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With more than 20 years of stage and screen experience — including a notable early role in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad in 1997 and an Oscar nomination for Steve McQueen’s 2013 drama 12 Years a Slave — Chiwetel Ejiofor has joined a growing number of high-profile actors flexing their creative muscles behind the camera.
In The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the 41-year-old Brit marks his directorial debut with the story of William Kamkwamba, who rose to fame as a teenager in rural Malawi when, having been forced to drop out of school, he constructed a makeshift wind turbine, helping his family and community during the country’s worst famine in 50 years. The film, picked up by Netflix for worldwide distribution outside the U.K., is the biggest production shot in Malawi to date. Ejiofor adapted Kamkwamba’s memoir and cast newcomer Maxwell Simba in the lead role.
Ahead of the film’s European premiere in Berlin, Ejiofor discussed shooting in the very same village where the story is set, not being able to hide behind another persona when in the director’s chair and being part of an annual Christmas cinema tradition.
What made you choose this to be your first film?
I read the book just after it came out in 2009 and I was just completely captured by it. My first takeaway was that I was just awestruck by this guy, by William and his journey and what he achieved through this extraordinary period of time when there was famine in Malawi. It’s very inspiring.
Was it all shot in Malawi?
Yes, all in Malawi and, essentially, all in the same real-life locations. Wimbe village was the real Wimbe village. The tobacco auction house is the tobacco auction house everyone there goes to. And the school, importantly, was William’s secondary school. All of that was incredibly important to capture a feel of that kind of authentic experience while giving the film its own epic scale.
There seems to be a number of prominent actors stepping behind the camera recently. Any thoughts as to why?
I’ve noticed that as well! For me, I just feel like when things don’t quite go the way you want them to go and you have a lot of experience, you’ve got one of two options: You can either start to produce and thereby take some sort of control to move things in spaces you want them to go, or you can write and direct. I think that actors used to do that a lot, but it fell out of fashion in the ’90s. But there is a wealth of experience you have. If you’ve been making films for 20 years, it does put you in quite a good starting position.
Was your style similar to any of the directors you’ve worked with?
I think the challenge is to find your own mode of doing something, which is what is so revealing about directing. You can’t hide hide behind another persona, you’re just being exactly who you are, whatever that amounts to is what turns up on set. All of its triumphs and all of its failings are you.
With Netflix taking The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, is there any sadness that it’s not going to be watched by many people in cinemas?
It’s a balance. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity. When I was making the film, at first Netflix didn’t exist in that mode. My aspirations were slightly more traditional, but there was a realization that it was never a film that was going to be on thousands of screens. What’s amazing now is that I feel like this is a platform where it can really be engaged with on the level that it’s made for. And equally, if people want to see it in the cinema, there’ll be a day-and-date release in the U.S.
It’s more than 15 years old now, but Love Actually is still one of your most famous films. Are you surprised that it’s become something of an annual tradition?
Yeah, I think everyone’s a bit surprised. It has become an inherited tradition. There’s no formula for making a film do that, but it’s very exciting to be a part of it, and so many people I speak to at a certain time of the year turn their attention to Love Actually.
In that famous scene with Keira Knightley and Andrew Lincoln, did you ever wonder what would have happened if only you’d answered the door instead?
(Laughs.) That is a question for the writer. But I know that Andy as a person — and his character — is quite quick on his feet.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Feb. 8 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.
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