Chiwetel Ejiofor won England's prestigious Olivier Award for his role as Othello, playing opposite Ewan McGregor's Iago in a London performance that pushed internet ticket prices to 40 times their face value. He is a stage actor of the highest caliber. But there is really no honest way to discuss Ejiofor without talking about race.
Since the movie industry doesn't often produce complex depictions of the lives of Americans of color, a talented Black actor has few leading roles to choose from. Then there's Hollywood's continuing apprehension over pairing an African-American male with a Julia Roberts, a Meryl Streep, or a Glenn Close.
Into this bottleneck comes the London-born Ejiofor, who broke into American film as a slave in Amistad, and since then has appeared as a cop, twice as a gangster and a couple of other racially "safe" roles. In works across the pond he has enjoyed a somewhat wider but still limited range.
Now, in Redbelt, he depicts a Los Angeles martial arts instructor who at the risk of becoming a pauper refuses to enter televised competitions, feeling the spectacle cheapens the integrity of the sport. In writer and director David Mamet's jaundiced view of Hollywood we discover that even those who would seem incorruptible can be compromised by the seductive powers of the star-making machinery.
Ejiofor met with me after hours of interviews, and his visible exhaustion dictated a beginning other than the hackneyed talk about the lack of roles. I chose another route, and he, the consummate professional, followed my improvisations and non sequiturs with grace:
Your parents are from Nigeria.
What do they make of your career? I always have an impression that immigrant parents don't want their kids to go into the arts. They want them to be professionals.
Oh sure, my father was a doctor and so when I was young, I always envisioned being a doctor like my father.
But your parents were open to--
No, no, no. In a sense my parents, my mother -- my father died when I was very young -- wanted me to follow in the family footsteps and I would have been happy to do that. But I was very attracted to English literature and history.
What type of literature? Who were your authors?
The thing that turned it around in many ways was Shakespeare. I've always been involved in Shakespeare and that is how I became an actor. Henry IV Part I was the specific text and I had a moment of inspiration and felt I'd discovered this great writer, and I went around the school telling everybody they had to read this guy, he really knew what he was talking about.
And do you still feel the same way about Shakespeare?
Absolutely. My appreciation for Shakespeare has actually only deepened and richened; its an extraordinary relationship that you can have with somebody 400 years past who has profoundly affected your life.
By the way, congratulations on your Olivier Award.
In the states, Othello in contemporary literature classes is often discussed in terms of today's racism. Do you find that appropriate?
No. I mean I don't in terms of Othello because Othello is written before the parameters of what we define as contemporary racist philosophy. There was no slave trade, there was not colonization, there were none of the things we identify with the contemporary vantage points or contemporary mechanisms of today's age, so he was writing simply from a completely different perspective. I remember when I did Romeo and Juliet at the National [Theatre] I came across a line where Romeo compares Juliet to a jewel in an Ethiop's ear and that to me was a symbol of how differently Shakespeare viewed somewhere like Ethiopia [as] a place full of wealth, and how they viewed Venice as a trading point where so many cultures would meet.
So Othello is without racial overtones?
There is no doubt that there are characters in Othello who are racist, but the author's perspective of Othello is [of] a man that has reached an incredible preeminence in his field and [is] undone by the one thing that makes him vulnerable, which is this extraordinary love for this woman. The more love he has for her, the more vulnerable he becomes.
Some of his isolation is due to his race. Shakespeare's knowledge of human beings is so precise that he realizes that [this situation could lead] to insecurity. Insecurity and vulnerability...then become a very powerful mixture, which leads him on this road of destruction. But I think it is unfair to judge the play in terms of contemporary racial ideologies. And I don't think it should be. I don't think it is satisfying to the play to do that.
So he was isolated, powerful, and vulnerable. Very much like Mr. Terry [Ejiofor's character in Redbelt].
Sure, yeah, to a degree.
You think it's a leap?
I like it, but I think it's a bit of a stretch.
I needed a segue. [Ejiofor laughs]. In Redbelt, we have a man who is focused, principled and proud.
And then all of a sudden he falls. What makes him vulnerable?
That's a great question. We live in a kind of morally ambiguous society sometimes and somebody who has a kind of strict type of moral principle can be... vulnerable to the machinations of a much more cynical outside world. In the midst of all that [he] has to find a way of adhering to his principles yet surviving.
Even the concept of making money is something that to a large degree is taken for granted as de facto morality, because we have to make money. So if it's slightly ambiguous...we still have to do it. So somebody [who] comes and says 'I am not going to make money on things that don't adhere to my principles' is probably destined to be a pauper. So how do you adhere to [these] high moral principles, yet still negotiate the day-to-day living in a complex society? That's where the vulnerability lies, basically.
But I see your character being seduced easily. They say, here's a chance to be a producer and--
There's nothing in his principles that says you can't be a producer, you can't work on a movie set. In fact he sees that as an advancement of his principles into a wider forum. It is only when he gets involved and gets into bed with these producer types and this Hollywood machine that he realizes that nothing is what it seems and people are out to trample on him.
You've got great breadth, but I haven't seen you in a contemporary African-American drama, living in an African-American neighborhood with an African-American wife like a Tyler Perry [Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea's Family Reunion] movie. Being from London, are you able to imagine those problems any easier than you are Elizabethan times 400 years ago?
Yeah, I think so. I don't think the difference between London and America is so vast that it's impossible to do it.