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There’s a moment, mid-interview, when Chiwetel Ejiofor and I get our wires crossed. All I’m trying to do is to make a reference to politics. There’s an election coming up, and he’s about to star on the National Theatre stage in ‘Everyman’, a fifteenth-century morality play about man’s powerlessness in the face of death. It strikes me that a lot of his roles have been disenfranchised characters – an illegal immigrant (‘Dirty Pretty Things’); a drag queen (‘Kinky Boots’); the frustrated brother of a drug boss (‘American Gangster’). Most famously, Solomon Northup, the free man forced into slavery in ‘12 Years a Slave’. But when I suggest this, his hackles rise. I realise he thinks I’m asking a question about race: maybe nudging him towards a rant about the predominance of low-status roles for black actors. Is Ejiofor so braced for a question on the subject that he’s answering one of his own?
If he is, you can’t really blame him. The runaway success of ‘12 Years’ has catapulted the Oscar-nominated Londoner into Hollywood’s major league. As the lead in one of the most important films ever about race, Ejiofor’s inevitably found himself a spokesman for the issue.
Today, he’s back on home turf – it was strong performances at the National which helped launch Ejiofor’s career. Audiences getting ready to see ‘Everyman’ can expect an electric experience: on stage he’s a phenomenal presence. But in person, beneath the easy chatshow charm, there’s something guarded about Ejiofor. He doesn’t relax in the NT’s familiar surroundings. He doesn’t do small talk. Not before the interview, when he firmly shakes my hand and sits straight down. Not afterwards, when he and I stand awkwardly in the NT’s slowest, smallest lift, as the theatre’s press manager gamely fills the silence by talking about flexible seating.
He might not give much away but he’s still unfeasibly charismatic, even when scoffing a very un-Hollywood sarnie (the NT’s own-brand egg and cress) between rehearsals. How much of his reserve, I wonder, is down to his new mega-stardom?
Is life very different after the success of ‘12 Years a Slave’?
‘Not an incredible amount, actually. The exposure of the Academy Awards is quite complicated. You take a project you’re passionate about and a story you think is amazing, and it expands into something else. It becomes “that film”: the film that won all these awards. You become more famous but, essentially, nothing changes. I’ve still got to get on stage and do the work in exactly the same way. It’s still exhilarating and it’s still terrifying.’
Is it nice to be back at the National Theatre? You were last here 15 years ago in Joe Penhall’s ‘Blue/Orange’.
‘It’s fantastic. The facilities here are amazing, as are the people who run the company. A lot of them were here when I was here 15 years ago.’
Have you changed much since then?
‘Oh, in myriad ways. One thing I notice is that I’m always early now. At 22, I was always chasing to get anywhere on time, always a bit behind, waiting for a bus. It’s a small thing, but when you’re a little older, you value things in a different way.’
Tell us more about Everyman, the character you’re getting ready to play.
‘He’s a guy who has to present himself to God for a reckoning of the life he’s lived. It’s based on the fifteenth-century morality play that’s very concerned with the Christianity of its time.’
And what does a 500-year-old play have to say to us today?
‘Our Everyman is contemporary: he’s an atheist, who has this huge existential crisis.’
That sounds relatable.
‘The title’s deceptive, in a way. The play could be called “Anyman”. He’s an individual and, because of that, we all see shades of ourselves in him. It’s not somebody trying to be everybody. Essentially, it’s asking all the same questions. Who are you? What does your life consist of? How would you justify yourself if someone were to ask what you’d done with the gift of life? These apply today. It’s not singly relevant to London in the twenty-first century. It’s a poetic investigation of humanity and what we aspire to be.’
‘There’s something about London. It’s such a large city. It has so much internal power. It’s got this energy to it.’
Do you think actors have a political role to play in society?
‘I choose parts I’m engaged by, parts that I think and hope other people will finding engaging too. It’s not easy to find drama that has absolutely no politics. The moment a piece has nothing to say about the world, it stops being dramatic. Doing “Kinky Boots”, for example, I was really interested in looking at the transgender community in a different, lighter way, but I don’t know that you’d call the film explicitly political.’
You’ve played a lot of low-status, disenfranchised parts. You don’t seem to play many presidents, politicians or powerful men. Is that a conscious choice?
‘Well, I played Thabo Mbeki, president of South Africa, in “Endgame”. I’ve done numerous Shakespeare adaptations. I kind of know the direction of that question and it’s inaccurate.’
What do you mean?
‘You’re suggesting I’ve played parts that are not powerful people, right? In what bent?’
No bent at all, actually. You seem like an actor who considers his responsibilities...
‘The point is I’ve played a variety of parts, from completely different stratifications of society. The joy is finding the humanity in all these different characters.’
Why do you think British actors are doing so well in Hollywood these days?
‘It’s hard to know. People talk about the training over here, but there are great drama schools in New York. I suspect it’s because people have different expectations. When I was starting out, we all wanted to be theatre actors. It’s less glamorous; much more about the work. You have to get on with it. You have to know when something’s not working. And you have to hone your craft. Maybe that gives us an advantage.’
How long have you been in Los Angeles now?
‘I’ve been going back and forth for about five or six years.’
You grew up in Forest Gate, went to school in Dulwich and studied at Lamda. Do you miss London?
‘I haven’t been able to spend this long here for a while, so that’s great. I miss the cultural range and diversity of this city. It’s rare to find that in Los Angeles – or anywhere else, really. There’s a lot happening; you’re from Time Out, you know this. It’s almost overwhelming.’
Lots of your films are set here: ‘Children of Men’, ‘Love Actually’, ‘Dirty Pretty Things’. Why is London so ripe with drama?
‘That’s an interesting question. I think it has a very central place in the collective psyche. If something terrifying is happening in London, like in “Children of Men”, chances are everywhere’s pretty fucked. There’s something about London. It’s such a large city. It has so much internal power. It’s got this energy to it. Churchill called it “a prehistoric monster”. London’s a great character.’
‘Everyman’ is at the National Theatre, Apr 22-Jul 16. It’s broadcast in cinemas across London on Jul 16.