Chiwetel Ejiofor: "I'll Always Continue to Experiment"

By Sean Axmaker

Chiwetel EjioforFirst things first: Chiwetel Ejiofor's name is pronounced "choo-ih-tell edge-ee-o-for." You should get used to saying it, because the young British actor is carving out a remarkable career, both on stage and on screen. Though he made is film debut in 1997 with Amistad, it was his haunting performance in Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things, playing an illegal immigrant from Nigeria with a devastating past, that put him on the map. 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 martial arts drama Redbelt, centering a cast that includes Joe Mantegna, Emily Mortimer, Tim Allen, Alice Braga and Ricky Jay. Though Ejiofer was not trained in Jiu-jitsu before embarking on the film, he is a remarkably physical actor. His body language and his carriage are essential to the way he inhabits his characters, whether they are calm and controlled men of strength and determination (Children of Men and Serenity) or casual and easygoing in volatile situations (Inside Man and American Gangster). His presence and his physical interactions with other characters define his character, Mike Terry, even more than Mamet's marvelous dialogue. He can explain his philosophy all he wants, but it's the way he behaves, the way he meets the world and stands up for his values that is the real deal. Mike is not a confrontational man, but he's ready for anyone and, when challenged, his stillness snaps into preparedness and direct action, pared down to essential, efficient movement.

I sat down with Chiwetel Ejiofor in early April for a short interview and talked about what he brings to a film, what he had to learn to play a Jiu-jitsu master in Redbelt, and what that training gave him in terms of character.

Do you have a martial arts background? Were you familiar with it before you started the movie?

No. I did a little boxing when I was a teenager but that was it. So a major part of the film for me was getting up to speed with the martial arts, with Jiu-jitsu, and I was very fortunate to have a number of people who were able to help that process, the people I was put in contact with, both in LA and in London, to really work on the martial arts side of it. The film put me in touch with members of the Gracie family, which is the preeminent family in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, all the way down from Carlos Gracie. So I worked with the Roger Gracie Academy in London and then I went over to LA and worked with Renato Magno and the Machado Brothers, John Machado and Jean Jacques Machado, who are extraordinarily gifted in Jiu-jitsu and have competed. So it was great training with some of the best people that there are.

Redbelt

 

How long was the training period?

The first month I did in London and then the second month was in LA and that was gearing up to when we started shooting. The next part of it was fitting in time around the shooting schedule to carry on training. So it was a few months.

So after three months of training, you then had to perform an extended martial arts sequence, a choreographed fight scene, with a world class martial artist.

Which was great! I mean, it's a great thing to gear up towards, a great end goal. It took a lot of doing the work but also learning the philosophies behind it and really understanding the martial art itself, so there was a whole process of that that went into it. And then we worked it down to choreography. And once I'd learned the basics, I could use that to use a building tools for it itself.

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.

Jiu-jitsu is all about economy. I believe that Mamet describes the philosophy as using the least movement necessary to achieve your goal: "Don't use more force than you need to; knowledge will conquer force."

Exactly. There's definitely that. The Jiu-jitsu bouts are submission bouts, so in competition they can go on forever, which means there's a question of stamina that's involved when people compete in Jiu-jitsu. And of course, that leads directly into an economy of movement and an ability to focus on one thing and to push through with that. So again, it leads back to how Jiu-jitsu affects the way people then live their lives.

Redbelt

 

You talked about being around all these master martial artists. Being in Redbelt also put you in the company of veteran David Mamet actors. Mamet's dialogue has unique rhythms and cadences and the films he directs have a different kind of performance style and character interaction. Some actors are masters at it, like Joe Mantegna. Did you also have to get up to speed to learn to take Mamet's dialogue and make it your own, make it a comfortable part of your character?

Yeah, in a sense. I had been very familiar with Mamet and his work ever since I became interested in acting 15 years ago or something like that. So even in high school, we were studying Mamet, so his language and his dialogue has been part of my landscape for as long I can remember. And when I came to see his plays and when I went to see his films, you know, the likes of Glengarry Glen Ross and Oleanna and that whole time, it made a very deep impression on me. So when I came to doing this project, there was a sense that I had been a student, in a way, of his dialogue for a very long time and that I was aware of some of the rhythms and some of the ways that it worked. So it wasn't that I'd come to something completely brand new and it did feel as if some of it was something that was accessible to me, or at least familiar.

And then there's the question and the choices of the way to make it your own. And that's a crucial part of any job, I think, and certainly in the theatrical tradition of a Shakespeare play. Making the rhythms of the language naturalistic is a really important part of communicating Shakespeare. So in some senses I was also fairly used to doing that, so those things combined were helpful in approaching this.

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Excellent interview, Sean!! And of an actor who just may be the most (certainly ONE of the most) versatile that we have ever seen. I have a couple of additions to make -- and one question to ask: Where do the accents occur in Chiwetel's first and last names? I am thrilled to finally be able to say it, but I'd like to know that I am saying it correctly. Could you maybe capitalize the accented syllables in choo-ih-tell edge-ee-o-for? Secondly: for fans of this guy's work who want to see even further evidence of his enormous range, do not miss two of his movies from 2005: the under-rated KINKY BOOTS, in which he plays (wonderfully) a transvestite, and the somewhat silly (but quite entertaining) SLOW BURN, in which he is... well, you'll find out.

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