Interview date: 10/14/2009
Run date: 10/22/2009
Although Chiwetel Ejiofor quickly became a recognizable face in his native England through his work in such films as “Dirty Pretty Things,” “Kinky Boots,” and “Love, Actually,” his name still proves to be a mouthful for the average American. That has not, however, kept him from working with a veritable laundry list of top-shelf directors, including Steven Spielberg (“Amistad”), Spike Lee (“She Hate Me,” “Inside Man”), Woody Allen (“Melinda and Melinda”), Ridley Scott (“American Gangster”), and, yes, even Joss Whedon (“Serenity”).Currently, Ejiofor can be seen in “Endgame,” based on the covert discussions that brought down the Apartheid regime in South Africa, which will have its American television premiere on Oct. 25th on PBS’s “Masterpiece Contemporary” and follow with a theatrical release on Oct. 30th in select U.S. cities. Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with Ejiofor during the TCA Press Tour this summer, and he chatted about his experiences in filming “Endgame,” how exciting it was to participate in Roland Emmerich’s upcoming disaster extravaganza, “2012,” and the chances of seeing him in either “Black Panther” or “Inside Man 2.”
Bullz-Eye: I haven’t seen “Endgame” yet, but I did see the clips in there, and if I may say so, you look good with a pipe.
CE: (Laughs) Thank you, thank you. Yeah, the first thing I decided was…actually, I had given up smoking before shooting the film, and that pipe put me back on the cigarettes.
CE: But I’ll get rid of them again.
BE: Now, you said in the “Endgame” panel that you’ve not actually met Thabo Mbeki, the man that you played in the film.
CE: No, I never met Thabo.
BE: Do you have any interest in meeting him at this point?
CE: Oh, I would love to. I would love to. There is so much I would like to discuss with him or just sort of generally talk about. But it’s unfortunate: he was obviously running the country at the time, so it was complicated for him to get away. But he met with Paula Milne and David Aukin before we started shooting, before they really finished the process of putting the film together.
BE: How did you come into the project originally?
CE: I got the script through my English agents. They have incredible taste, I think, and they were very, very excited about the project, which is kind of rare for them. They are quite sort of conservative with their praise of projects, you know, when they read something. But they were very enthusiastic about it, so I immediately knew going in that it was something special. Just reading it, I knew that it was going to be something special. And it really was. It was just an incredible piece. Extraordinary historical context and an amazing thing to sort of get involved with. And I was very, very excited about it. I really felt it was sort of this once in a lifetime opportunity.
BE: So for you…you’ve played real people before, obviously, but what are the challenges of playing someone who actually exists in the real world?
CE: Well, it’s interesting, because normally you’re playing somebody…if you are playing somebody who is real, they are either no longer with us or they are at the other end of their careers, the fading twilight of their careers, or you are playing somebody from the past. But what was extraordinary about this piece was that you are playing somebody who is president of the country, but 20 years earlier. You’re playing him when he was on his political rise, and that was sort of fascinating to me. The idea of seeing somebody in the context where the audience, to a large degree, is going to be aware of where this person is going. And some of that is going to be pretty obvious within the context of how you play that.
CE: Here is somebody that is going to be someone who plays…is not only at the moment playing an important part in the history and life of the country, but will play an even larger role in the future. So that was an interesting perspective to start looking at it from. And I was fascinated. I was actually very excited by that. A little concerned, you know, because you want to sort of do it justice. But at the same time, it’s a very exciting place to enter something from.
BE: And you said during the panel that you were at least somewhat aware of the events portrayed in the film when they were actually going on.
CE: The wider events, yeah. I didn’t know anything about the talks themselves, Mells Park or anything like that. But the wider events I was very aware of. I was kind of as intrigued…it was just a major time, a major political time in England. I just remember, I was very young but there was so much to struggle for and there just seemed to be every…that year alone, I think, was just…I think that was the year of the first Gulf War as well. I mean, I think it was around that time. And, you know, it was just a very fascinating period of history.
BE: I was telling Jonny that, being American and a music fan, I think the sole extent of my knowledge of Mandela or anything else that was going on was The Specials.
CE: (Laughs) Sure. It’s sort of interesting just where…you know, there was so much pressure coming out of England, to remove apartheid, it was a real hotbed for the ANC. And, of course, there was a lot of involvement there from the ultra left and the CND, the Commission for Nuclear Disarmament. The whole kind of socialist agenda was being played out very forcefully within the UK. And Thatcher was obviously at the time crushing the miners and the unions and so on. So there was a real sense of workers and socialists against the end. And out of that kind of…in the hotbed of activity, the exiled ANC members living in England, under the scrutiny of the security of the South African Security Forces, were trying to get some sort of leeway. And make some sort of headway with apartheid and changing apartheid. And of course Mandela was attempting beforehand to try and take back the government, even before his imprisonment. So, you know, it was a real time of people trying to kind of involve themselves in seismic changes in South Africa. And England was a real center point for that. Which is why it’s very fascinating that this kind of very, sort of ultra right company, Gold Field, I mean Rhodes himself, his mining company, suddenly has somebody like Michael Young involved in the events that eventually bring down, or helped to assist in bringing down the apartheid regime. You know, it’s sort of very fascinating.
BE: It was suggested during the panel that the message of the film, more or less, revolves around conflict resolution. Do you feel the same?
CE: Yeah, I think that that is one of the major messages of the film. You know, I just hope that people feel that there is no issue that is too big to be negotiated. And that there are precedents for…especially for like younger generations coming up, who maybe haven’t witnessed the seismic changes that we have so far. I think that this generation has witnessed, like, incredible change. And I sometimes wonder whether every generation feels that way. You know, maybe they do. The generation before me would have witnessed the end of the Second World War. They would have witnessed the first man on the moon. Do you know what I mean? They would have seen these seismic changes and gone, “Does everybody see it like this?” And then, you know the next generation, I was born in the late 70’s, ’77, so, you know, then I was sort of party to the end of apartheid, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the election of Barack Obama. And you sort of feel, like, “Wow, this is so much,” you know? But you really hope that the next generation absolutely does take things that they haven’t seen themselves or their own eyes, but that they watch programs like this and realize that anything…anything…is achievable. That when people say there is only going to be conflict in the Middle East or in Afghanistan, you can say that no, precedent will teach us that even the most difficult things, the juggernauts of oppression can be dismantled and there can be peace.
BE: I’ve got a four-year-old daughter so I’m hoping that she can take some of this stuff to heart, as she gets a little bit older.
CE: Yeah, yeah. But, uh, give her a minute. (Laughs)
BE: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s probably still a little bit challenging right now.
CE: Four is a little early.
BE: I wanted to ask you about a couple of other films, the first being “2012.” How much of your work was done with absolutely nothing in front of you to react against?
CE: Quite a bit. There was a bit of that, you know, but I was amazed by how much actually was there. You know, some of the sequences are so sort of vast and huge and massive and there is so much going on, but there was still in the sets…like, we had these huge builds in Vancouver, amazing sets. And so there was stuff that was built there, and then with the blue and green screens behind them, things sort of stretch off into infinity. But, you know, it’s a huge movie.
BE: I’m very psyched. When it comes to Roland Emmerich…well, between “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” you’ve got two of my favorite turn-off-your-mind-and-eat-your-popcorn movies. Just enjoy what you are seeing.
CE: Just enjoy the ride. Absolutely, absolutely. That’s what it’s all about.
BE: I hear “Inside Man 2” is tentatively coming along. True…? Have you heard anything more?
CE: Yeah, I hear the same thing. (Laughs) You know, I don’t know really what’s happening, but I understand there is a movement to get the show on the road, so we will see.
BE: Did you enjoy working with Denzel? Obviously, you have worked with him twice now, but…
CE: I have. Denzel is probably one of the most gifted actors that there are, so he is incredible to spend time with. Incredible to work with. And, you know, I think some people are under some perception that it is sort of an effortless craft. But he is incredibly hard working and, really, one of the most dedicated actors that I’ve worked with. And to be so experienced and to have so many films under your belt and to still come to rehearsals or come to, like, the working day, you know, with a real sense of trying to really investigate every aspect of a character or a part of a moment of the scene. You know, to really produce a result that is exceptional, that quality is his whole reson detra. It’s great to be around and it’s great to watch, so I have been very lucky to get to work with him a couple of times.
BE: You may not be considered a household name in America, but you have worked with so many incredible directors: Spike Lee, Spielberg, and Woody Allen, just to name a few. Seriously, how lucky do you feel?
CE: Incredibly, incredibly lucky.
BE: Because, I mean, you’ve racked up quite a list.
CE: Yeah. I feel like every…with Alfonso Cuarón and Stephen Frears and Joss Whedon, you know, I feel like I have been very fortunate, very blessed to have worked with some powerhouses in cinema. But, you know, at the same time, it doesn’t make me feel like I only need to work with people who are… (Laughs) …but I’ve certainly been incredibly lucky to have that privilege.
BE: You talked about Joss. He loves to make fun of the fact that nobody actually went to see “Serenity,” but did you enjoy working on the film?
CE: I thought it was great. I mean, I thought he did an amazing job. I thought the film was great. I thought that the cast that was there before, the sort of built-in cast of the show, were terrific. I thought they were absolutely terrific, great actors. And it’s been good to see them all go on to do different and exciting things. I think that was a really great bunch of actors that he pulled together for that. And a really good film. I disagree with him: I think lots of people have seen it.
BE: Yeah, I think he just enjoys the self deprecating.
CE: Yeah, exactly. No, he’s a good man.
BE: I’ve got one quick one and then one not-as-quick one to close with. The quick one is, is there any truth to the rumor that they are considering you for T'Challa in the “Black Panther” movie?
CE: I don’t know. I don’t know how much truth there is. I know that there is truth in the rumor that they are considering me in the rumor. (Laughs) The fact that there is a rumor is true. But I don’t know how true the actual thing is. But we will see.
BE: Would you be interested if they called you up?
CE: Oh, of course. Yeah.
BE: And, lastly, you did a film called “Red Dust” that, in a sense, almost ties in to this project.
BE: Were you thinking about that when you were doing “Endgame”?
CE: Not really. I mean, they are very different pieces in the sense that “Red Dust” is about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is very much after the fact of apartheid. And “Red Dust” is a very…you know, it’s a heartbreaking story. Of all the projects I have worked, of all the films I have worked on, that is the one that absolutely I find the most emotional project that I have done, in terms of how I feel about it. And it’s interesting that some of the themes of “Red Dust” recently came back up with all of the whole waterboarding issue. Because of course that was what was going on there. And in fact, there is a scene where I essentially get waterboarded in the movie. So it was very pertinent and powerful and was my first time into Africa. So it was incredibly useful in this film, you know, to have had that experience before.
BE: Well, I’m getting the wrap-it-up signal, but it was a pleasure speaking with you.CE: And you.