Nigeria’s Chiwetel Ejiofor on Shakespeare, race and the Marvel universe

Chiwetel Ejiofor photographed at the Covent Garden Hotel in London for FT Weekend © Jack Davison

When Chiwetel Ejiofor enters his publicist’s office, a few steps behind a breezy assistant, I almost don’t notice him. That’s quite a trick, considering there are only three of us in the room, but Ejiofor, a Houdini of self-effacement, pulls it off.

The 39-year-old has an elusive, almost egoless quality, which may be what’s made him one of the greatest actors of his generation: a matchless Othello on the London stage, an Oscar nominee and Bafta winner for his lead performance in 12 Years a Slave, and now the latest distinguished British actor to join the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, in the screen adaptation of the cultish 1960s comic book, Doctor Strange.

To understand Ejiofor’s career, one can trace a line back 26 years, to a classroom in Dulwich College, south-east London. An unlikely place for an epiphany, you might think: a room full of restive teenage boys taking turns to stumble through their first recitations of Shakespeare. But for Ejiofor, then 13, it was a revelation.

“At that point, when I was a kid, I didn’t have any interest in Shakespeare or in pursuing anything to do with English or the humanities,” he says. “It seemed like the real subjects at school were the ones that were less fun, but would allow you to go out and get jobs and become a person in the world. And then came Henry IV, Part 1.”

As Solomon Northup in the Oscar-winning ’12 Years a Slave’ (2013) © Alamy

Ejiofor had always imagined that he would follow his parents into medicine: his father had been a doctor, his mother a pharmacist. But this moment in the classroom was when he found his vocation, one he has pursued devotedly ever since.

“There was this soliloquy where Hal explains that he has this kind of life plan, which he feels passionate about even though it’s not yet instigated,” he says. “I was suddenly just caught in the conversation that this piece of literature was having, and how it related to things that I thought about myself, and how beautifully expressed it was, and how accessible and interesting, and poetic and deep. I suppose I was, for the first time in my life, deeply inspired by a piece of writing.”

If it seems improbable that this solemn Shakespearean will next be on screen as Baron Mordo, a dimension-hopping master of the mystic arts, in a blockbuster comic-book adaptation, it probably shouldn’t. Michael Grandage, who directed Ejiofor in the Donmar Warehouse’s 2007 production of Othello, understands the appeal. “Literally every one of those superhero stories is a Shakespearean story,” he says, over the phone. “The scale of them, the themes of them, the epic nature of them. OK, they can’t quite match the language, but they need people to be unashamedly big; you can’t do a heap of tiny, subtle film acting, you’ve got to make your subtleties work in different ways on a Marvel film, exactly as you do in Shakespeare.”

In the new Marvel adaptation of Doctor Strange, Ejiofor stars alongside Tilda Swinton Jay Maidment ©2016 Marvel

Doctor Strange will be the 14th instalment in a cycle of interlocking Marvel films that got under way in 2008 with the release of Iron Man, starring an insouciant Robert Downey Jr. It turned out that he had every reason to look pleased with himself: every year for the past four years, a film made by Marvel Studios has grossed more than $1bn worldwide. It’s not just about the bottom line, though; Marvel’s president, Kevin Feige, has also been remarkably astute in the creative choices he’s made. One of the first directors he hired was Kenneth Branagh, whose name lent a hint of gravitas to the bombastically silly Thor (2011).

Where it was once a stretch to get serious actors to play superhero roles, now everyone’s doing it: Ejiofor’s co-stars in Doctor Strange will be Benedict Cumberbatch, as the eponymous surgeon-turned-sorcerer, and Tilda Swinton, playing a teacher of the mystical arts who happens to be as bald as a coot.

“Marvel has managed to make popular films really accessible and really good,” says Ejiofor. “I was very interested in what [screenwriter and director] Joss Whedon did with The Avengers. He’s so skilled as a writer, and he started to really split those narratives and create characters that can intersect and then splinter off into all these individual stories. I think there’s an energy there, because they want to make good movies that a lot of people will like, and they feel much more open to ideas.”

Stan Lee and Steve Ditko dreamed up Doctor Strange in the early 1960s, and the comic books bear the psychedelic imprint of the era, their hero often detaching himself from his body to stalk his enemies over time and space. Mordo, meanwhile, is a brutish Transylvanian nobleman with a monobrow — “a very two-dimensional character”, as Ejiofor accurately puts it. Marvel doesn’t bother to screen its films to journalists early — they are, after all, critic-proof — but Ejiofor assures me that his version of Mordo comes with a deeper back story and subtler shadings.

As a boy, Ejiofor loved the world of comics and was drawn to its dark, dystopian fringes. “I wasn’t a big Roy of the Rovers fan,” he says, dryly. “I couldn’t connect to the more popular stuff. But [writer] Alan Moore and [British comic] 2000AD — there was something very twisted about that material, it was unashamed of its weirdness and masochism. And [Moore’s] Watchmen, I still think it’s one of the most imaginative stories I’ve ever encountered. I wasn’t much into art when I was a kid, because I was bad at drawing, and I’m a little colour blind, so I’d get bad marks. So it was good for me, in terms of graphic novels, to be able to connect to the artistic process in a way I could really understand.”

The trippy, Dalí-inflected world of Doctor Strange was a place he wanted to visit. “The first conversations that we had were about the visuals,” he says. “They’d already created the visual language early on and I certainly hadn’t seen anything like it.” (The trailers show vast cities rippling and folding in on themselves, à la Christopher Nolan’s Inception.)

‘You’ve got to make your subtleties work in different ways on a Marvel film, exactly as you do in Shakespeare’ © Portrait by Jack Davison

Ejiofor grew up in a creative home — his parents, Nigerian immigrants who fled to London during the Biafran war, were medics with a musical sideline: Ejiofor’s father sang and played guitar, with his mother on backing vocals. “It was west African pop, his vibe, with a bit of Afrobeat in there,” says Ejiofor. “Very rhythmic. My father’s mother sang backup for him too.” He laughs. “He obviously didn’t want to cash out.”

During the holidays, Ejiofor and his family would often go back to Nigeria. In 1988, on one such trip, Ejiofor and his father were involved in a car crash. Ejiofor, then 11, was pulled from the wreckage alive but lay in a coma for weeks. When he woke up, he learnt that his father was dead. Two scars run from his hairline down his forehead, barely visible in the late afternoon light.

What does he remember of his father? “Probably the artistic expression,” says Ejiofor, cautiously. “Just finding enjoyment through art and artistic expression. He was a big fan of Shakespeare’s sonnets, that was his thing. Whereas I always struggled with them, just to understand them.”

Early in his career, Ejiofor was advised to change his name — if he didn’t, he was warned, he would always be pigeonholed as African characters. Fine, he said, and carried on. His attitude was conditioned, he thinks, by his time at school. “Dulwich was very mixed,” he says. “There was a real sense that you could be a part of and get to know different groups of people. Until you meet people who didn’t have a multicultural experience, you don’t realise how different an experience that is. It’s taken me really all of my life to understand that.”

Chiwetel Ejiofor poses in the winners room at the EE British Academy Film Awards 2014 © WireImage/ Getty Images

In the past few years, Marvel has tried to address the problems of race, religion and gender with which Hollywood — and the US — is grappling. Springing from the page we’ve seen a female Thor, a Muslim Ms Marvel and a lesbian Batwoman, while writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay (an English professor whose essays were collected under the title Bad Feminist) have been drafted in to bring a new, politicised sensibility to the strips. The first Marvel feature to star a black superhero, Black Panther, directed by the 30-year-old African-American film-maker Ryan Coogler, is due for release in 2018.

Last year, however, controversy erupted when Tilda Swinton’s casting in Doctor Strange was announced. In the original comics, her character, The Ancient One, is a wizened, male Tibetan lama. While there was praise for the decision to switch the gender of the character, accusations of whitewashing were swift to follow, with some critics asking why an Asian actor hadn’t been tapped for the role. For Ejiofor, the discussion was frustrating. “I think representation in cinema is a really important issue,” he says. “There are a lot of films that don’t have any representation at all, are very monocultural, and have mono ideas on what race and gender mean, and who should be stars, and who shouldn’t. Doctor Strange is just not an example of that.”

“It’s something we seem to like to do, turning perfect into the enemy of good. We let other things slide, the 85 per cent of the films out there that don’t really attempt to address these issues at all. But because they have entirely white, male casts, we don’t bother to talk about them.”

In London last month © Jack Davison

 …

While at school, Ejiofor joined the National Youth Theatre, and then received a scholarship to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. At 19, he was cast by Steven Spielberg in Amistad but chose to leave Los Angeles after shooting, returning to Britain to develop his theatre career.

In 2002, Michael Grandage cast Ejiofor as Nicky Lancaster, the drug-addled mummy’s boy in The Vortex, a part Noël Coward originally wrote for himself. It was Grandage’s first play after taking artistic control of the Donmar, and he wanted to set the tone for his tenure. “I felt it was time to stop saying that it’s good enough to put black actors in Shakespeare and musicals, a moment to really challenge the repertoire in a more meaningful way,” he says.

Among the positive reviews, there were some notes of alarm. One critic wrote that the cross-racial casting “gravely [undermined]” the period setting of the play — something it’s hard to believe would be written now. “Chiwetel and I never discussed it,” says Grandage. “I think it took us by surprise when anybody said anything, actually. To be perfectly honest with you, it was nothing to do with colour. It was, ‘Could he convince you of the place he occupied in society? Could he convince you of the relationship he would have with his mother? Could he convince you about being a drug addict?’”

Playing Othello at the Donmar in 2007 © Alamy

The pair joined forces again five years later, when Ejiofor took the part of Othello opposite Ewan McGregor’s Iago. “At that time, I felt it hadn’t been expressed, that play,” says Ejiofor. “I always thought of it as a sequel to Romeo and Juliet, with a love story in the centre, and this overwhelmingly tragic idea about the corruptibility of love. But it had been caught up in a totally different conversation about race. And, to me, Othello’s not talking about race, other than incidentally. That’s a preoccupation of now, it’s not Shakespeare’s preoccupation.”

Ejiofor won an Olivier for the role, ahead of Sir Ian McKellen’s Lear and Sir Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth. “Chiwetel was making choices all over Othello, choices that no one had made before,” says Grandage. “He lowered his voice quite considerably, adopting a strong African accent, and again transformed himself. That simple choice wasn’t just technical virtuosity. What it did was answer so many areas of the text, and made sense of them.”

On the set of ’12 Years a Slave’ in 2012 with director Steve McQueen © Alamy

How does Ejiofor look back on that experience? “What I remember mostly is the need I felt to do it beforehand, the sense of wanting to do that. As you get older you realise how increasingly rare that becomes, that feeling of, ‘I am going to die if I don’t do this.’” Later, he would feel the same way about 12 Years a Slave — although the role of Solomon Northup arrived with an intimidating weight of responsibility. “I felt a profound insecurity when [director] Steve McQueen asked me to do it,” says Ejiofor. “It was the actor’s insecurity of not wanting to do something that in the end one could look on and think, ‘God, that was such an important project and you f***ed it up.’”

But perhaps the first time he felt that magnetic draw was with Dirty Pretty Things, the 2002 Stephen Frears film that brought Ejiofor to wider attention. In it he plays Okwe, an illegal immigrant from Nigeria, trained as a doctor but plying his trade as a cab driver. “You can look at the film now and it completely holds up,” he says, “but you have to remember at the time no one wanted to discuss immigration, it was just a totally dirty thing. You could watch any film from that time, about London or England, and find nothing else that represented that experience.”

In Dirty Pretty Things (2002) with Audrey Tautou © Alamy

There were threads in the story that ran through Ejiofor’s own life. He was 11 when his father died, with an older brother and two younger sisters, all of whom his mother managed to send to private schools. “My mother had her own pharmacy for a long time, and that pharmacy in Oval was really the engine of the family,” he says. “Within the confines of that tiny place, she created all that energy, by working very hard for long hours. When the last picture is painted, you wonder about private schools, but the truth is that Dulwich College is very fundamentally part of the reason why I could do what I’ve done with my life.”

All the same, he finds it jarring that, at the highest echelons of the film industry, he runs into people he used to play rugby against. “No one’s going to be like, ‘OK, this is unfair, I’m quitting’. But how do we make sure that this doesn’t become the recurring theme going forward?”

Ejiofor is unmarried and leads a peripatetic lifestyle, shuttling between film sets and homes in LA and London, as well as a Dutch barge moored in Canary Wharf. He has now spent 20 years as a professional actor, and soon after we meet he will head to Italy to shoot a film about Mary Magdalene. His versatility and humanity — along with the grace and stature that led McQueen to liken him to Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier — means he’s never been short of collaborators, from Woody Allen and Spike Lee to Ridley Scott.

He still feels there is much to do. “I’m definitely not at the beginning of my career, that much is clear,” he says, with a rare smile. “But I don’t think I’m in the middle of it, somehow. To get to the point where you can honestly represent yourself artistically, I think, takes a very long time.”

‘Doctor Strange’ is released on October 25

Photographs: Jack Davison/Mini Title; Alamy; Jay Maidment ©2016 Marvel; Mike Marsland

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016. All rights reserved.

 

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