Capone With Chiwetel Ejiofor Of SERENITY, CHILDREN OF MEN, David Mamet's REDBELT, And More!!
Published at: April 30, 2008, 12:16 p.m. CST by merrick
Hey everyone, Capone in Chicago here.
In just a little more than 10 years, British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor has built up one of the most impressive filmographies of any actor working as long.
Let's face it, when your first movie role is in a Steven Spielberg movie (AMISTAD), you've set the bar high and he's managed to build an impressive collection of characters since then, including an early starring role in Stephen Frears DIRTY PRETTY THINGS; worthy supporting roles in Richard Curtis' LOVE ACTUALLY, Spike Lee's SHE HATE ME, Woody Allen's MELINDA AND MELINDA, and John Singleton's FOUR BROTHERS; his piercing turn as The Operative in SERENITY; getting silly with KINKY BOOTS; getting serious as Denzel Washington's partner in INSIDE MAN; heading a rebellion in CHILDREN OF MEN; his devastating work as the father of a missing child in HBO's TSUNAMI; and holding his own opposite Washington again in AMERICAN GANGSTER (as Frank Lucas' brother Henry) and Don Cheadle in TALK TO ME.
Ejiofor's winning streak continues as the central figure in writer-director David Mamet's REDBELT, in which he plays martial arts instructor Mike Terry, who dares to want a little more for himself, his wife, and his training studio and nearly has his dreams and his life crushed by the evil forces of Hollywood. I had a chance to sit down with one of the busiest actors working today and one of most personable actors I've ever interviewed. His work in REDBELT is some of his best, and whenever he gets to shine in a leading role, I will always take notice.
Capone: I know you came out of the theater, literally. You just finished a run playing Othello. What’s your history with [David] Mamet in the theater? Have you ever been in one of his plays?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: No, I have never been in one of his plays, but I had studied him in school. He still is the only person that I’ve worked with that I’ve studied, which seems a little formal, but I did, and I wrote essays on OLEANNA and stuff like that.
We actually had a school trip to see OLEANNA, which was kind of a lively debate, I remember. In fact, the girl who was playing the girl in it was playing Emilia opposite me when I did Othello.
Capone: Just now?
CE: Just now, yeah. She didn’t thank me for not mentioning it, that I had seen her when I was at school. [laughs]
Capone: I know that your real passion seems to be Shakespeare. Was working with Mamet the equivalent of being directed by Shakespeare?
CE: Sure, there is that feeling. Those are the two writers that I studied: a lot of Shakespeare and a lot of Mamet. It’s kind of crazy really to think that, even then, he was producing work of such impact internationally that it was being studied by teenagers.
Capone: In the U.K., even?
CE: In the U.K., who then grow up to have some of his rhythms…I realized early on when I was working with him, that some of his attitudes to the world occasionally ring true for me because I realized that I was reading his work at a very formative age, and so he sort of informed my attitude to the world, which is…
CE: [laughs] Yeah, you realize the power these people have.
Capone: Because he has such a history in Chicago, I’ve talked to a few actors who have performed Mamet's work in films and theaters, some of the guys who have worked with him here in Chicago 20 years ago or so--William H, Macy and others.
I always ask the question: What separates his words and style from a run-of-the-mill playwright? What was the appeal to you in terms of the pure writing aspect of it?
CE: I find that in this story [REDBELT], it’s his extraordinary grasp of Story, I mean, he writes stories with a capital ‘S’, you know. There’s so much kind of plotting and story and nuance that goes into his writing. And, he writes real plots, and he writes real characters. Talk about three-dimensional, they are real, living, breathing, and all fleshed out, and have a complete inner life and outer life, pretend life. They’re really extraordinary.
Capone: What do you like about his language?
CE: Of course, the rhythm is great and the way…the sort of naturalistic cadence to the stuff that people say, and he doesn’t patronize an audience. He allows the audience to keep up with him, or just about.
That’s really great. He sort of puts it out there. He realizes that you don’t have to say, that people don’t say every word they think. And, he relies on the actors to get across the meaning, and that’s why he tries to cast well.
Capone: How familiar were you with his work as a filmmaker before this?
CE: Pretty familiar. I mean, I know about his stuff as a screenwriter. THE UNTOUCHABLES, we were quoting that--every line of it, basically, from start to finish when I was younger. I was aware of some of his films, HEIST, fairly recently, and THE WINSLOW BOY, and then, of course, HOMICIDE, which was a terrific film and helped me discover Joe Mantegna. So, I was pretty aware of him as a filmmaker as well as a screenwriter.
Capone: Just being a Mamet film in general, this movie, I’ve always come to expect some sort of ‘con’ aspect to it. Having Ricky Jay in the film kind of gives that away. And, a lot of the big plot turns in the film happen off camera, which is also something he likes to do, because, as you said, he lets the audience fill in the blanks and assumes they can do that without too much handholding.
So, there’s a joy in watching your character and experiencing you get caught off guard along with us. Is that something you like about what he does? I don’t see that as much in the plays as in the films he does.
CE: Yeah, I do like that. I like the fact that he drops a concept, like, in this film, he drops the concept of ‘Who gave who the watch?’ That concept is gone or midway through the second act. It’s gone…until three conversations before the end of the film, when the character turns around and says, “And, what about the fucking watch?”
And, I love that, I love that. It’s a kind of confidence, a sense of I know that somewhere in the subliminal recesses of the audience’s mind, they are thinking, What about the watch? How are we going to get to who gave who the watch?
Capone: You have to play this man who is one of the greatest mixed-martial arts guys, possibly in the world, and I’m sure you had to train a great deal for that.
You always hear about action stars getting, but they are trained in a way in which they also look cool doing it. You are playing a guy who isn’t trying to look cool. What’s the difference?
CE: That’s a good question. Yeah, he’s designed to not look like an action fighter. They say in Jujitsu that if you get into a fight, if your body remembers instinctively 10 percent of what you’ve been training for, you’re doing well, you’ll probably win the fight, especially if it’s against somebody who doesn’t train in Jujitsu or anything else.
But, this is a guy whose body is going to recall everything. Do you know what I mean? It’s sort of like he is prepped to have a fluidity and a movement to it that’s almost throwaway.
And, somehow, the hope is that in the power of its throwaway-ness, which is why I was really studying for it quite intensely, you really get the sense that, of course, he’s the guy. You don’t feel for a second, Oh, here’s the bit where the actor’s doing his stunts. It rolls into the next thing, and now he can ‘beat the fuck out of everybody’.
Capone: It’s not like you make a move, and then you flex, and then you make another move. You’re not oiled up.
CE: Right. There’s no ‘Wha-a-a-a-a!’ [Imitates Bruce Lee howl] Yeah, it’s supposed to feel, as you watch it, that there’s no joy, basically.
You’re supposed to feel that here’s a guy who’s been saying that he can kick everybody's ass, they always say he can kick everybody's ass, it comes to where he kicks everybody's ass, and, of course, he can kick everybody's ass.
Capone: Not just a lack of joy, but a reluctance. He doesn’t want to be a trained monkey for the crowd. At least the first time I watched the film, and I’ll definitely see it again to confirm this, but it seemed to convey a very cynical message about trying to improve your lot in life and the dangers of having ambition. Is that fair? Do you see it that way?
CE: I don’t think so.
Capone: He lives day to day, money is tight, and he gets squashed, it seems, for even daring to dream.
CE: But, it’s more that he has a code whereby…he lives by a certain code, and he lives by a certain morality. And, somebody who has this kind of morality in the world--as it is--is vulnerable. But, he feels that he can have this kind of morality, and one day, this kind of morality is possibly going to lead him to great things.
So, when this opportunity comes up to be the producer of the film, it’s almost as if, for me anyway, it was almost as if there’s a kind of sense of him being…not that it’s justified, because the process of doing it is justified, but it’s also a validation of everything that he’s been doing. It is going to be profitable, it is going to be all those things, and he can live in the way that he always wants to live, with a moral code and the honor that he wants to live by.
However, of course, life doesn’t work like that, and then, he’s faced with the ultimate choice that has always been lingering in the background of at what point will you sacrifice your ideals.
And, is suddenly being exposed to your own desire to have more going to be the thing that actually pushes you over the edge when you realize ‘I can’t go back to when I didn’t have a need of that. I can’t go back to what was before I had hope. I can’t go back to the person I was before, because now I realize that I’m vulnerable, When I dare to dream, I get quashed.’
So, now this is the ultimate challenge of whether you at this point then say [claps sharply] “I’m with the other guys. I’m going in the ring. I’m going to get what’s mine. I’m going to be a better fighter than most people. I’m can make loads of money. I’m out of this life.” And, of course, the character doesn’t do that, which is why it’s kind of an American samurai film, because he decides that he’s going to live by his code of honor and defeat his opponents. And, that’s the way he does it.
Capone: In a relatively short time, you have worked with some of the best directors in the industry, starting with Spielberg and going from there.
I’ll never forget the response at a screening here in Chicago years ago for DIRTY, PRETTY THINGS when you first opened your mouth to speak, because you didn’t have that accent. You had so convinced everyone that we wondered, ‘Who is this great unknown actor from Africa?’
CE: [laughs] Yeah, Steven Frears had gone and found me somewhere in Nigeria.
Capone: …Ridley Scott, Richard Curtis, Spike Lee a couple times, Alfonso Cuarón…I spoke with Kasi Lemmons last year about TALK TO ME. Certainly not to minimize your talent and hard work, but have to consider yourself pretty lucky on top of everything else.
CE: Well, it is, it is.
Capone: And, the films are quality. You’ve gotten to the point in a very short period of time that when I see your name attached to something, I assume a certain caliber of work. How picky are you, really?
CE: Well, I guess I am, but I have been very fortunate with the directors. And, that’s been something that you just can’t predict or push for. Somebody asked me today in a similar sort of question in a way, they sort of said, “Is working with these directors something you’ve chosen?”
And, I laughed, because you can’t…I mean, every actor in the world would chose that in the beginning, [like] you sit there and say, “I’m going to choose to work with these people. Let me choose to work with Spielberg.” And, of course, it just doesn’t work like that, and of course, there’s an element of luck. Directors become aware of your work through directors that they also have great respect for. So, there’s a kind of balance in the game that way.
Capone: I also get the sense that, for you, a good part is a good part, and you don’t care if it’s a lead role or a smaller part.
Seeing you in SERENITY or MELINDA AND MELINDA, or even in AMERICAN GANGSTER, these aren’t huge roles, but they’re good roles, and you seem to enjoy them.
CE: Yeah, I’m happy to dive in. I suppose I always feel of myself I can be a leading actor, but even within that, I like the arena of being a character actor, you know, because that’s sort of where the real sort of juice is, somehow.
That’s where the real sort of nuts and bolts happen, and I feel myself progressing in that way as an actor. And, I like doing both things.
But, of course, it’s great if you’re leading a project and you’re also having the opportunity to learn about the whole martial arts scene in L.A. and also develop and work on a character. But, it is rewarding, doing the AMERICAN GANGSTERs and so on, as well as the TALK TO MEs and the REDBELTs.
Capone: I remember talking to Kasi about TALK TO ME, because I walked into the interview thinking we’d be discussing Don Cheadle, but your character really has the greater arc.
There’s more of a change in him, not always for the best. But, it was a real eye-opener to see that it’s truly a double-lead sort of situation.
CE: Yeah, it is in that movie, with the sense of it being that both characters are fascinating. The Dewey Hughes in that scenario being the kind of straight man part is incredibly complicated as well and has these incredibly complicated journeys to go on.
And, one of the things I liked about the movie was that at times he’s full-on bad guy, you know, and people don’t like him, and they’re on the other guy’s side, and then it just flips. And then, you’re, like, ‘No wait a second, he’s got a point.’. And, I think people were changing through the film their allegiances to one or two, until they realized, of course, by the conclusion that they fuckin’ loved both those guys. [laughs]
Capone: Our readers are big into the genre stuff, and seeing you in something like SERENITY or CHILDREN OF MEN is a real treat. Are you a closet sci-fi fan?
CE: I’m a sci-fi fan, definitely. And, I’m not that much in the closet about it. I mean, I’m not sort of mad, out there. It's not like at the Sci-Fi Day parade, I'll be out there with a laser gun. [laughs]
Capone: Those two films are at the extremes of the sci-fi world. How did you land in SERENITY? That seems like the stranger of the group.
CE: It’s true, actually. I hadn’t really thought about that in a way, but it is true: How did I end up in SERENITY? That’s such a good point. Nobody’s ever asked me that before: How did a guy like you, Forest Gate, East London, end up in SERENITY? I don’t know why. I remember I got sent the script. [Writer-director] Joss [Whedon] sent me the script.
Capone: Did you know him, or was he trying to get you in the film?
CE: Yeah, just to sort of get me to read the film, and then come meet him, and see if we could go from there. So, all I can ascertain, really, actually, and even at the time, I didn’t push this too much, was that he had watched DIRTY, PRETTY THINGS, and he had sort of seen, I don’t know how, he had seen in that a way of that being…
Capone: …a great villain?
CE: Yeah [laughs]. And, somehow, he had watched the film. He liked that performance, and then he just got to thinking, and he was, like, Hmm-m-m, maybe for The Operative. Honestly, I can’t connect the dots. But then, I couldn’t understand it in the Woody Allen movie either.
Capone: Hmm, that’s true.
CE: That Woody Allen cast me [in MELINDA AND MELINDA] on the basis of PRETTY, DIRTY THINGS, really.
Capone: That really did blow the door open for you in a lot of ways. And, the film was not a massive hit at the box office--though everyone who saw it liked it--but it really seemed to open up the world for you.
CE: Yeah, I don’t really understand it. I mean, I love the film, and I was incredibly passionate about it. But, it seems as though everybody, all the filmmakers that I worked with in the next year, were some way or another connected to seeing me in that film.
Spike Lee was a huge fan of the film; he was crazy about it. And, with Spike, you don’t know sometimes how he’s going to react to certain movies. Sometimes, he surprises you. So, for him to be so activated by it in getting me into his movies was a great surprise. And, Woody Allen, the same thing, and then Joss. You just feel like it was amazing.
Capone: In talking about CHILDREN OF MEN, its technical achievement is undeniable, but it’s also a fascinating and profound statement about the course of humanity. Tell me about getting involved with that.
CE: Well, I read the script, and then I went to meet Alfonso Cuarón, just in a pub on a rainy night in London, and we just talked politics, basically, for an hour and a half or two hours over a couple of pints. And, that was it.
Capone: I realize in that same year, correct me if I’m wrong, that was also the year that KINKY BOOTS came out and TSUNAMI: THE AFTERMATH. That was a heck of a year. There’s your range, like, right there.
CE: It was a good point of a lot of different fascinatingly different projects, just exciting in a way.
Capone: Coming up, you have another project with Don Cheadle, TOUSSAINT?
CE: Well, I don’t know what’s happening with that. We’re certainly not in a position where it’s kind of ready to go, you know. At the moment, that’s a sort of Internet thing. I mean, it’s happening. I know there’s a script out there, and [director] Danny [Glover] is trying to get it altogether, but I don’t know what state that’s in yet.
Capone: But TONIGHT AT NOON is done, though, right?
CE: Yeah, TONIGHT AT NOON is done.
Capone: What do you do in that?
CE: That’s a film that Michael Almereyda directed, which I did quite a while ago, but it’s in post-production at the moment still. It’s an indie, it’s sort of a small independent film in New York, so it’s percolating. I actually play two characters. And, it’s a story of this guy, one character who’s an editor, and he has a very developed, projected fantasy life, which is his other life. So, he’s an editor of documentaries with his girlfriend in New York, and in his projected fantasy life, he’s a sort of much more New York prowler, Lothario-type dude.
Capone: It’s like an ensemble piece?
Capone: We always want to know what you're up to. Thanks, it's been a great pleasure talking with you.
CE: And you, thanks.