Interview: Chiwetel Ejiofor on Redbelt, Serenity, and Watchmen
by Alex Billington
May 13, 2008
If you haven't heard of Chiwetel Ejiofor, then please take a moment to get acquainted with him. He is one of the finest actors working today and always exciting to see on screen. Calling him an up-and-comer is an understatement - he's already a phenomenal actor who has been in quite a bit, you just haven't come to memorize his name and his face yet, but you will soon enough. I honestly first was introduced to Ejiofor in Serenity, but have since become an enormous fan and follower of all of his work. This summer he stars in David Mamet's Redbelt, a drama about a Ju-Jitsu instructor. A few weeks back I had the chance to interview Ejiofor and it was definitely a defining moment for me.
What I love about this interview is that it just went perfect. By the end, Chiwetel and I were just chatting about the state of graphic novels and adaptations in Hollywood, including Watchmen. He gives the greatest explanation behind the ideas in Watchmen that I've ever heard and also brilliantly explains Ju-Jitsu morals in relation to Hollywood. I've highlighted the greatest parts in the interview below and you can get to each of his answers via the links. Even if you're not up for reading the entire thing, I think it's key that you read what Chiwetel had to say specifically at those two points. I hope you enjoy one of the best interviews I've done with one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood.
Redbelt is a very unique movie, it's a very idea for a fight film, because David Mamet's approach is very different. Can you explain how you found this or how the script came to you and what drew you to it initially?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: The script sort of made its way to me through the agency, I mean it was a pretty sort of root one operation. I mean the agent, my agent, is also [David Mamet's] agent it turns out, so my agent called me, I had a brief conversation with David on the phone, and then I was aware that he was going to send me the script, and I was very excited to read it because I was a huge fan of David's work, and I was just sort of expecting it to be something special. And it was. And so, I read it and I thought it was completely amazing and completely unique and completely unlike anything I had ever read before and totally kind of powerful and engaging, so I was thrilled to sign up and get going with it.
And sort of the first part and parcel of the whole thing was to get training to work on the Ju-Jitsu, and so I started training with an extension of the Gracie family, who is the primary family in presenting Ju-Jitsu in the world. And so I worked with them at the Roger Gracie Academy in London, and then I did that for about a month or so, pretty intense one-on-one training or one-on-two training with the head guys, the instructors there, and began a process of understanding the philosophies of Ju-Jitsu and also the moves. And then the second month of training was basically in Los Angeles and really focused on the details of the movie especially. And I got a chance to work with Renato Magno, who is one of David's trainers as well, and an incredibly gifted Ju-Jitsu artist, and, again, one of the foremost in the world, and the Machado Brothers, who compete and are really amazing. We worked basically every day, and then when I wasn't working in the gym I was training in terms of weights or running or something, you know, just to keep physically athletic and physically fit. And then in the third month we started shooting, but at the same time, we were also piecing together the bits of the fights in any spare time that we had. So it was a kind of all-around, you know, from reading the script to getting thrown into the middle of it, was an all-around process. It was kind of amazing - complex but interesting process.
Did you work with Randy Couture at all or was he just someone you just saw on set?
Ejiofor: No, we didn't, because he is not fighting in the film so we didn't, we just sort of chatted briefly on the set and, you know, he is really cool. I saw his documentary and I was really impressed by his dedication to it, and, obviously, like so many of the other guys, it's his life. And he is really aware of the Ju-Jitsu aspect of everything in the fight scene and it is obviously a form of martial arts that hits at the very highest level, which is why people do it so extensively.
When you first read the script with the fight sequences, was there anything that really worried you or, on the other hand, did it even excite you?
Ejiofor: Yes, I think for the most part I just found it exciting; I just found it kind of engaging and terrifically exciting to be part of, and I was just sort of thrilled to, you know, I was just chomping at the bit just to get involved and that was my major feeling throughout the film. And every day was like, oh, yeah, great, we get to do that scene, and if it wasn't a fight sequence it was an acting sequence, and, those are the best. It's the best experience for an actor to know that every day you are waking up and it is a challenge, but it is an exciting sort of challenge, it's not laborious or trying to get through the moment or being expositional or sort of facilitating plot or some days are just days of just sitting in a car or something. But this one was - every day was like it was major, and that was the great thing about a writer who is able to write scene after scene that's exciting and engaging and progresses his story and has a narrative and really kind of pushes all the envelopes. So for two hours, just under, you are kind of just completely involved in what is going on, and that's exciting.
I really loved the morality and the ethics aspect to it that your character especially really adheres to. Is that something you particularly believe in or is that just sort of what you attached onto in the character?
Ejiofor: I think that we all - everybody has a kind of either conscious or subconscious morality that keeps them in check. I don't think society could really function without it. But these guys do take that - these Ju-Jitsu guys and Ju-Jitsu practitioners - take that to an extreme and they are very, very big on their own kind of sense of morality and the sense of doing the right thing and somehow practicing doing the right thing within daily life. Being pure of soul and pure of thought will influence, as well, the way you approach the fight when the fight happens. And that is a great thing to watch and I think it is sort of very true, as well, that those things do matter and people are - one thing does bleed into the other.
I didn't have any kind of extreme morality code which I lived by, and I don't, but it was great to be able to tap into that, to understand there is an alternative and that is a way to live and it has various benefits. But it is, again, as the film discusses, it's rewarding but it is the road less traveled and therefore you do come up against people and situations where you can easily be perceived as naïve and manipulatable, and the truth is, of course, that these guys are anything but manipulatable.
And, also one of the things with Renato or John Jack and John Machato, is that they are the nicest people in the world, but you wouldn't be in any doubt that you wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of them, because, of course, they are also martial artists of the highest order and they carry that confidence around with them, which is impossible to misunderstand. So they behave incredibly well, but they know that their ability to live the life they want has to come at the price of, in a sense, that people have to be aware that because they live a certain way doesn't mean that they are to be kind of manipulated or to be messed about with, because they are not. And they have no qualms with if you are backed into a corner. You have to come out of that corner and they are very aware of that.
I have heard David Mamet is a Ju-Jitsu supporter himself, is that true?
Ejiofor: Yes, he has been training in Ju-Jitsu for five or six years so he is very proficient at it.
Wow. So that was obviously a big thing for him, then, to bring into this, almost like a dream project to him.
Ejiofor: Yes, well, I think that his studying of Ju-Jitsu is what inspired him to write the film in the first place, so I think as his depth and understanding of the philosophies of Ju-Jitsu came to him, and as he then applied them to his life and noticed the results, he then started to construct the idea of this story of a guy who lives his life in a certain way, having to be put into the place, this volatile mix of morality and honor in Hollywood, and how do you hold onto your moral intentions and honorable sensibilities when you are placed in the midst of a morally ambiguous and ambivalent circumstance. And that's really what the contemporary world is in many ways, and certainly Hollywood is, it's just a sequence of choices, some of them are good and some of them are bad and most of them are somewhere in between. But if you are trying to follow a high ground, which doesn't include the ones in between, really, then how do you really negotiate that without getting stepped on? So I think that's what David was sort of interested in.
You have been involved in a lot of great movies in terms of Serenity, Talk to Me, Children of Men, American Gangster - what draws you to these roles? Is there something in particular that you look for in a character? Is it just that the script is available to you and it's something you are interested in as job? Besides Talk to Me, you have taken a lot of really serious roles - is that something you have been specifically looking for?
Ejiofor: I think I just look for what appeals to me, and maybe what appeals to me is kind of serious sometimes. I like characters and I like story and I sort of like narrative, and that is what excites me. And sometimes, I suppose, in the contemporary context a lot of that is based around dramas these days so I enjoy that and it's what I have always done. I have always been involved in drama, and somehow that is where a lot of the good stories are. And I think there can be comedic moments in drama, like in Kinky Boots, I think there are some funny beats, but the overall, I'm just saying, is that it is a complex story between a few groups of people, and even though the story is heightened and amusing, there are all sorts of beats and machinations that go on and I think that's just what intrigues me and that's what I pursue.
Can you tell if there is a different feeling when working on more larger scale, high profile projects versus something like this or Kinky Boots?
Ejiofor: No, I don't. For me, I don't notice. The work in a sense is the same and so you come at it with the same sort of precepts and understanding of what you want to try and do, and you try to do it to the best of your ability without really - it doesn't influence the work to me whether it is a big movie or a smaller movie. When I sign up, I sign up for it all, to be whatever it is, so that's the way that I kind of approach it.
Who is your favorite director that you have worked with over the years?
Ejiofor: It is impossible to say, really, I mean, I have been fortunate enough to work with some incredibly talented and brilliant people and I have had a remarkable time with all of them. They are all very, very different, and there are always things to take away, and they have variously inspired me in different ways and that's just extraordinarily exciting.
What do you have coming up next?
Ejiofor: Well, I have been on stage for a little while. I do Othello at the Donmar in England, and I have just completed that with Ewan McGregor and Kelly Riley, and after finishing this and when the movie comes out, I am going to do a film about the end of apartheid in South Africa, so that's sort of my next project.
One of the things that my site really focuses on is the theatrical experience. Is there anything that you have noticed over the years that - like I would reference Children of Men specifically, how there was the debate with Universal about not releasing it wider in the US, and thus inhibiting its possibility of being seen in theaters. Is that something that you have noticed? I just want to hear your opinion on the whole theatrical situation, how audiences are starting to go to theaters less and less.
Ejiofor: It is sort of hard. Whatever the criteria is for the release in the films is based upon situations that I'm not - you know, they're based upon decisions where I am not always privy to all the information about the way the decisions are come to, but it is true that I, like members of the public, felt at times frustrated by the lack of cinema outlets that certain movie are shown. But, then, having said that, I am not privy to all the information, or where they feel they are most likely to recoup their money, be that on DVD, be that on downloads or whatever, I don't know. But the sense is that I've always thought the movie, the cinema experience is the prime viewing experience for a film. I have always felt that that is where I wanted to see films end up, and I have always felt like that is where I want audiences to experience them. I want them to experience them in the cinema. That's sort of what it is there for, I mean it's the difference between doing a play in a theater and doing a play in somebody's living room. I mean, you want to experience it, you want people to experience it in a certain context. And certainly that's the experience of DP's, directors of photography, and editors and, obviously, in these days more and more, there is a sound editor and always we see the composition in the music score. Even the performances you want to be generated in that way and to be witnessed in that way.
But these are the realities of the artistic idealism and the stock, the commercial/financial realism, and, so, somehow sometimes it is going to work in your favor and sometimes against, and that's all part and parcel of it. We just, in our end, just carry on trying to sort of produce the work, or the best work we can do, and hope that at their end they find a way of getting that to as many people as possible in the cinema medium.
I want to jump back to Redbelt briefly. David did the script as well, right?
Do you notice a strength with him more in the writing or the directing? Does he focus more of his energy on putting together a good script and then letting it be played out by actors while he is directing; or does he put more emphasis on directing?
Ejiofor: Well, he does what every great writer/director does, I think, and that is both. When he is writing, he is the writer and writes selfishly as a writer, without any consideration for the director or any other element, the director can figure it out when it gets to the director, then the director has to sort of do it. So he writes as a writer and he satisfies his own feelings about narrative and character and structure in the context of the writing of the piece.
And I think that when he puts on the hat of the director, he is selfishly the director and he wants to capture the spontaneity and the moment of change and the moments of flux within a script and within a story idea and he wants to be alive to the possibility of changing things at the drop of a hat, of introducing other elements and new elements, of rehashing or retalking and discussing the sequences and bits and, you know, things that could drive a writer crazy if there was a separate writer.
So he is sort of able to put on the two different hats and sometimes the two do meet. If you are talking about something to do with the script, then there is the director, he may just go weigh them and sort of work it out as the writer and then come back and there is a middle ground that satisfies both things. So I think there is a kind of schizophrenia, an enforced schizophrenia that sort of happens to the writer/director, and I think that's - in order to do it well, that's important, you have to sort off a certain side of your head, the writing side of your head in order to be alive to the director role possibilities. And I think that is what he does.
I don't know if you have much to say about this, but I wanted to ask you about noticing the difference between films like Serenity, where there is a huge fan base, and films like Redbelt and Kinky Boots, where not many people hear about them until they get made. Is there anything that you notice differently between those?
Ejiofor: I mean, not significantly. I was very aware of the fan base for Serenity, just because it was impossible to escape. The Browncoats are pretty active and that's cool, and it was great to be around that and to see that and just to - I've never done a sci-fi movie before and I never had any kind of exposure to that other side of making films and people who are just really, really, really into it, and I found that really exciting. And the sci-fi crowd is a really interesting crowd because there is a lot of intellect and it's sort of both things.
There is a sort of fan boy element, but it is really kind of sophisticated and really interested in literature and writing and so on, and I related to that because I remember when people were a bit snooty about stuff like graphic novels, and he had mentioned something like V for Vendetta or Watchmen or whatever, and people were like, "But isn't that a comic?" And you get a little defensive because you think like you guys don't know anything about anything. And then, of course, as time turns around, these things then become these major movies, and then suddenly everybody is talking about it and everybody wants this sort of ownership of like, "Oh, yeah, I knew about the graphic novel." I was like, "No, you didn't." Anyway, so there are the two schools of it: there is a kind of fanboy element and then there is this solid literal base of all these things, which I kind of relate to. So I was excited about the Browncoat influence on Serenity. So I could see that as an element that was an added and distinguished dimension that you don't have in other independent films and whatever. But, yes, every movie experience is different and every movie experience brings along with it a sense of its own sort of expectation and result. This film has a Mamet fan base.
Ejiofor: So it's slightly different but I relate to it as well because I grew up a huge fan of Mamet, and anybody in theater and working in theater certainly over the last twenty or thirty years is going to be very, very acutely aware of David Mamet and his plays. And they would have quoted them back and forth over the years anyway, you know, and Glengarry Glen Ross becomes at times, in some theaters, sort of a version of a sing-along and I have seen it many times. In fact, the last time I saw it in London, people were mouthing along and it's kind of extraordinary that that happens.
So are you a comic book fan yourself, you were mentioning graphic novels...
Ejiofor: Yes, I was, I was a fan of 2000 AD and stuff like that back in the day, and Alan Moore, of course, and Sin City, as well, and all those books. And it has been great to see them take on this other mantle. I always think of all the other ones, you know, ABC Warriors, suddenly you want to see everything kind of in the loop, but not everything is possible to make the transition to that sort of thing, but it is definitely fascinating.
Well it is interesting to see, I guess, the current trend of Hollywood is that they're really adapting so many different things. We have comic books and novels and that is the focus now, there are not as many original projects coming through.
I mean it is an interesting direction that I am seeing, but, at the same time, thankfully, the comic books especially have really stepped the bounds to go beyond just some cheesy middle ground thing into something like Watchmen which is going to be really prolific.
Ejiofor: Yes, that's the thing. There always needs to be the progression. The real advantages, of course, that these things have an in-built audience, which is why the studios are interested. So they have people who are just going to go and see. I'm going to see Watchmen, because it is an important document in my life because I remember the first time I read it, and I was like wow, that's amazing. And it changed my attitude towards the way that literature and graphic novelization could work. It seemed incredibly sophisticated to me. It is really exceptionally imaginative and it felt like an epic movie and a real leap, as well as one thing he did in that book was I think that the way that it was drawn was incredibly cinematic with sort of voiceovers and over-layering on different shots and these sort of characters coming in and out of the piece and the building and the sense of tension and a real sense of narrative and a complicated narrative story structure, and who is the bad guy and what is going to happen.
And, as well, these kind of extraordinary kinds of landscapes in the film, not just the cities but, then this sort of ending playing out in Antarctica and this kind of sense of it being beautiful and bleak. And then there is just the sense of the historic context of it all and the very dynamic history lesson within it all and the Kennedy, "who watches the Watchmen" assertation, and you just felt that there was a lot of that involved in this story as well as, actually, the discussions of physics with Dr. Manhattan - kind of nuclear physics and how that was progressing in the kind of ideas of Einstein. If I had known, I would have become a Watchman, this sense that there was just something that was very heartfelt and very intense about it and a real reflection of the contemporary world. So, as you can tell, I am a fan of Watchmen, so I am excited to see the movie.
Excellent. I visited the set when they were filming last year and it's coming together amazingly, I think. I think there is a lot to look forward to there. And that's what I mean about the whole comic book genre in general now, is that it has become more than just these whatever movies. Now they're really important.
Ejiofor: Sure. Yes, I think it can-- and I heard that there are... I hope it doesn't - my only worry is that it doesn't become a way of making it into a film, that it still maintains its own original form... That people don't go towards making graphic novels in order to basically write a storyboard for a movie. You know, that it still holds its own sort of imaginative place. Otherwise, it could just kind of dry up, but I really hope that doesn't happen so that we can have another generation of the likes of From Hell or Watchmen or, they don't even necessarily have to become movies, but just to still kind of be there. That's completely different to what we started off talking about.
Interesting. This is always a fun question we like to ask in our interviews, but what are your five favorite movies of all time?
Ejiofor: Sure. Well, in no particular order.
Ejiofor: I'd say that the movies that I - one of my favorites movies is Raging Bull, which I think is a masterpiece. And I could watch it anytime, that's sort of how I judge my favorite movies - like if it's just on, do I just take the time out just to watch it. That's one of the things, you know. Another movie like that is the first Godfather where it doesn't matter where, what I am doing, what is going on, if I turn on the television and the Godfather is on, it's like okay, everything else can pick up from when this bit finishes. And I have been able to probably approximate pretty well how much of the movie is left so I can then reschedule my day. Okay, Santino is getting killed, okay, what have we got, another hour fifteen, okay, you know, then I will do that, so then I will just watch that.
Another film that I love is Fargo, which is a Coen Brothers film which I just think is brilliant. And the other Coen Brothers film that I think is really terrific is Miller's Crossing, which I have always had a real soft spot for. And who can I place in the last one, there's so many. I'd throw in Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee's film, and it's just, again, that's just a kind of remarkable movie. But, I mean, that's five movies, really, but that doesn't really say in a way, but there are just so many, there are just countless movies that I just think are so brilliant and are constantly inspirational.
Thank you to Chiwetel Ejiofor and everyone at Sony Pictures Classics for making this interview happen! You can check out a trailer for Redbelt here. The film is currently playing in select theaters across the country. Make sure to check it out if you were inspired by Chiwetel in this interview - he deserves the chance to make it big!