Interview: The Shadow Line’s Chiwetel Ejiofor

Why the BBC crime thriller gave the actor a reason to come home from Hollywood

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It takes a special script to tempt an actor back to rain-swept London from sunny Los Angeles, but Chiwetel Ejiofor found it in the noir-ish The Shadow Line. “I read it in the Hollywood Hills in beautiful sunshine and I thought, Well, that’s that. Shut down the house. I have to go back. It’s going to be rainy and cold, but I love it.”

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The Shadow Line follows the maze-like trail of a murder investigation in which Ejiofor’s character, Jonah Gabriel, is a detective with short-term memory loss from a bullet lodged in his brain. “It’s a big juggle to keep in your head as an actor. You’re trying to find out who committed the murder, while trying to figure out your own morality at the same time.”

We meet for lunch at Cafe Med in the heart of the Sunset Strip. Ejiofor picks the most remote table only to be spotted by Roland Emmerich, his director on the mega-disaster movie, 2012. The two duly enact the classic Tinseltown table-hop, but with genuine affection.

“My job on films like 2012,” says Ejiofor, sitting back down to his shrimp salad, “is to stare at a computer screen and say, ‘This is bad.'” Raised in London by Nigerian parents, he found success early on stage and in films. “I had a blind confidence when I was younger, but I don’t really know where it came from. I look back now and go, what was I thinking? Telling Spielberg on Amistad, “I don’t know about this shot…'”

His turning point was Stephen Frears’ Dirty PrettyThings in 2002, in which he played an illegal immigrant caught up in organ-trafficking, and which earned a seven-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival. “I learned later that seven minutes isn’t that long, but it was a huge deal for me at the time.”

He moved to Los Angeles four years ago at the age of 33 to film American Gangster for Ridley Scott. “I can’t quite deal with flip-flops in the afternoon, but I do love the lifestyle. I’ve had days where I’ve gone sailing in the morning and camping in the desert at night.”

He says that he is still “in transit”, but his accent has a telltale transatlantic tinge. Perhaps more tellingly, he has also acquired a dog, called Clay. “I worked out the breed I liked the most – the Pyrenean Shepherd. Then I found the guy with the best litter and flew out to Cleveland to get him.”

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You went to Cleveland to get a dog? “It’s a great dog.” His face lights up with a big, distinctly un-noirish grin.