Chiwetel Ejiofor had his first role in 1997′s “Amistad,” but his true breakout came five years later in “Dirty Pretty Things,” when he starred alongside Audrey Tautou, fresh from her breakout in 2001′s “Amélie.” Director Stephen Frears (“High Fidelity,” “Dangerous Liaisons”) reportedly resisted pressure to consider better-known American actors in favor of the then little-known Ejiofor.
The actor’s profile has risen steadily ever since; he was part of the ensemble cast in 2003′s “Love Actually,” followed last year with a role in Spike Lee’s “She Hate Me,” and this year in Woody Allen’s latest, “Melinda and Melinda,” where he has the largest role ever for a black actor in an Allen film. Though the film has received mixed reviews, he has not. As Stephanie Zacharek wrote in Salon last week, “The only actor who escapes unscathed is Chiwetel Ejiofor … Ejiofor, whose face radiates intelligent guilelessness, makes us believe in him wholeheartedly.”
He is set to star in two action movies in the months ahead: John Singleton’s revenge story “Four Brothers” and “Serenity,” the on-screen continuation of Joss Whedon’s canceled TV series “Firefly.” And at 29, Ejiofor comes across as a man already sure of who he is. As the grandson of a Nigerian miner, he knows how blessed he is to be in the movies. But at the same time, polite as Ejiofor is, he’s not a guy to be pushed around or one to answer questions he doesn’t want to.
Chiwetel Ejiofor spoke with Salon from his apartment in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, to which he recently relocated from his native London.
How do you find the right balance between doing theater and film?
It’s always tricky. Once you’re working in film a lot, it’s hard to book in a time in the future when you’re going to get back onstage, because it takes a much longer lead-in period. But I think it just gets to a point for a lot of actors, especially those who started out in the theater, where you feel this emotional need to get onstage. It kind of takes over, and then it’s just a matter of time before you come back.
What is it about the stage that so appeals to actors?
It’s everything, really. There is the thrill and immediacy in the crowd that brings a level of excitement. But there’s also the whole kind of ritual of the theater: the backstage, the bars — the whole lifestyle — as well as getting to really explore a character over a long period of time. It’s much more of an intense experience.
As opposed to sitting in a trailer for most of the day and running out for a few quick takes?
Exactly. Film just takes so much time with all the setting up of cameras and such. And then suddenly when they’re ready, you have to be there to express these intense emotions at the drop of a hat. It’s more difficult to do emotional scenes on film, I think, because with a play you have that momentum pushing you into it.
On “Melinda and Melinda,” is it true that actors like working with Allen because there’s more opportunity for improvisation?
He did say that if you wanted to, you were free to change the dialogue here and there. But I didn’t really have that morning where I woke up and felt like changing Woody Allen’s dialogue. I was happy pretty much sticking with what he has written.
What’s your take on Ellis, the piano player you play who is a love interest for two characters in the film?
He’s charming and seemingly kind of faultless, but I think the need to charm in Ellis speaks to something less lovable. I think he’s looking for a muse, and he’s happy to move on when that muse no longer suits him.
How does it feel being the first black actor to have that major a role in an Allen film?
I think some people pay attention to that kind of thing, but it’s not a part of the movie. I think it’s a bit of a silly footnote.
But Allen is one of the most important directors of his generation, and the characters in his films have been almost universally white. Does that give you pause?
Any filmmaker can write about what they want to write about. He’s the filmmaker and it’s his film. He should be able to make what he wants. I don’t think I or anyone else should really tell Woody what to create.
Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things” was really your breakout role. What did it mean to you?
I loved the script, and when I read it I was very keen to get the part. I had a terrific time making the movie. Incidentally, it’s been great seeing Sophie [Okonedo] get recognition and an Oscar nomination after “Hotel Rwanda.” Audrey [Tautou] and Sergi López are excellent actors, too. And Stephen Frears is what I’d call an insightful director.
That film received a lot of praise for portraying a new era in London, one more culturally diverse and constantly in flux with immigrants. As a native Londoner, how did it strike you?
I do think one of the great joys of London is that it’s a very multicultural place. People just get on with it. They’re not in their own pockets of the city as much, which I think tends to happen more in the United States.
Do you approach your career with particular goals or do you just take it as it comes?
I don’t have a game plan for my career. I’m interested in characters more than anything else. I just read the scripts I’m sent and either I accept the role or I don’t.
I would assume the number of scripts you’re sent has increased these days.
Yeah, there are certainly more of them. But by no means is every one something I fall in love with.
Are there certain scripts you’ve been sent that particularly made you laugh or cringe?
There are certainly scripts that I haven’t responded to, but if I tell you what they were I’d be insulting the people who wrote them. I don’t want to do that. Besides, I don’t have to read every script that is sent to me. I work with my agent and other people, and I read the best of what they see. But even out of those, there are plenty of times where I just don’t feel like the character I’m being considered for appeals to me.
Is there anything common to the roles you have played or want to?
It has to be a journey you want to take. I’m an actor who enjoys a challenge, seeing something different and being able to bring something special to the role. I also enjoy going into a different world. So ideally the script should be something that triggers my imagination. But it’s not to say everything has to be perfect. The details of the character can always be worked out, as long as the story has something of interest.
Do you like playing a strong role in the development of your character, or are you happiest when you are given a script where you think not a word needs to be changed?
It always depends. It’s moment to moment, especially if you’re working with a director who is into improv or rehearsal. It can change organically as a result of that. But it’s great if you can read something and love it for what it is right away.
What attracts you on a personal, emotional level to acting?
It’s an interest in the world and in other people, trying to understand where other people come from as a way of understanding myself. I think there’s something endlessly fascinating about different people’s points of view and what drives them, what their life stories and situations are. What’s great about acting is not only do you go on a journey with them psychologically, but a lot of times physically too. You can really travel the world with this job. I’ve had an extraordinary amount of experiences because of that.
Is there anything about your background, or your upbringing, that helped develop this kind of curiosity about people and the world?
When I first started reading plays it just triggered my imagination. It became almost obsessive for me. I just wanted to tell stories.
When did you first become interested in acting?
I was about 12 or 13 and I was pretty bored with school. But then we started reading plays in class and something clicked. I think it was Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” that really intrigued me. It just caught my imagination. That prompted me to check out what was happening with the drama department and school, and soon I was performing. And that was that.
So you didn’t want to play soccer like most other English kids?
I was never that great a sportsman. Academically I was pretty good, but I was sort of floating. Nothing had my interest until acting. And what’s curious, though, is that after I got into acting, everything else became more interesting. It’s like by discovering acting I discovered something inside myself. I think it’s because as an actor you learn to become more adept at viewing the world.
You were born and raised in London, but your parents and family are Nigerian. Do you still have a connection there?
My family is still there in Enugu, which was formerly the capital of Biafra. And I am often back there. I like to go back and see my grandparents. And there are a lot of old friends and family in Nigeria that I love a lot.
How did your family end up moving to London?
After the war they were both students, and England was seeking out medical students.
That must have been handy considering that in “Dirty Pretty Things” you played a Nigerian doctor who had immigrated to England.
Yeah, I could certainly do the accent.
How does being black affect your place in the movie business? Are you worried about being typecast as “the black guy” or always being the first character to die?
It’s a very complex question. It’s not something that I feel particularly shrouded in. I look for characters. I don’t care what color they are or what they’re doing.
But do you think being a person of color affects the kinds of opportunities you get in the film industry?
I don’t know, because I don’t see what’s not available to me. And what is available to me I have very much enjoyed. Every character that I’ve played I’ve wanted to play.
Hollywood has been abuzz with the success recently of African-American actors like Jamie Foxx and Denzel Washington winning Oscars. Do you feel any particular solidarity with them as an actor of African descent?
I suppose like anybody else I’m very happy to see good performances rewarded, as opposed to some kind of racial complications. I have a solidarity in a sense that it should be about the work.
If I understand you correctly, then, race isn’t necessarily something that you feel a sense of indignation about as it applies to the movie industry?
Race is incredibly fundamental to anybody’s life in the modern world. I can’t narrow it to the film industry in general. I think it extends beyond the borders of Hollywood. I think you misunderstand me if you think I don’t think it’s a big deal. I think it’s incredibly large. But not necessarily within the confines of a script that I read or the behavior of a Hollywood mogul.
Fair enough. You’ve got two big movies coming up: “Serenity,” a sci-fi epic, and “Four Brothers,” a revenge film. How did production go?
With “Four Brothers” I just thought the part was very well written. It was also a great chance to work with John Singleton, who I’ve always admired very much. Before “Serenity” I never really saw myself in sci-fi. But then I read Joss Whedon’s script and I thought it was absolutely brilliant. It’s a character I was just itching to try.
A lot of up-and-coming actors face a familiar predicament: accepting small parts in quality movies versus larger parts in what may be lesser films. Is this something you face?
Not really. I guess if a film is going to have a larger budget, people will want marquee names. So the chance of having a big part in a film that costs, say, $200 million, is pretty unlikely for me right now. But that has nothing necessarily to do with the quality of the film. I don’t think it’s quite as straightforward as you suggest.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I love to read and all that, but I would say that I’m one of those people where if I’m at home, it’s very easy to get me to go out. If the phone rings, I’ll probably jump up to get it. I love to go to restaurants and bars, maybe have some dinner and a vodka mix.
And are you single?
I’m not telling you.
Obviously you don’t have to talk about your personal life, but don’t you think to some degree such questions come with the territory when doing interviews?
Not really. It’s very simple: That’s not really the public’s business.
Let me ask this another way, then. You clearly are principled about maintaining privacy. As your career advances and you potentially become more famous, do you worry that your personal life will be more exposed?
No, I don’t think I do. You deal with what happens on the day that it happens to you.