In more ways than one, Chiwetel Ejiofor is at an interesting point in his career arc. After his acclaimed debut as writer-director via The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Ejiofor is all the more intrigued by the possibilities that exist not just in front of the camera but behind it as well. In fact, the English multihyphenate already has his next project as writer-director in the works alongside Antoine Fuqua and Stephan James. Despite catching the directing bug, Ejiofor is still just as interested in exploring character for other filmmakers, including his most recent return to the screen in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard.
Together with Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne, Ejiofor stars as James Copley, a former CIA operative who hires Andy’s (Theron) team of soldiers to solve a hostage crisis in Sudan. After going freelance following the death of his wife, Copley has a rather substantial character arc in The Old Guard, but according to Ejiofor, performing an arc in a traditional manner no longer appeals to him.
“Maybe 12 years ago or something like that, I stopped wanting to do arc. I stopped wanting to play arc in anything. I didn’t want to track a performance. I didn’t want to do that thing. I didn’t want to leave breadcrumbs. I didn’t want to expose narrative through scenes,” Ejiofor tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And it created, for me, this real struggle that I went through for a while about how to perform scenes without doing that, without playing arc. And the harder thing, the more complex thing, is to play each scene for its own value, like in totality, and not to play anything outside of it. I try to play the scene as honestly as I can and without any of the other weight on the scene. And I think that the jury’s out.”
In April, the film industry was stunned by the news that The Evil Dead and Spider-Man director Sam Raimi would be taking over the reins of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness from Scott Derrickson, who exited the project because of creative differences. While Ejiofor and Raimi have yet to have a meeting of the minds, the actor behind Karl Mordo is excited about the idea of working with the acclaimed filmmaker.
“I’m very excited to talk to Sam Raimi,” Ejiofor shares. “It’s sort of like everything else as we’re all waiting in the wings. We’re all greyhounds in the traps, at this point. And we’re waiting to see where we all get let out, so we can get on with the work at hand, which I’m incredibly excited about. And I’m very excited about him. He’s a phenomenal filmmaker that I’ve long, long admired, so I think it’ll be very special.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Ejiofor also discusses his reflections on 12 Years a Slave and the status of his second directorial effort alongside Stephan James and Antoine Fuqua.
The circumstances aren’t exactly the same, but given the state of the world, have Z for Zachariah and Children of Men come to mind more than usual?
They really have. I think I got distracted — but I was about to write to [Z for Zachariah director] Craig Zobel and everybody, and just say, “Didn’t we already make this movie?” So, yeah, it has been a bizarre time, and both of those films have been on my mind, actually. Z for Zachariah and Children of Men, so, there we are. (Laughs.)
I really enjoyed The Old Guard, which is based on Greg Rucka’s comic book series. Did you do a deep dive on the source material as you developed your version of Copley?
I read the comic book after I met with Gina and I think this is how it can sometimes work, that you think, “OK, this is a great place to jump off from.” And it’s interesting to see what the original thought pattern was for this character. And then, you want to jump off from that point and see what else you could explore in a way that’s just what intrigues you. So, what Gina and I were talking about was this idea of trying to understand this character, who is very morally and ethically compromised through the film but somehow maintains a level of empathy, connection, potentially, with the audience. And just the ways in which that can be achieved. That’s what intrigued me about the character.
Since the script’s take on Copley is bound to vary from the comic books’ version to some degree, did you consciously try not to get too attached to the comics’ version of the character?
Yeah, I don’t think you should get attached at all. You should wear it quite lightly; it’s a point of discussion, always, and a point of engagement. Because film is so different, and the way that audiences connect to characters is so different. And because you’re embodying something, you have to be able to wed yourself to it in a very deep way in order to play a part. You have to really feel that it connects with you profoundly.
In general, if there’s a detail about your character from the source material that’s not in the script’s portrayal of the character, will you typically make a case to the filmmakers to include it?
Oh yeah. I mean, for sure. If I feel like there’s something there that also plays in the same pool that I’m working in, then I’ll definitely try and see how that can be pulled over. Or I’ll just try to understand more deeply why it’s not there, which would also give me an insight into what the overall thinking is for the character and whether I think that that’s completely the way to approach it in totality. It definitely would be a point of discussion. I’m trying to think whether that’s really happened, that I’ve gone back and said, “In the book, it says this, and I think that makes sense for what I’m trying to do.” I think it’s very rare because it would speak to, actually, that myself, the director or the writer have been travelling in totally different angles in terms of the character. But if you catch it early enough and you begin the conversations early enough, then you’re always moving in the same direction.
Since you likely knew Copley’s arc prior to production, will you consciously leave breadcrumbs to show that he was always headed to that destination? Or will you just rely on the script to guide you as to when to start modulating your performance?
Well, that’s a great question because it’s a question about arc. And arc was a very big part of my life, at one point. (Laughs.) Because, I think about 15 years ago, maybe 12 years ago or something like that, I stopped wanting to do arc. I stopped wanting to play arc in anything. I didn’t want to track a performance. I didn’t want to do that thing. I didn’t want to leave breadcrumbs. I didn’t want to expose narrative through scenes. And it created, for me, this real struggle that I went through for a while about how to perform scenes without doing that, without playing arc. And how to do that in film where you’re shooting everything out of sequence, but also how to do that in theater by the way that it’s created. You end up being pushed toward playing arc quite a lot just because you’re trying to take the audience over the full journey within the two hours that you’re all in the room together. And the harder thing, the more complex thing, is to play each scene for its own value, like in totality, and not to play anything outside of it. That only what exists in the scene is what exists for the character in that moment. And inevitably, that then does have an arc because the narrative has an arc, but it’s not that you’re playing an arc. That’s the distinction, I think. So, in this and in a lot of the work that I’ve done as a result of that time, I try to play the scene as honestly as I can and without any of the other weight on the scene. And I think that the jury’s out. There’s no definitive thing. It can be successful. It can sometimes be unsuccessful. It can be successful to play arc more than not to play it, but I think it’s a way of me connecting to a kind of honesty of performance and not allowing other factors into scenes.
Since the employment rate of women directors is still far too low, I want to highlight the excellent work of Gina Prince-Bythewood. Did you notice any positive differences in the way that she approached action compared to most male directors?
Yes, it’s always slightly tricky territory because it’s never a sort of generic female quality or something. But I definitely think that the point of view is different, especially in this action genre. I mean, I suppose for any genre, but in the action genre, it’s very noticeable. Men approach action in a certain way, and it’s an inherited tradition of how to approach action, which is a slightly stoic engagement with violence. There’s a sense of glorification about it because it’s such a kind of masculine pastime in a way. And so, there’s something celebratory about it. And I think that Gina, Charlize and KiKi approached action and violence in a completely different way. They approach it as part of storytelling, as part of engagement with narrative and engagement with character. And in that way, it’s not like the film stops and then you have an action sequence. It’s like the film continues through the action sequences. It’s much more complex, in a way, than the relationship that I normally find directors have with action sequences. It’s very hands-on and very engaged with because it’s telling a slightly different story. And that’s probably because the relationship to violence is different for a lot of women than it is for men.
Copley is devoted to uncovering the history that’s written in the margins. And because of our ongoing state of crisis, his storyline reminded me of several historical events that I just became privy to since they weren’t in my textbooks growing up. Given the circumstances, have you been watching entertainment through our present-day lens as well?
I suppose inevitably, yes. I was discussing with somebody recently about Sans Soleil, the Chris Marker film, and there’s a line that he has that’s: “History throws its empty bottles out the window.” We are so selective about the history that we remember, that we celebrate, that we think about, that we engage with. It’s so narrow in our focus, and there are so many things that are missed. There are so many things that would be illuminating, and there are so many things that would help us in the day-to-day struggles. But we’re so ridiculously myopic sometimes that we don’t really get the most out of history, and we certainly don’t get as much as we should. Yeah, I think that it’s important to look at entertainment within the context of what is happening — whether it’s in the context of the world, to escape from the world, of course, but also to understand it fully. That’s what art does well. It has modes of explaining the world to ourselves. It’s what Shakespeare called “brief chronicles of our times.” And that is a very important function of art, film and theater.
Were there any personal touches of your own as far as the objects and photographs in Copley’s office?
Not really, no. There were things that I had mentioned and wanted, not of my own exactly, but for the character. Just things that I thought were interesting and important. The dynamic and the relationship with his wife is something not necessarily explored, but I feel like it’s felt. And that’s what I was intrigued by. I was curious to see how we could achieve an understanding of a very deeply felt, emotional engagement — a unique engagement for him — and how to really get that across, so his actions around that issue are understood.
Your directorial debut, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, was rather well received, and it seems you’ve already got your next project lined up with one of my favorite young actors, Stephan James, as Robert Peace. Did you and Antoine Fuqua start to put Rob Peace together while shooting Infinite?
No, we’d already been speaking about it for a while before Infinite. But that was great to be able to chat Rob Peace, as well, in the margins, again, of shooting this very, very different film. But yeah, I’m very excited about our project. I’m very excited about Stephan, and he’s an amazing young actor. Once we all can get back into the world of making films, we can see where we are with all of that. I’m excited about that.
In the years to come, do you envision yourself tipping the scale more toward filmmaking, or are you striving to keep an equal balance between acting and directing?
Yeah, I’ve made no big decisions about that. It’s just about the stories that intrigue me and compel me into action. I love directing. I think it’s an incredible profession. And for an artist, I think it’s the full kit, and that is an amazing thing. But the richness that can come from just approaching the depth and the engagement of a character — and not approaching it with anything else in mind — is also something that obviously, in my life, has been very, very fulfilling. And a part of the way that I have reacted and engaged with self-expression is through other people’s words and other people’s direction. I think that is important to keep as a part of what I do so I am not creating or having a hand in everything I do. But it’s a very rich tapestry, so I hope to sit within the spectrum of it.
Have you had a Zoom chat with [Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness director] Sam Raimi yet?
(Laughs.) I haven’t, but I’m very excited to talk to Sam Raimi. I’m as excited about the prospect of that. Again, it’s sort of like everything else as we’re all waiting in the wings. We’re all greyhounds in the traps, at this point. And we’re waiting to see where we all get let out, so we can get on with the work at hand, which I’m incredibly excited about. And I’m very excited about him. He’s a phenomenal filmmaker that I’ve long, long admired, so I think it’ll be very special.
I’m a big fan of John Hillcoat, and I thought you did some excellent work in Triple 9. The same goes for Serenity. With that feedback in mind, are you often surprised by the roles that people mention to you in passing?
Yes, I suppose I am. I think that it’s interesting. What I’ve been very fortunate for in my working life is the variety of roles that have come my way. That’s what I’ve always loved about being an actor — to be able to go into different worlds, different psyches and play very different people. And so, you can’t always match the person to the film that they’re going to talk about, I’ve learned. (Laughs.) That’s been quite interesting and quite illuminating, sometimes. I think you can sometimes match the season. I know that as it gets toward Christmas, people talk about Love Actually more than anything else, but that sort of seems to end at around Valentine’s Day … But that’s a film that I love, Triple 9, and John Hillcoat is a fantastic director. And Serenity. Again, the Browncoats, the fans of Serenity, there’s such a great intensity to that, and I suppose that was in the early days of a certain kind of fan culture that we really know now. But it felt like it sort of began in a way with the Browncoats, somehow.
Seven years have passed since 12 Years a Slave. Has your perspective on the experience changed at all? Has your fondness for the work only increased?
I think I still feel the same way about the film as I felt at the time. I feel that Steve (McQueen) created something of such urgency, power and poetry. And it was a necessity, really. I felt that it was such an extraordinary gap in cinema, to not have heard these stories, really, from the perspective of the slave, him or herself, from deep inside the slave experience. That is what Solomon Northup’s firsthand account of what he went through really brings, and Steve really brought this extraordinarily humanistic, empathetic approach to telling the story. And I think it still resonates. It still has all the power it had when I was first engaged with it, when I first read it, when I first spoke to Steve about it, when I was on set every day and when I first saw it. I think he made an extraordinary film.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The Old Guard is now available on Netflix.