Chiwetel Ejiofor on the "Moral Ambiguities" of Heist Film 'Triple 9' (Q&A)

Triple 9 Trailer chiwetel eljiofor - H 2016
Courtesy of Yahoo! Movies

"I always thought it would be fascinating to play a guy that has an easier time robbing a bank than he does dealing with his kids or the mother of his child," said the Oscar-nominee on his action thriller role.

Triple 9 is a heist movie with moral ambiguity the likes of The Town, the firepower of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and an ensemble cast that rivals the star power of Ocean's 11.

Casey Affleck stars as rookie officer that joins the police force of crocked cops that are being blackmailed to perform a near impossible bank heist by the Russian Mafia, run by Kate Winslet. Anthony Mackie,  Aaron Paul, Woody Harrelson, Gal Gadot, Norman Reedus and Teresa Palmer also star in the John Hillcoat-directed film. 

In the action-thriller, Oscar-nominated actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a former a former Navy SEAL-turned-criminal mastermind. The actor sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about how he prepared for his latest role ("Nothing but lifting heavy shit.") and his deep-seated appreciation for Dustin Hoffman ("[He] doesn't get enough love"). 

What drew you to the part?

I felt like the script constantly plays with moral ambiguities. I always thought it would be fascinating to play a guy that has an easier time robbing a bank than he does dealing with his kids or the mother of his child. I always thought it would be interesting to be that guy.

How did you prepare for the role of an ex-Navy SEAL?

I didn't feel like I had done a part with this much gun play. I had never grown up with guns—I don't have that in my arsenal... no pun intended. I was talking to John [Hillcoat, the director] and I told him I was very excited for the film but told him that I didn't know quiet what to do. This guy is ex-military and he is aggressive, and I thought how do I catch up with that in the time that we have, which is only a few months, before filming. So, I started working with Navy SEAL guys and working out literally all the time. Nothing but lifting heavy shit. And I tried to get myself into a mentality where I felt comfortable with something like an AR-15.

What was the most surprising thing that you learned through your tactical training?

I suppose because I have never had this direct relationship with guns—I found it interesting just how fragile life is. Like a mistake in that context is your life. Just the realization of the absolute fragility of life every time you hold a weapon. There is the familiarity [with guns] in the states and there was absolutely none of that with the culture I was born into—it was a very interesting leap in that way. Our relationship to violence is so different.

Did you look to any other heist movies for inspiration?

Some of my favorite movies are bank heist movies. Straight Time is one of my favorite movies. Dustin Hoffman doesn't get enough love. He is an extraordinary actor—and in a movie like Straight Time, where he holds the screen for an entire scene that is only one take, I look at it and go 'Now that's acting.' The tension that he creates in his performances is spectacular.  

What is the most difficult and rewarding part about working in such a large ensemble cast?

There was nothing too terribly difficult about it. I never felt like I needed to push for my own corner or my space. The rewarding part of it all is that you get to work with a lot of people that you have always admired their work. You watch people's work in abstraction and then you are in a room with these people and you realize how similar everyone's process is. Nobody walks on the set and goes "Excuse me, I happen to be a terrific actor." They work at it and the more that they work the better their performance will be. Like, Kate Winslet is so incredibly well prepared for her character to the point where it is kind of terrifying to be around. I guess I didn't need to do this movie to realize that but it was nice to know that it is not just me stressing out on my own.

On your next set, are you going to walk on to set and open with 'Hello, I am Chiwetel and I am a terrific actor'?

[Laughs.] Exactly. I will just be like "I haven't prepared anything. I am just gonna wing this one and see where it takes me."   

Is there something you want audiences to know about the film before getting to the theater?

John is so great at choreographing these heists, and he has this ability to tell this story of character in the midst of that. Like a guy running and a guy walking out of a bank heist tells you a lot about character. It's not like here are the bad guys and here are the good guys. It was more like here are the individual bad guys and the reasons they are doing what they are doing and here are the good guys, who are more f---ed up than the bad guys.

Triple 9 hits theaters on Feb. 26.