out there, making conscious decisions to tell significant stories of the community’s rich history, and educating the world about them through films in ways that otherwise we would not know about.
There’s just a wealth of stories that can come out of the African diaspora. I hope that they do, and become part of our mainstream cinematic and television culture. But, I kind of think of two things when it comes to that. There’s a growing appetite for these stories, and there’s richness in that; but I also think that it’s nice, when those stories aren’t otherized too much, that they aren’t put into a separate category. They’re just part of mainstream cinema that in its definition expresses (and by definition, should express) all of these different dynamics, people, interactions and communities. I think that the celebration of all our individuality should be so full, that it doesn’t feel like anything needs separate characterizations; it’s just different stories from different people. That’s the hope: it becomes such a rich tapestry that it doesn’t even feel like anybody needs to point out that it’s the distinctions of race, religion, gender or sexuality. It is that all stories are accepted fully for what they can bring and offer, and for the perspectives that they can illuminate.
I couldn’t have put it into words better myself! Looks like we’re about done with time though. Thank you so much again for speaking to us over the weekend.
Thank you, not at all!
We look forward to the release of The Man Who Fell to Earth; and of course, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness as well! I’m not even going to attempt to get anything out of you for that, knowing how strict Marvel is.
(Laughs) Yeah, yeah.
But yes, good luck with those two, and The Pod Generation, which you’re working on right now.
That’s great! it’s nice to see you. Bye-bye!