Chiwetel Ejiofor didn’t come out of nowhere when he attracted international acclaim for his haunting breakthrough performance in Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things, playing an illegal immigrant from Nigeria with a devastating past, but it seemed that way. After all, he looked to be well into his thirties and in complete command of his craft. How could we have missed such a seasoned actor?
In fact, he was much younger than appeared on screen, but he was seasoned, largely on stage, and he’s continued to hone his craft and expand his range. He has since worked with Woody Allen (Melinda and Melinda), Spike Lee (Inside Man), Alfonso Caurón (Children of Men), and Ridley Scott (American Gangster), starred in Joss Whedon’s Serenity, and played in Talk To Me opposite Don Cheadle. Now he stars in David Mamet’s new film Redbelt, playing a Jiu-jitsu master and teacher who puts his honor on the line when his code is put at risk. I talked to the actor in early April for GreenCine.
Your character is very self-possessed through the entire film, both on and off the mat. How did learning the moves and the rhythms of the martial art on the mat carry over to the way you informed how your character moved and held himself through the rest of the film?
When you’re learning and when you’re with people who do it, just being around Renato Magno and the Machado Brother allows you to observe how some of these guys carry themselves. With their training and their knowledge, they have a certain grace to their movement, which could be seen to as being rather slow or methodical and thought out. There’s an ease of movement and it comes through constant training, the honing of the body and the honing of these moves, and you find that it becomes how they move in life. They move with an ease and grace and simplicity and it’s almost as if they’re always ready for any situation that comes their way, which in fact they are. They’re mentally prepared and that’s part of how the training and the philosophy blends into life and lifestyle anyway. So that was observation, but I was also feeling my body change and feeling more confident with the Jiu-jitsu aspect of it, and allowing the confidence with Jiu-jitsu to affect movement, so that was all part and parcel of creating the character.
Some of my favorite performances of yours involve characters who are very methodical, who do not waste movement. I’m thinking of Dirty Pretty Things, where you play a man who is very still and closed in, but also the agent in Serenity and the underground leader in Children of Men.
They are all very interesting characters and they’re all people who have this sense of the world. In Serenity and Children of Men, there’s a sense of it being a confused or mistaken view of the world, but they have an intrinsic belief system in what they’re doing and somehow that does also manifest itself in their movement and in the way that they approach the world. And Okwe in Dirty Pretty Things has a way of living his life. And there is an economy to his movement, based on the fact that he’s shot part of himself down as a person. So all those things were there and are part of the stories and it’s kind of interesting to utilize the physicality to express ideas and express the depth of emotion or the depth of conviction that suddenly shuts down the way people move and makes them quite limited in their movements. It’s definitely interesting to explore and I think there’s a direct parallel there in that exploration.
The complete interview is here.