Chiwetel Ejiofor is a name to be reckoned with

Chiwetel Ejiofor
Chiwetel Ejiofor's skills as an actor have led to his being offered roles of ranging from Shakespeare to a martial arts expert.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Chiwetel Ejiofor is one of those actors whose name you may not recognize, despite it's exotic sound. Yet, you know who he is when you see his face.

He grew up in London, the son of Nigerian parents. But he didn't seem destined to be an actor. His mother is a pharmacist, and his father is a doctor. He didn't really plan to go on the stage.

However, an interest in drama in English class led to drama school, and a career which has involved a strikingly broad range of roles. He says he's been lucky in the parts he's been offered.

In "Redbelt" Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Mike Terry, a martial artist who is duped into fighting in a pay-per-view event against his principles.
Image courtesy Sont Pictures Classics

"It was one of the things that excited me about the profession in the first place. The idea of slipping into different role and peeking down different corridors and seeing just different ways of living," he said.

His first movie role was in the slave ship drama "Amistad." There were a few others before his big break in the 2002 film "Dirty Pretty Things."

He said he was lucky to be cast by director Stephen Frears. Ejiofor plays Okwe, a Nigerian doctor fleeing persecution in his homeland, who ends up in London. He's living there illegally, however, and he is forced to make some tough choices as he tries to survive. Ejiofor said that Frears encouraged him to explore new ideas and approaches as he developed the role.

"And Stephen was an extraordinary collaborator and talker and person to bounce ideas off. And obviously took care of the whole of the rest of the movie but really put aside time to encourage and craft the character of Okwe with me," Ejiofor said.

The film drew rave reviews and one Oscar nomination.

Since then there have been a host of other parts, ranging from small independents like "Talk to Me" to Hollywood blockbusters like "American Gangster."

He said working with David Mamet on Redbelt provided him with a new experience. Mamet wrote dramas such as "Glengarry Glen Ross," "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" and "American Buffalo," all known for their confrontational and occasionally foul-mouthed dialog.

Ejiofor and Mamet
Chiwetel Ejiofor listens as writer and director David Mamet talks about a scene from "Redbelt."
Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

"He's the only person I've worked with who, you know years ago, I studied," he laughed. "So in a former life I was writing essays about his work. Taking school trips to go see 'Oleanna' or something."

"Redbelt" rose out of Mamet's own study of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Based on judo, it developed in Rio de Janeiro in the early 20th century, and later blossomed in martial arts clubs in the U.S. Ejiofor had to train in London with some of the Gracies, the Brazilian family recognized as leading exponents of the style.

"It's not a striking martial art, so it's not about hitting. So it becomes, with an opponent, a kind of chess game if two people are good at jiu jitsu, a very energetic, very difficult chess game, where there a moves and counter moves, and invented moves and improvisation and attempts to just, you know, just throw everything at it to try and get out of a head lock," he said.

When it's pointed out that the martial art and David Mamet's approach to drama seem to converge, Ejiofor agrees.

"Well that's the thing," Ejiofor said. "He somehow found out that Brazilian Juijitsu when applied to life, if that makes any sense, actually has a kind of parallel." In Redbelt Ejiofor plays a martial arts instructor who won't fight for money. He is tricked by unscrupulous movie makers into having to take part in a pay-per-view contest.

New friends
In "Redbelt" Tim Allen plays an alcoholic action film star who tries to dupe Mike Terry (Ejiofor) into a scheme where Terry stands to lose everything.
Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Ejiofor said he went into the film thinking that working with Mamet might be difficult, but soon found out he was wrong.

"It was a terrific experience," he said. "And he was incredibly generous and easy to work with and sort of exceptionally detailed and knowledgeable and had a great care for actors so the whole process was really straightforward in the sense of a working collaboration."

Redbelt is being marketed both as an arthouse film and as a grindhouse flick. It's understood that the crowd attracted by the Mamet name is different from the crowd interested in a fight film. "Redbelt" opens in the Twin Cities this weekend.

Ejiofor experienced his own confluence of martial arts and high drama after he began the Jujitsu training. He signed up to do a stage production of "Othello" in London with Ewan McGregor. Some days they did two shows back to back.

"You know, you'd literally be cleaning off the blood and then going to put the first act costume again. It was kind of insane," he said.

And that's where the Jiu-Jitsu helped. Ejiofor points out as matches are decided by a submission there is no set duration. A good fighter needs to learn how to conserve energy until the moment it's needed. He says the same was true of "Othello."

"It was just about endurance. And all of Jiu-Jitsu is about endurance, is about being able to train your body to withstand the amount of energy you use over long periods of time."

It seems to have worked because Ejiofor's Othello drew rave reviews during it's run last year.