Joe Utichi celebrated this year’s recipient of the Richard Harris Award, the BIFA winner, BAFTA winner and Oscar nominee whose powerful screen presence owes its roots to his command of the stage.
It all began with Henry IV Part I,’ remembers Chiwetel Ejiofor of his nascent steps onto stage and screen that would lead him towards becoming tonight’s Richard Harris Award honoree. ‘We studied the play in English, when I guess I was 13. I was suddenly caught by the language, which had always seemed impenetrable. I had that moment of realisation: it was a poetic way of expressing emotions that I understood, even at that age.’
Ejiofor grew up in east London, the son of Nigerian parents, and he hadn’t been exposed to the theatre as a child. The more Shakespeare he read, the more he wanted to understand the art form the great man had written for. ‘I thought I’d discovered this amazing playwright, and went around telling people, “You really need to check out this guy…” Suddenly everything changed and I became obsessed with theatre.’
From school plays he joined the National Youth Theatre and began a degree at LAMDA. He never finished it; Steven Spielberg called instead. ‘He was this kind of mythical figure for everyone of our generation,’ Ejiofor says. ‘A Spielberg movie was such a major event in itself, and so getting involved in Amistad was an amazing entrance into the world of cinema and the grand themes cinema can investigate.’
He’d done television, but Amistad was Ejiofor’s first real experience in front of the camera, and it was unlike anything the stage could have prepared himself for. ‘The idea of actually being in a movie was so removed from me at that point. Part of the challenge of film is you’re shooting it out of sequence, but it was also a relief, because you don’t have to chart a performance in real time with an audience.’
He insists he couldn’t have had better teachers. ‘Being able to watch Spielberg work, along with such a great cast – Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman – it was startling. I was watching people that I’d seen on film and grown up with. It was a wonderful experience.’
Nerves soon gave way to the trademark fastidiousness with which Ejiofor has approached every role. ‘I’m always on shaky ground trying to find characters,’ he says, but the process of exploration has always driven him. ‘There’s an element of trying to investigate some other aspect of your own psyche. Acting is such an extraordinary way of exploring yourself, and you feel slightly protected by being able to explore without feeling completely exposed. Everything else falls away in that experimentation. It’s all-consuming.’
Ejiofor insists there is no such thing as an irrelevant character: ‘They can all speak if you can find their voice.’ But he has displayed a knack for finding the most relevant characters around, and it sets him apart from many of his peers. We remember him as the friendly bridegroom in Love, Actually; the anonymous enforcer out to assassinate the heroes of Joss Whedon’s Serenity; and the factory-salvaging drag queen of Kinky Boots. We will never forget him in Steve McQueen’s haunting epic 12 Years a Slave, the true story of Solomon Northup’s kidnap and exploitation on the cotton plantations of the Deep South; and in The Martian this year, Ejiofor shone in an already stellar ensemble. Few actors can boast this kind of range.
Watch Chiwetel Ejiofor’s special highlights reel. Article continues below.
Before all that, though, was the BIFA-winning role that defined his early career. In Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, Ejiofor played an illegal immigrant who came face to face with the ugly side of city life. ‘Working with Stephen Frears was the time I really fell in love with working on film,’ he says. ‘He’s all about nuance, and nuance is the poetry of cinema. He really focused on the emotional reality, and it was incredible to be able to deliver a very detailed piece of work with such a skilled director. He allows you to bring your personality to bear and that’s a beautifully trusting thing for a director to do.’
With Joss Whedon, Ejiofor says, the experience was different, but no less enlightening. ‘Joss has a great vision for what he wants, and the landscape he’s trying to explore. The imaginative leaps in that film are so brilliantly done. I loved the series – Firefly – but I had no idea it had such a passionate, engaged fan base that was really moving the machine in order to get that film off the ground.’
There can be no doubting the power of the audience when it concerns his latest role, in Marvel’s Doctor Strange. ‘The last few years have seen a really exciting development in the engine of filmmaking,’ says Ejiofor of the emergent comicbook universe. ‘The fans see the scope of these stories in a very rich and detailed way, and they come with a large knowledge of the characters and worlds.’ He plays alongside Benedict Cumberbatch – last year’s recipient of the Variety Award – in the film, which is currently in production.
His place on Hollywood’s radar can be traced back most especially to the role that earned him an Oscar nomination, in 12 Years a Slave. He lost out to his Amistad co-star Matthew McConaughey, but the power of his performance has remained with all who saw it. ‘For me, it felt like such an important story to tell. But I am still surprised by the range of people that approach me about that film.’ The Oscar nod, he says, was ‘the cherry on top of an experience that I am deeply proud of’.
Ejiofor is heartened by the legacy the Richard Harris Award represents, and its intimation of future as well as past achievement. ‘I feel like I’m right in the midst of it all, and looking to continue to create moments that I hope touch and engage audiences,’ he says. ‘That’s what Richard Harris did, his entire career, so it’s a wonderful honour to be receiving this award specifically, in his name.
Watch: Chiwetel Ejiofor accepts the Richard Harris Award, BIFA 2015