Chiwetel Ejiofor on his personal connection with new film Half of a Yellow Sun

The 12 Years a Slave star also talks about awards, career highlights and those James Bond rumours...

Chiwetel Ejiofor on his personal connection with new film Half of a Yellow Sun
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Chiwetel Ejiofor's striking visage has been appearing on the big screen since 1997, when he was cast in Steven Spielberg’s slave drama Amistad.

Now things have come full circle – this year the London-born actor was honoured with both a Bafta and an Oscar nomination for his role as the enslaved Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen’s powerful and harrowing 12 Years a Slave. caught up with the celebrated thespian ahead of the release of his latest film, Nigerian civil war drama, Half of a Yellow Sun, to talk about the movie, his career and those James Bond rumours…

… on which he won’t be cajoled into commenting. “We’re going to move swiftly on…” he laughs at the slightest mention of the possibility that he could be about to follow in the footsteps of some of the screen’s most memorable actors as a villain in the long-running British spy movie franchise. Shame – wants to warn him about accepting, and taking himself out of the running for the role of Bond himself one day. He’d surely make a great successor to Daniel Craig.

No matter. Talk turns back to the recognition he received during the recent awards season – and the OBE he was awarded back in 2008. In what ways has this acknowledgement been important to him?

“It sounds strange but I don’t really take it that personally,” he says. “I think the Academy Awards and the Baftas are real celebrations of film, in that wider sense, and a celebration of the work that a lot of people put into making films. And I think that, just in the last awards season we had, there was a terrific diversity in film – so many people from all sorts of places could come in and find themselves represented and talked about in cinema and in the film being celebrated, which I was really excited to be part of. So in that sense, I do feel that it’s quite a collective thing – it’s obviously an honour to be singled out but I don’t think it’s entirely my doing is what I’m saying. I can’t quite claim all of it!”

Nevertheless, Ejiofor admits to feeling privileged at being given the chance to tell the real-life story of the man who was torn from his family and forced into slavery, and then wrote a book about his experiences. “I thought the book was extraordinary so I was very excited to be a part of that.”

He feels similarly privileged to tell the story of a family affected by the Nigerian-Biafran War. Set in the late 1960s, Half of a Yellow Sun, based on the novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, focuses on two sisters whose lives are turned upside down by the brutal conflict.   

Although Ejiofor grew up in south-east London, he is of Nigerian descent and the events of the film closely parallel events in his own family. “My grandfather was one of the main accountants for a mining corporation in the north of Nigeria and when the [conflict] started, he was forced down into the east where he then reconnected with my grandmother and the children – my mother and my aunt and uncles. They ended up on the road going from village to village as the Nigerian forces were blowing up the villages. A lot of that stuff forms part of the infrastructure of the film.”

Since we’re looking back, I ask Ejifor to reflect on his impressive career. Are there any personal highlights amid his remarkable body of work?

“When you start, it’s really exciting and if I ever catch myself reflecting on some of the work that I’ve done, I end up going back to starting out at the National Youth Theatre when I was maybe 16, 17,” he says. “And then doing things like Blue Orange with Bill Nighy and Andrew Lincoln, which we did at the National in the West End in 2000 – I think we started in ’99. Things like that – and falling in love with film… working with Stephen Frears on Dirty Pretty Things. I’ve just had an incredibly fortunate experience and I’m completely aware of that as well.”

Having just put to bed two of his most acclaimed performances to date, you suspect there are plenty more incredibly fortunate experiences for both him and audiences to come.

Half of a Yellow Sun is in UK cinemas from Friday 11 April