With a nearly 20-year career in film and television, Chiwetel Ejiofor, 38, has practically mastered his craft. Followng a stellar performance as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, a screen adaptation of a popular slave narrative by the same name, he won a BAFTA and scored an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in 2013. This was Ejiofor’s introduction to a wider audience that recognized and respected his intense and convincing acting chops.
But the Nigerian-born Brit is no stranger to delivering riveting performances, especially alongside Hollywood heavy hitters. His foray into acting was joining the National Youth Theatre and training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. His early training helped him land his first major role in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad where he worked with the likes of Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins. He’s co-starred with Denzel Washington (American Gangster), and Don Cheadle (Talk to Me). Now he’s added a brand-new thriller with an A-list cast to his already impressive résumé.
The actor is starring alongside Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman in the mystery thriller Secret in Their Eyes. The film was built upon an Oscar-winning foundation. It is a remake of the 2009 Argentinian movie El Secreto de Sus Ojos, which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2010 and is originally based on Eduardo Sacheri’s novella La pregunta de sus ojos (The Question in Their Eyes).
In the story, the lives of FBI investigators Ray (Ejiofor), Jess (Roberts) and their district attorney-supervisor Claire (Kidman) are turned upside down when Jess’ daughter is brutally murdered. Ray spends each day for 13 years attempting to solve the case, and in the midst of his digging, an unimaginable secret surfaces.
Ejiofor is long past the point of needing to prove himself in Hollywood, but with this project, he is expected to once again show the world why he’s considered one of Britain’s most distinguished entertainers of recent years. Additionally, with Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Captain Phillips) serving as the director and screenwriter, Secret in Their Eyes has the potential to be another successful work of art that Ejiofor can secure under his belt.
Walk me through your role in Secret in Their Eyes. How physical was the role of Ray for you?
It wasn’t that physical, in a sense. It was about being more so psychologically beaten up. It was intense because the story takes place in two different time zones. One takes place in 2001, and the other in the present day. It was really fascinating to see how people evolve and change within that 13-year gap, and especially with my character and the obsessional nature of his being. He is very narrow, focused and intense. Throughout the film, he has an ongoing intent of catching this guy to make sure justice is served but also [to] move forward psychologically. There is a lot of struggle in his story.
Talk about the mindset you had to take on to understand your character’s discipline and your discipline. Is there any correlation between the two?
I think so. This is a sort of dramatic thriller where you’re not relying on any sort of tricks. All you can do is just tell the story, and there aren’t that many people in the story, because it is paired down. The film features three main characters and a few others who are slightly more peripheral. These are important, key characters, but they sort of come in and out of the story. It’s centered around three people. Playing on the dynamics and the emotions of this small amount of people was very exciting, but takes a lot of discipline. Luckily, I was working with two of the most iconic actresses in Hollywood. They’re considered to be legends in their own lifetime.
What was your experience like working with Julia Roberts?
It’s amazing watching somebody of that level and skill be able to come up to the plate every time. She has been working at such a high level for so long, so that is really inspirational to be around someone of that caliber.
You were recently awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire by the Duke of Cambridge during an official ceremony held at Buckingham Palace in London. In what way have you embraced the concept of being Britain’s first real movie star?
I don’t know. I mean, there are plenty of movie stars. I suppose you just keep trying to play characters that move you and that you can become engaged with. For me, it doesn’t have to be a certain genre. It can be film, television, or theater. If a character or narrative intrigues me and I feel like an audience can take something away from it, then I will play the role. There has never, ever been a game plan or strategy for playing a role. It’s really just about seeing what comes along and sort of winging it and playing it by ear.
I’m sure you like to get away and relax. What are some of your favorite travel destinations?
It can be anywhere. I have had a great time traveling through the United Kingdom. Over the summer, I was doing a play in London at the National Theatre, and it was a brilliant experience. We were able to travel around England and stay at various nice little places on the countryside, which was incredibly relaxing.
What have you learned about yourself over the past 10 years in your career?
The industry is an unpredictable universe, [in terms of] films and being an actor. There really is a sense of having to just go with the flow and just trust your instinct. I am not worried too much about making mistakes and things not being perfect. I just focus on telling stories and being the best actor I can be at the end of the day. You have to not let yourself get distracted by the nature of the business, because it can be rather chaotic.
What do you feel like your ultimate role is?
I don’t know. I suppose I haven’t done it yet. I feel that is what you’re always gearing toward, and if you capture it, that would be a very sad day. If you do, then what do you do after finding that role? For me, it is about the pursuit of the ultimate that makes it engaging and the potential that the next one could be the best ever that keeps me in the game.
7 facts about Ejiofor:
His full name is Chiwetelu Umeadi Ejiofor.
He grew up in north London.
His younger sister is CNN anchor Zain Asher.
He is currently single.
Since it was performed in 1604, the title role in Shakespeare’s Othello has been played by thousands of actors. Ejiofor is lauded as giving one of the best performances.
Film: Ejiofor starred alongside Matt Damon, Kate Mara, and Jessica Chastain in the film The Martian, in theaters Oct 2. Z for Zachariah, with Margot Robbie and Chris Pine, was in theaters late summer 2015. He’s also currently shooting the upcoming Marvel adaptation Doctor Strange, in which he plays the evil Baron Mordo.
Theater: He starred in a recent production of Everyman at the National Theatre in London.