Chiwetel Ejiofor is a British actor highly regarded for his stage presence, versatility, and dramatic intensity. Critics have consistently praised his work in Hollywood thrillers, television dramas, and Shakespearean tragedies. By the age of thirty, Ejiofor had been nominated for more than a dozen major acting awards, winning several. With a reputation for professionalism, modesty, and kindness, he is one of the most sought after actors on either side of the Atlantic.
Ejiofor was born in the East London neighborhood of Forest Gate. His father, a doctor and amateur musician, and his mother, a pharmacist, were immigrants from the West African nation of Nigeria, a former British colony. In a 2002 interview with Amy Raphael in the London Observer, Ejiofor mentioned his fascination as a young boy with Cary Grant's performance in the classic film Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942). By the time he was thirteen years old, he was acting in school plays and with the National Youth Theatre. His training continued after winning a scholarship to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
Ejiofor's first performance as a professional came in 1996, with an appearance in a television thriller entitled Deadly Voyage. Though the role was a small one, it drew the attention of the American director Steven Spielberg, who cast Ejiofor the following year in the historical drama Amistad. Amid these first appearances on film and television, the young actor continued to play a wide variety of roles on the London stage, including Romeo in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet; Christopher, the troubled patient at the center of Blue/Orange, a drama about mental illness by Joe Penhall; Peer Gynt, in the nineteenth-century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's fantasy of the same name; and Nicky, the lead role in The Vortex, Noël Coward's 1924 story of drug use among the rich and privileged. As Charles Isherwood wrote in the New York Times, Ejiofor's "London theater résumé encompasses a fascinating, even puzzling range of roles."
Even as Ejiofor's reputation among London theatergoers continued to grow, his work in film and television drew the attention of much larger audiences. His most significant television roles at this stage of his career were Orsino, in a made-for-TV production of Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night, or What You Will; Paul, in The Canterbury Tales, an updated version of Geoffrey Chaucer's late-medieval classic; and the lawyer Ashley Carter, in the miniseries Trust. His first film lead, meanwhile, came in Metin Hüseyin's comic crime thriller It Was an Accident (2000). While critics praised Ejiofor's performance, the film itself had limited appeal to audiences, particularly those unused to the British urban slang that dominated the script. Far more successful was the 2002 film Dirty Pretty Things, a dramatic thriller set among illegal immigrants in London. Ejiofor played Okwe, a Nigerian physician who stumbles onto criminal activity while working one of the low-paying jobs he must take to survive. Stephen Holden, film critic for the New York Times, wrote, "Anchoring the melodrama is a magnificent central performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as the noble, underemployed physician who engineers one of the most satisfying (if not the most credible) paybacks to the bad guys." Raphael in the Observer was equally impressed: "Okwe is a character who internalises his feelings and has learnt to disguise his pain, with beautiful subtlety and dignity. As with many great cinematic performances, it is all in the eyes."
A series of well-chosen film roles followed Dirty Pretty Things. These included the roles of Ellis Moonsong, a charming pianist, in Woody Allen's comedy/drama Melinda and Melinda (2004); Lola, a cross-dressing singer in the comedy/drama Kinky Boots (2005); and a brutal gangster, Victor Sweet, in the crime drama Four Brothers (2005). 2007 brought well-regarded roles in American Gangster, director Ridley Scott's epic tale of heroin traffickers in 1970s New York, and Talk to Me, with costar Don Cheadle. Talk to Me is the story of 1960s radio personality Petey Greene, played by Cheadle, and Ejiofor's Dewey Hughes, Greene's friend and boss. Robert Koehler in Variety described Cheadle and Ejiofor as "a fine example of great performances covering severe script issues."
In November of 2007 Ejiofor turned back to the stage with the lead role in a new production at London's Donmar Warehouse of Othello, Shakespeare's devastating depiction of jealousy and madness. While the play as a whole earned strong reviews, Ejiofor's performance in particular caused a sensation among the city's notoriously hard-to-please theatergoers and critics. Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail, for example, wrote, "Mr. Ejiofor speaks verse with that misleading effortlessness only the very best actors can accomplish."
Ejiofor's work has earned him a remarkable number of nominations and awards. His earliest major award came in 2000, when he won the title of outstanding newcomer in the London Evening Standard's theater awards. After a best supporting actor nomination the following year at the Laurence Olivier Awards, he won two best actor awards for his film work in Dirty Pretty Things: one British Independent Film Award and one Evening Standard British Film Award. The same performance also earned him a nomination for most promising performer from the Chicago Film Critics Association. Two Golden Globe nominations followed in 2006: one (best actor in a miniseries or made-for-TV motion picture) for his work in Tsunami: The Aftermath and one (best actor in a comedy or musical) for Kinky Boots. A year later the African American Film Critics Association named Ejiofor best supporting actor for his role in American Gangster. These honors are a striking indication of Ejiofor's versatility, for they span both major genres (drama and comedy) and all three mediums (film, stage, and television). Very few actors of any age can claim that kind of range.
At a Glance …
Born on July 10, 1977(?), in Forest Gate, East London, United Kingdom. Education: Attended London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
Career: Actor appearing in films, on television, and on stage.
Awards: Evening Standard Theatre Award, outstanding newcomer, 2000; Laurence Olivier Award nomination, Society of London Theatre, best supporting actor, 2001; British Independent Film Award and Evening Standard British Film Award, both best actor, and Chicago Film Critics Association nomination, most promising performer, all 2002, for Dirty Pretty Things; two Golden Globe Award nominations, both 2006, best actor in a miniseries or made-for-TV motion picture, for Tsunami: The Aftermath, and best actor in a comedy or musical, for Kinky Boots; African American Film Critics Association award, best supporting actor, 2007, for American Gangster; Laurence Olivier Award, Society of London Theatre, best actor, 2008, for Othello.
Addresses: Agent—Pippa Markham, Markham & Froggatt, 4 Windmill St., London W1T 2HZ, United Kingdom.
As 2008 began, Ejiofor continued to focus on his role in the enormously successful production of Othello, tickets for which have sold for as much as $1,500 apiece. In March of 2008 the performance earned him a Laurence Oliver Award for best actor, London the- ater's most prestigious honor. Ejiofor was also working on upcoming roles in several new movies.
It Was an Accident, 2000.
Three Blind Mice, 2002.
Dirty Pretty Things, 2002.
Love Actually, 2003.
Red Dust, 2004.
Melinda and Melinda, 2004.
She Hate Me, 2004.
Kinky Boots, 2005.
Four Brothers, 2005.
Inside Man, 2006.
Children of Men, 2006.
Tonight at Noon, 2007.
Talk to Me, 2007.
American Gangster, 2007.
Slow Burn, 2007.
Blue/Orange, National Theatre (London), 2000.
Peer Gynt, National Theatre, 2000.
Romeo and Juliet, National Theatre, 2000.
The Vortex, Donmar Warehouse (London), 2002.
Othello, Donmar Warehouse, 2007.
Deadly Voyage, 1996.
Mind Games, 2001.
The Canterbury Tales, 2003.
Twelfth Night, or What You Will, 2003.
Tsunami: The Aftermath, 2006.
New Yorker, January 21, 2008.
New York Times, August 29, 2003; January 20, 2008.
Observer (London), November 3, 2002.
Variety, June 25, 2007.
"Ejiofor, Chiwetel," British Film Institute Screenonline, www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/538671 (accessed February 12, 2008).
"Press Reviews: Othello," (includes Daily Mail [London] review), BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7128683.stm (accessed February 12, 2008).
—R. Anthony Kugler