After ‘12 Years a Slave,’ Chiwetel Ejiofor Is Looking for Justice

After ‘12 Years a Slave,’ Chiwetel Ejiofor Is Looking for Justice

Why you should care

Because hearing how a Best Actor nominee preps will make you think. 

You might know him as actor who played the brave and stoic freeman tricked into slavery and whose memoir became the basis of the award-winning blockbuster 12 Years a Slave. That movie garnered Chiwetel Ejiofor an Oscar nomination for Best Actor and launched him into the upper echelon of moviemaking. Nowadays, presumably, there’s no more playing the dude whose best friend is trying to get with his wife (Love Actually). The British actor, of Nigerian descent, is quickly becoming one of Hollywood’s go-to dramatic actors. And there’s no question about his versatility: He can turn on the charm, raise hell and adopt a ridiculously convincing American accent on-screen.

This year, Ejiofor has gone and dipped his toes in science fiction, with Z for Zachariah and The Martian, as well as a thriller, Secret in Their Eyes, which premieres tomorrow. OZY caught up with him about playing a detective obsessed with finding the killer of his partner’s (Julia Roberts) daughter, whether he still get nervous, how he prepares for the intense scenes he knocks out of the park and whether he reads reviews.

OZY: Secret in Their Eyes hits on really heavy topics, from justice to crime to rape to murder. How did you cope with acting such difficult material?

Chiwetel Ejiofor: I suppose it was, in a way, to dwell on it for the period of time we were making the film. I think for all of us, we were deeply engaged with the obsessional nature of the story. It was something to live with.

OZY: Did you feel desensitized by the topic — in the movie, a girl is raped and murdered— with the violence in our culture?

C.E.: That’s what Ray [Ejiofor’s character] is going through, and [what] they’re all going through. They’re all desensitized at the beginning when they hear there’s a body in a dumpster, and because they’re thrust into the personal nature in this, that derails these professionals. We think we’re desensitized by these things until we’re confronted.

OZY: How did this film change how you think about justice?

C.E.: The film speaks specifically to the way lives are destroyed. This is one case, one individual who decides to do one thing, but the repercussions of that spiral and carry on spiraling. That’s something I’d never considered.

OZY: How do you prepare for intensely emotional scenes?

C.E.: For me, I think you have to do the opposite of preparing. It’s completely forgetting that’s where you’re going or the story’s going, because the characters don’t know.

OZY: Have you read the book or seen the 2009 Argentine film version?

C.E.: I hadn’t before making the film. I’ve taken a look since. The Argentine version — a beautiful film — was culturally very different from the Americanized version, with some of the same narrative. There’s something very tender about the Argentine film, which I don’t know would work in the much more muscular American version.

OZY: Do you read reviews at all?

C.E.: I tend to read reviews for theater a lot. More than film, because there’s nothing you can do about film. In theater you think, maybe begrudgingly, “Ah, maybe they’ve got a point.” I don’t dismiss it at all.

OZY: So are you still learning as an actor?

C.E.: I feel like I’m always learning. Normally I find the first preview terrifying. I constantly question why I’m doing it. It’s a form of ritualized humiliation. I realized as I was just about to go on that for the first time, the feeling of nervousness is a choice and can be framed in any way. I decided to not be nervous and to be excited.

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