By Andrea Plaid
Anyone who know me very well just waited for me to write this one. Something about his beauteous combination of brilliance and chest hair keeps me on Team Chiwetel.
This week’s Crush started life in London, born to Nigerian parents and with the name Chiwetelu Umeadi Ejiofor. And he started his acting career when he was 13 doing school plays and getting accepted into the National Youth Theatre, whose alums include Daniel Day-Lewis, Helen Mirren, Daniel Craig, and Derek Jacobi.
There’s a standing theory in acting that theater thespians are the best-trained ones because they’re used to doing their work in the relatively untricked-out environment of the stage. Ejiofor’s accolade-laden career so far may offer some proof of that theory: he’s been given some of the highest nominations and awards in British theater, including the Ian Charleson Award for his interpretation of Romeo in Romeo And Juliet; London Evening Standard‘s Theatre Award for Outstanding Newcomer and a Laurence Olivier Theatre Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the play Blue/Orange; his turn as drag queen Lola in Kinky Boots got British Independent Film Award, Golden Globe, and BAFTA Rising Star nods; another Golden Globe nod and an NAACP Image Award nod for his work in Tsunami: The Aftermath; an Independent Spirit Award and an African American Film Critics Association Award for his role as radio-station manager Dewey Hughes in Talk To Me. And Ejiofor snagged the Laurence Olivier Theatre Award for his turn as Othello in 2008. All of his incredible actorliness earned Ejiofor the honorific of Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2008, too.
US audiences may remember Ejiofor as Ensign James Covey, the interpreter in Stephen Spielberg’s Amistad (he was 19 years old when he did it) or in Love, Actually. I personally remember him–more specifically, his almost-omniscient eyes and anchoring steeliness in the face of human chaos–in the anti-human trafficking indie flick Dirty Pretty Things (for which he won the Best Actor prize as the British Independent Film Awards, among many awards and nominations), the hold-up-you’re-the-bad-guy revolutionary in Children Of Men, and Denzel Washington’s got-your-back-and-your-common-sense partner in Spike Lee’s Inside Man. Ejiofor is the lead in Steve McQueen’s highly anticipated historical drama Twelve Years A Slave, and he’s also on the list of actors to play T’Challa (a.k.a. Black Panther) in a proposed movie project from the Marvel Comics movie division.
When talking about race and racism in acting–especially in regards to his participation in the British jazz-age drama Dancing On The Edge–in an interview earlier this year, he says:
I’ve been fortunate to be able to do a lot of different things. I haven’t felt any frustration [about parts he's been able to play]. In certain areas, British films don’t have as many black characters [as US films] and in other areas they do.
Then he adds this insight about race relations in the UK, then and now:
The Second World War simplified things like race, and people came down on very clear lines. I feel like modern-day racial discussions are much more complicated. At any given point, different sides of that argument are winning or pushing their viewpoint forward. ‘Winning’ in inverted commas. The perception is always that things get more liberal, but that’s not always how it works. The investigation of race politics in the Thirties and people’s openness had an interesting parallel. Paul Robeson would be playing Othello, as opposed to Laurence Olivier. And even though him kissing Peggy Ashcroft would mean that some people would walk out, some others would think it was brilliant and take it back to the States. But then, 20 years later, that sort of dynamic was impossible for a while.
And, if you want to know about my simplified theory about chest hair…feel free to drop a note at the R’s Tumblr.