Wednesday, August 29, 2012

In Character: Chiwetel Ejiofor

When I think of Chiwetel Ejiofor (that’s CHEW-E-TELL EDGE-E-O-FOUR), I think of restraint. The soft looks and the delicate mannerisms and the subtle shifts.

When I think of Chiwetel Ejiofor, I think of anger. The vengeful villains and the spiteful crime lords.

When I think of Chiwetel Ejiofor, I think of uncharacteristic kindness. The surprising fragility and the tender romance.

You get the idea. Chiwetel Ejiofor is versatility personified.

Five Essential Roles
Kinky Boots (2005)
I wasn’t expecting a whole hell of a lot from Kinky Boots, a British comedy about a shoemaker who befriends a drag queen as a means of hitting an untapped market. Because most shoemakers don’t create designer women’s shoes to be worn by grown men, Charlie (Joel Edgerton) enlists Lola to help him out. That’s about as yawn inducing a synopsis as you can get for me. 

How wrong I was.

Kinky Boots isn’t a game changer or anything, but it’s a perfectly enjoyable romp featuring a go-for-broke Ejiofor, who brings about as much sass to Lola, as he does humility to his Simon alter ego. It takes a special kind of man to play drag, and play it convincingly. Special indeed.

Children of Men (2006)
I love when an actor plays good so well, only to later reveal that the character he’s conveying is actually a narcissistic asshole. At first, we assume Luke and his revolutionizing Fishes only want to protect the world’s first pregnant woman (that is, the first in 18 years). But it isn’t until true motivations reveal themselves that we realize Luke wants the mother, and her soon-to-be child, as collateral for political gain.

Luke is a small role, but Ejiofor commands the screen whenever he is on it. His final scene of this film is as pathetic as it is heartbreaking. Impossible to forget.

Tsunami: The Aftermath (2006)
Ian Carter
Shortly into a Carter family vacation in Thailand, a devastating tsunami wrecks havoc, sending their lives into an irreversible tailspin. When the wave hits, Susie (Sophie Okonedo) is out to sea, completely unaware that anything has happened on shore. But, obviously, much has, including her husband, Ian, losing their daughter, Martha, in the midst of the chaos.

For the remainder of the film, Ejiofor spends his time doing a number of things on screen – searching, begging, arguing, pleading – all of which are executed with the utmost regret and dread. Ian and Susie go into survival mode (as in, doing whatever they can to find their daughter and survive together), but once reality hits, the guilt issued by Susie onto Ian is simply devastating to watch unfold.

Talk to Me (2007)
Dewey Hughes
Petey Greene and Dewey Hughes forged a friendship and shook America up when it was in need of a good shaking. And I use the word forged literally, because, despite a barely there shared respect for one another, Hughes and Greene saw (the movie is based on a true story) eye to eye on nothing. They argued, fought, and eventually parted ways as a result of Greene’s ceaseless substance abuse.

Don Cheadle’s role as Greene is the obvious scene-stealer. Petey Greene was a flamboyant character, and Cheadle does remarkable work conveying the man’s tortured interior. But it’s Ejiofor’s refined take on Hughes that I’ve always found more appealing. Two moments in particular stand out: Hughes’ heartbroken reaction to Greene’s bombed performance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and the way Hughes comes into his own once he and Greene have an irrevocable falling out. The whole time, Hughes thought he needed Greene to succeed. When it might have been just the opposite.

Redbelt (2008)
Mike Terry
“There is no situation you cannot escape from.”  That’s the mantra martial arts instructor Mike Terry repeats to his students constantly, and spends the entirety of Redbelt practicing himself.

Slowly spun into a web of high class Hollywood corruption, Mike marks one of David Mamet’s most morally just characters – a guy who wants to make right, but is never given the chance. His frustration and longing to right wrongs culminates in as thrilling a martial arts sequence as I’ve ever seen.

There’s so much going on in that moment. There’s the physical aspect of it, in which Ejiofor himself performs like an expert fighter, effortlessly acrobatic and forceful. But then there’s the emotional aspect of what his character is going through. He’s been fucked over by damn near everyone he trusts, and now he has to physically fight to set it right.

That scene is a tour de force of acting. And it’s just one damn scene from the movie.

The Best of the Best
Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Okwe is a kind, quiet man who wants nothing more than to make enough money in London so he can return to his native Nigeria. He drives a cab by day, greets guests at a hotel by night, and chews khat constantly to stay awake. But once his expertise as a doctor becomes clear to his hotel manager, Okwe, not unlike other characters Ejiofor has played to perfection, becomes a man stuck in a situation he cannot escape.

There isn’t a moment Ejiofor has on screen in this film that we don’t find ourselves caring about him. We want to whisper that everything will be okay (even though it won’t) and convince him that he’s doing the right thing (even when he’s not). It’s a performance of remarkable restraint and captivating desperation.

Okwe’s final moment on screen in this film is the finest acting Ejiofor has ever done. For people who haven’t seen Dirty Pretty Things, I hope that’s enough of a selling point for you to watch the film. It’s as flawless a performance you’re going to find from a guy who never puts out anything but.

Other Notable Roles
In Four Brothers
Love Actually (2003)
She Hate Me (2004)
Melinda and Melinda (2004)
Four Brothers (2005)
Serenity (2005)
Inside Man (2006)
American Gangster (2008)
Endgame (2009)
Salt (2009)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Steve Buscemi
John Cazale
Patricia Clarkson
Cliff Curtis
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
William Fichtner
Brendan Gleeson
Bruce Greenwood
Philip Baker Hall
John Hawkes
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
William H. Macy
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Joe Pantoliano
John C. Reilly
Sam Rockwell
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
David Strathairn
Danny Trejo
Shea Whigham
Ray Winstone
Jeffrey Wright


  1. Man, I need to re-watch Children of Men. I do not remember Ejiofor at all. (Then again, that film was Clive Owen's show.)

    If you did this list roughly a year or two from now, I think I know which performance would get a spot on here. (You do too, darling. I know you do.)

    1. Yes ma'am, yes I do. I cannot wait to see the work McQueen gets out of him. That's gonna be a hell of a pair.

      He's SO GOOD in Children of Men.

  2. Kinky Boots is my favorite performance of his. "SEX ISN'T MEANT TO BE COMFY!" He looked great in drag.

    I also loved him in Redbelt, Serenity, Dirty Pretty Things, and Talk to Me.

    1. I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed Kinky Boots. He was brilliant in it. That whole speech about how bad "RED!" is was priceless.

  3. I always thought he would make a helluva James Bond. From the first time I saw him as the cold-blooded assassin in 'Serenity' I was thinking 'if they really wanted to take Bond into a new era...' Yeah, even hamming it up in something like '2012' or playing side-kick to Denzel, his screen presence is undeniable. Love that you're giving props to these character actors. I'm sure he's on the docket but I would love a Barry Pepper article. He's been a favorite of mine for a while since 'Saving Private Ryan' and '61*', though his performance in '25th Hour' solidified his status for me.

    1. You know, I think I remember chatter of casting Ejiofor as Bond around the time they were looking for a new actor. But of course there was an uproar over his skin color, which is fuckin absurd. Sigh, oh well.

      Definitely an undeniable screen presence, no matter how small or big the role.

      Pepper is an excellent choice. I just wish he was in more good stuff. I haven't been blown away by him since... The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada seven years ago. Sucks.

  4. I feel like he still has a long way to go in his career. We haven't seen the best of him yet. I'm excited to see him in Twelve Years A Slave.

    My favourite 2 performances from him are Dirty Pretty Things and Kinky Boots.

    1. Oh I couldn't agree more, I hope (and think) his career goes on for decades. He's going to rock ass in Twelve Years a Slave.

  5. One to add to the roles is not from film but TV.

    If you can, find The Shadow Line from last year. The best cop show I have seen in a decade (not including The Wire of course!).

    1. Oh shit, that sounds like an incredible show. Was it just for one season? Or will it be back? Definitely going to hunt that down.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    2. Just a one off mini series but they made the most of it. Superb acting all round and one you defo need to see.

  6. I can't believe I still haven't seen Children of Men, stupid me! Also adding Redbelt to my list.
    I love him, he is a great actor, almost always badass :) The Four Brothers part is very cool

    1. Oooh yeah, you've gotta see Children of Men, that's a hell of a film from frame one. I'm a huge fan of Redbelt, but for non-Mamet films, it may seem... off.

      Glad you like Ejiofor!

  7. Dirty Pretty Things! So glad you picked that one man. I really must see Kinky Boots, Tsunami and Redbelt now.

    1. Ah, he's so good in it, right? Cannot recommend those other flicks highly enough.

  8. I definitely need to see more of his work. By my count, I have seen four of his films, and only one that you mentioned (Children of Men). Just added Dirty Pretty Things to my queue.

    1. Oh man, Dirty Pretty Things is a great place to start with his work. Hope you enjoy it!

  9. So excited to see him in 12 Years a Slave. A very talented man for sure.

  10. He's wonderful in Serenity! He plays the villain but with such restraint and elegance, it really elevates what could have been seen as an under-written role.

    1. Oh I completely agree. I could stand to give that film another go, though.

  11. I was hoping you'd decided to put Serenity as the top pick, but I can't complain about seeing Dirty Pretty Things in there. If I put aside my fanboy love of Serenity, I'd put Redbelt at the top. It's also great to see you spotlighting his role in Talk to Me, which is excellent.

    1. I definitely considered putting Serenity on the main list, but I dunno man, that film as a whole just isn't for me. Either way, awesome that we can agree how talented Ejiofor is!

  12. Big sci-fi geek and Firefly fan here. Adding my voice to those who spoke up for his role in Serenity! He was a complex, memorable villain.

    "Do you know what your sin is Mal?" ... "Hell... I'm a fan of all seven. But right now... I'm gonna have to go with wrath.

    1. (sigh) okay, so I REALLY need to check that one out again.

    2. Alex, if you decide to give Serenity another go, I definitely recommend that you watch the Firefly series first. My husband persuaded me to watch Serenity before seeing the series, and it didn't appeal to me much. Then I watched the series and LOVED it. Serenity is really more of a wrap-up to the series than a stand-alone film, in my opinion. Not the ideal way to make a movie, but Joss Whedon was pretty much backed into a corner when the series was canceled after the first season.

    3. Okay, that is exactly what I needed to know. So thank you. Sci-fi ain't my bag, but one day, I'll sit and crush Firefly out. That may help!

  13. Adding Dirty Pretty Things to my list.

  14. Wow. Of the six movies you mentioned I've only seen Children of Men, which was fantastic. I completely agree on his role in it.

    I can't remember if I first saw him in Amistad or Love Actually, but by the time I saw him in Serenity I knew who he was and appreciated him.

    1. Nice man. Glad you dig him. Really talented guy with such a commanding presence.

  15. Loved him in Redbelt. That was a great film.

  16. For me, he really stood out in Redbelt, Salt and Inside Man. After seeing those flicks, it became clear to me that he had something special. He's a very appealing, enigmatic performer. I also enjoyed him (and Cheadle) in Talk to Me. Still need to see Dirty Pretty Things.

    The man is THISCLOSE to becoming a major fucking star. Feels like he's just getting started.

    1. I agree, he's right on the edge of breaking in big, and damn if he doesn't deserve it. I love everything he does. I just wish he was given the opportunities to do more.

  17. I loved Dirty Pretty Things. Very fine UK crime flick.