Chiwetel Ejiofor: ‘You can’t play a part that’s not in you’

The actor, 43, on authenticity, curiosity, cynicism and the meaning of his Nigerian name

My name means “God brings” in Igbo. I don’t think about it much, but I enjoy that tradition. When we made Half of a Yellow Sun, the entire cast and crew, who were mostly Nigerian, stood together in the hotel lobby in Lagos on the first day. Everybody said their names and what they meant. It was powerful. The names are always deeply connected to something. There’s a name I mentioned in a film once, Obianuju. It means “to come into a place where there is plenty”. There’s something so beautiful, poetic and hopeful about parents naming their child that.

Lockdown has been intense. It has created all these primary emotions where you are concerned about loved ones. You’re involved in the day-to-day lives of friends and family, because you have more time to connect and understand. Usually you’re in so much of a rush that you just get the highlights. But in this period, I’ve been able to get the lowlights. That’s been fascinating and I think that has influenced the way I think about work as a writer, director and actor.

Being part of theatre has been an all-encompassing part of my existence. Without it, I simply would not be. My life would be so radically different from everything I’ve experienced and everything that’s brought me an amazing amount of joy. For health, mental health, for ambition, for life… the theatre has played a vital part in my development. All of the pathways by which I have been able to work were generated by the theatre, sometimes at a very localised level.

I didn’t understand community when I was growing up in south London, apart from in the theatre – it was the only communal activity I was engaged with.

I’ve always proceeded with caution. I have a healthy dosage of cynicism and pessimism. It’s not something I particularly want to get rid of. I am hopeful and do feel there are a lot of positive things in the world, but I feel that things left to their own devices can sink into the mire. People have to maintain an alertness and an engagement, because optimism alone won’t do it.

You can’t really play a part that’s not in you. You can’t write a part that’s not in you. You can’t direct a film, or anything without having lived that experience in some form. It doesn’t have to be very literal, but you need to get under that experience. Anything I approach, I think of primarily in those terms. How do I understand it from my own journey in life? A lot of that falls back into the circumstances that you’re in – your race, gender, class. They inform the choices you make and the little area you can illuminate and have a conversation about.

I have always been very curious. I’m someone who has picked up things and dropped things over the years. But there are things about my work that I’ve always loved and returned to, that exploration of character, exploration of self. They are things I’m constantly engaged with.

The Old Guard starring Chiwetel Ejiofor is out now on Netflix


Aniefiok Ekpoudom

The GuardianTramp

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