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Chiwetel EjioforChiwetel Ejiofor - "Kinky Boots" Movie - Guardian.co.uk Interview
Saturday 1 October 2005, by Webmaster
’I thought I looked good’
He has worked with Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen and Spike Lee. So how did Chiwetel Ejiofor end up playing a transvestite in a Northampton shoe factory? He explains all to Xan Brooks
When Chiwetel Ejiofor was called to audition for his role as a Soho drag queen in Kinky Boots he bought himself a long black wig and paraded in front of the bathroom mirror at home, just to see how he looked. The move was part research, part reassurance. "I didn’t know whether I could go where the film needed me to go," says Ejiofor, a soft-spoken, self-effacing man who seems the antithesis of the showboating diva. "Even though I loved the part, there’s always this possibility that it just wasn’t in me; that I’d throw on the wig and say the lines and look like a moron or a fraud. But actually something different happened." His features crack into a devilish grin. "It was like I had been released."
Article continues In his modest, unassuming fashion, Chiwetel Ejiofor (Chewy to his friends) has carved quite a career for himself. At 29 he has already worked with a diverse array of major film directors: Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Richard Curtis and Woody Allen. His breakthrough role came courtesy of a quiet tour de force as Okwe, the McJobber in Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things. But his turn in Kinky Boots is anything but quiet. He stars as Lola, a sort of Naomi Campbell as re-imagined by Dr Frankenstein, complete with lacquered nails and a baritone singing voice. Before the interview, Ejiofor’s publicist tells me that a number of straight male journalists have confessed that the performance made them question their own sexuality.
The actor pours himself some water and brays with laughter. "Well, I think the costume did a lot of the work for me," he says. "It defines the character and it changes how you relate to the world, and how the world relates to you. But that’s the same with any costume. I remember finding Okwe’s jacket in Shepherd’s Bush market, and as soon as I put it on it had an effect: I started holding myself differently. Of course, with Lola it was a little more extreme." But how did he think he looked? "I thought I looked good," he shrugs. "I thought it worked for the character."
Let’s put it more bluntly. Would he have fancied himself? Ejiofor opens his mouth and then snaps it shut again. "I can’t answer that question," he says, "without setting myself up for years of therapy."
Fortunately, Kinky Boots is more than just a one-man band. The film was co-written by Tim Firth, who scripted Calendar Girls and Blackball and is much in the same vein: a tale of plucky underdogs who buck the system and cultural tensions that get cheerfully resolved. Yet Kinky Boots is also winning and warm-hearted and boasts a fine central performance from Joel Edgerton as the owner of a foundering Northampton shoe factory that reinvents itself as a manufacturer of fetish wear for men. Enter Lola, on loan from London to help design the new range and inevitably enraging the beer-bellied lads on the production line. As played by Ejiofor, Lola is a larger-than-life character but never quite a cliche; a troubled vamp who is nobody’s victim. "Yeah, those are the two poles you have to avoid," he explains. "In the first place I wasn’t interested in playing a caricature, or being ostentatious for the sake of it, because I felt that I’d seen that before and it didn’t ring true. But if you go too far the other way you fall into another trap, where it’s all so sad, the tragic little pierrot. I didn’t want to go down that route either."
In the past he has admitted basing the character in Dirty Pretty Things on his own father, a successful Nigerian doctor who was forced to re-train after coming to Britain. And yet his role in Kinky Boots contains other, less obvious, paternal echoes. As Lola, the actor wound up singing all his own songs. It transpires that, while in Nigeria, Ejiofor Sr juggled medical duties with a lucrative sideline as a local pop star. "Yeah, he was a singer," Ejiofor mutters when I mention this. "Mainly he was a doctor." He is understandably reluctant to dredge up the story of his father.
To all intents and purposes, Ejiofor has led a comfortable, middle-class existence. He was born in Forest Gate, in south London, and was educated at Dulwich College. At the age of 11 he travelled with his family to visit his grandparents back in Nigeria. There he was involved in a horrific car crash with an oncoming taxi. His dad was killed, along with two other passengers. Ejiofor survived. That fearsome, Harry Potter-ish scar on his forehead is his one outward reminder of the accident.
Back in London, Ejiofor threw himself into school drama productions. He did so, he says, because he was looking for a means of expressing himself. "I didn’t know how to formulate expression. It was very difficult. But then you read Hamlet and realise that this is a way of giving a voice to those things." So was it a kind of therapy? A way of coming to terms with his father’s death? Ejiofor pulls a face. "No, I don’t think so. I think it was more to do with being a teenager. All teenagers have difficulty expressing themselves."
There is a line that Lola has in Kinky Boots: "Put me in heels and I can sing Stand By Your Man to a crowd of strangers. Put me in jeans and I can’t even bloody well say hello." It chimes with what he’s been saying and suggests that acting and transvestism have a good deal in common. "In terms of freedom of expression, yeah, they do. But I guess that’s like any art form. When you look at yourself and make changes, you are to some extent fulfilling a deep-seated need. But," he sighs, "it’s not for me to say what prompts that need."
Whatever his motivations, success came early. He was 19 and studying at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art when he bagged a role as an African translator in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 slave mutiny drama Amistad. "Well, that was a very strange thing," he says. "I remember getting cast in Amistad and getting this very strong feeling that I had overshot myself. It was a great shock. It made me realise that this is not a profession you can predict; that you can have all these ambitions and expectations and that they can all be thrown to the wind." He chuckles. "What was peculiar about that situation was that my aspirations were so far below what actually happened."
It almost sounds as if he regretted the experience. "Oh, no way. Come on. I’d just worked with Steven Spielberg. That opens a lot of doors. And of course the hardest thing as an actor is getting in the door. Once you’re there you can do your magic tricks."
In the wake of Amistad, Ejiofor was briefly tempted to remain in Los Angeles. Instead he returned to the UK, honing his craft on TV and in theatre where he was nominated for an Olivier award for his incendiary turn as a schizophrenic in Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange at the National Theatre. These days he divides his time between British and American productions. His US work has run the gamut from a blaxploitation-style kingpin in John Singleton’s Four Brothers to a soulful pianist in Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda. More recently, he wrapped production on Spike Lee’s Inside Man, playing detective sidekick to Denzel Washington.
The more I mull over this list of credits, the harder it gets to stifle a suspicion that has been slowly building throughout the meeting: that Ejiofor is more than another successful young actor who has forged a career on both sides of the Atlantic. Rather he could be described as Britain’s first black movie star. I put this to him and he all but squirms in his seat. "Oooh," he says. "I don’t know about that." But who else is there? Name the names. "Well, I don’t know. I suppose it depends what you mean by stardom and how you define success. Anyway," he adds. "There are a lot of successful black actors in theatre."
The problem, perhaps, is that British film lags some way short of Hollywood when it comes to finding rewarding roles for black performers. Ejiofor admits this and says it’s sad. "But there is still the constant possibility of change. And in the time that I’ve been compos mentis, since I was about 10, I think that the landscape has changed enormously, and I think London is going to have many more opportunities to open up in the future. But I’m not saying it’s ideal."
Actually, it could be worse. Earlier this year it was reported that Dirty Pretty Things’ failure to secure a distribution deal in Germany and Japan was solely down to Ejiofor. Local audiences, it was felt, would not countenance a black actor in a leading role. "I read that too," Ejiofor says. He shrugs. "I don’t know if that’s true. It’s a crying shame if it is."
He thinks about it some more. "I wonder if it is true," he says. "I mean, Will Smith is huge in Japan, so it can’t be down to a simple case of race. There’s also the issue that I was not a household name; maybe it was more to do with that." Another pause. "And then maybe race is the knockout punch: ’Oh and by the way, he’s also black.’ Not being a household name and being black." He shakes his head. "That’s quite a combination."
Right now he is between jobs, considering his next move. He gets sent a lot of scripts these days but winds up turning most of them down. He says this sheepishly, as though scared of being seen as conceited. "Don’t misunderstand me; I know not everyone is in that position. It just so happens that I am."
· is released on October 7.