On a cold day in Soho, Chiwetel Ejiofor, the British star currently wowing Hollywood with his poignant performance in 12 Years a Slave, is remembering growing up in 1970s and 80s London. “I always loved it,” the actor recalls. “Even then I knew it was one of the centres of the world.” His voice is warm, a broad smile on his face – but as a black kid in a different time, something else was always present. “Oh, it often felt like everyone in the city was racist. We had to walk home through National Front marches. Institutional racism was just the norm.”
His smile fades, his manner tightens. “And it’s interesting to think back, because while my parents were coming here from Nigeria and trying to be useful to society, black people were subject to constant hassle – and now we see these reports about paedophiles in the public eye who were able to avoid attention at the time, while all the focus was on immigrants. So when I see ‘blame the immigrants’ in the headlines, I think ‘Well, who else is this letting off the hook?’”
He sighs. London was, he says, a complicated place to grow up – but the city has long been transformed by the slow process of “democracy working correctly, through individual people”.
Born to play a politician, an idealistic changer of minds, the implausibly handsome 36-year-old actor is nominated for two Golden Globes at this week’s ceremony – best actor in a motion picture for 12 Years a Slave and best actor in a mini-series for BBC drama Dancing on the Edge. Dressed in a chic mix of greys and blacks, his accent crisply middle-class, he’s a self-possessed professional on duty in his publicist’s office.
His parents Arinze and Obiajulu arrived in the city in the 60s, fleeing the Biafran war as students to settle in east London before heading to Camberwell. His mother qualified as a pharmacist, his father worked as a doctor while indulging his love of music by performing as a singer. But at the age of 11, while on holiday in Nigeria with his father, their taxi was involved in a crash. His father was killed. Ejiofor was left in hospital for ten weeks, his forehead permanently scarred. For a long time he didn’t tell interviewers about it. When he did, he admitted to a feeling of “betrayal” that life was capable of such cruelty.
Now, as an actor, he brings a rare emotional heft to his roles, revealing a character’s soul without them saying a word. As he has become one of Britain’s most accomplished actors, his father’s influence seems to speak through his parts; the everyday heroism of Okwe – the African doctor obliged to work illegally in a seedy London hotel in Dirty Pretty Things – was, he has said, based on Arinze; in Dancing on the Edge, he was a musician, the jazz-age band leader Louis Lester.
The echo resonates in his latest film. A world away from modern London, 12 Years a Slave (in cinemas now) is the true story of Solomon Northup – musician, father and free-born African-American in 1850s New York State, who was kidnapped and trafficked to Louisiana, where he spent the next dozen years enslaved on cotton plantations. It’s a fine but searingly brutal film, with Ejiofor’s stunning performance as Northup at its heart.
Director Steve McQueen only ever wanted him for the part. Yet Ejiofor admits that wasn’t quite enough to persuade him. “I was flattered, but that didn’t conclude the journey for me. I felt intimidated by the part. There was a weight of responsibility, and a weight of self-doubt, and I arrived very much hoping Steve was correct. I didn’t want to be the guy who f ***ed this up.”
He hasn’t. Yet it’s a curious fact that, after seeing such a harrowing film, many minds turned instantly to the glitz of awards season. Ever since the film appeared on the festival circuit, advance word has lined up Ejiofor as winner of this year’s best actor Oscar. Again, the flattery hasn’t been without its complications. “It’s been very weird,” he says. “Literally as soon as the film was screened, there was Oscar buzz, and that was very nice to hear. But part of me thought ‘Well, hang on – this is a reflection on a man’s life over 12 years of unbelievable anguish. Can we really dismiss that so quickly and start to speculate about awards?’ ”
More troubling to him still has been some of the press speculation. Because if every movie award season ends up with a storyline – the foreign-language underdog or the veteran performer finally taking to the podium – this year the focus has fallen on the likely competition between Ejiofor and his friend Idris Elba, star of Mandela. In the media at least, this means a contest for statuettes not just involving two British actors – but two black British actors.
Throughout our interview, Ejiofor is affable and thoughtful, respectful of the most bumbling questions while frequently laughing at a random comic phrase or thought. Now, though, his arms cross in front of him, a ticked-off note in his voice. “I don’t know what to think about that.” He weighs his words. “I mean, I am struck by how walking down the street I’m rarely made aware of my race, but that among journalists, race is absolutely massive. I’ve read a lot of articles about myself that are just ‘black black black black black…’ ” He repeats the word until it becomes a nonsense.
“It seems a strange disconnect with the real world, and unfortunately it also generates a kind of racial tension. Simply pointing out that two people who have been nominated for an award happen to have the same amount of melanin in their skin doesn’t seem very… useful.”
He reads out an imaginary newspaper profile. “‘As you may notice, Chiwetel Ejiofor is still a black British actor…’ ”
You can understand his frustration. It’s true that race has been central to many of his roles – for those with an eye for circularity, his big-screen debut came in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, another film about American slavery. Yet others have had nothing to do with it at all – the terrorist he played in the superb Children of Men, or the big-hearted drag queen Lola in Kinky Boots.
His career would be the envy of any actor; an unbroken diet of meaty roles on stage, in Hollywood blockbusters and interesting British TV drama. While many of his peers, both black and white, have felt obliged to head to the US for roles, Ejiofor strides across mediums as easily as he does continents, but charmingly still thinks fondly of life south of the Thames, where “getting on the 68 bus and making it to Brixton was a serious night out”.
Given the tragedy in his childhood, maybe it makes sense that as a teenager Ejiofor would find something to consume him. As a student at Dulwich College, the south London public school with a long theatrical tradition, that passion became the stage. Besotted, he swiftly graduated from school plays to the National Youth Theatre and drama school. There, however, the unexpected presented itself when a performance as Othello led to an invitation to audition for Amistad. Having met Idris Elba at the audition, he got the part, an “absurd but wonderful opportunity” that took him to Hollywood at 19. Ejiofor now divides his time between Britain and LA with his Canadian actress girlfriend, Sari Mercer.
His relationship with the USA has been further bolstered by the country embracing his new film about slavery in the Deep South, despite it being made by two Londoners (McQueen is from Ealing). Making it was a draining experience, 35 days spent in Louisiana trying to create what he calls “the Solomon and Chiwetel club” in which he could feel “even a glimmer” of what his character went through.
With his publicist keen to see the back of me, I ask him if he wants to have kids. “Well, I’ve always liked the idea of being a father. And I’ve always romanticised it, because I lost my father when I was young. In a way, all of the complications that come with my career are about that.”
12 Years a Slave is in cinemas now.