Chiwetel Ejiofor: The ESQ&A

The '12 Years A Slave' actor on life advice, cheating death and his secret love of table tennis

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The Oscar-nominated and Bafta-winning star of 12 Years A Slave is fronting a million-dollar competition to inspire young entrepreneurs.

We asked him to reflect on his own achievements, in the ESQ&A.

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What’s been the best advice anyone has ever given you?
The best advice that I was ever given was by a Professor Abraham, who was the Professor of Mende at the University of Sierra Leone. I was not quite 20 years old and having a very hectic time in life, trying to achieve quite a lot and not doing it very well. He happened to be in Los Angeles when I was there and he said, “Chiwetel, if you go into a room and you realise that the sink is broken and there’s water flooding the room, and you go to collect a wrench just to stem the flood, but whilst you’re doing that you notice that the door is on fire, so you put down the wrench and you go to collect the fire extinguisher to put out the flames, and while you’re doing that you see that the light bulb is broken so you go and collect another light bulb to put it into the light socket, you’ll soon find that you’re drowned, burned and been electrocuted.” Crisis management: you must take time to deal with one particular issue at a time. And that was the best advice I was ever given.

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What moment in your career are you most proud of?
That’s a tough question. There have been many great moments, but I think it always boils down to very simple things, like being supported by family. When I was at the National Youth Theatre, I remember my entire family turning up to see me perform – not just my immediate family, my extended family too. This was my first production with the NYT, I was 16 and I had to play Julius Caesar in Julius Caesar at the Bloomsbury Theatre in Euston. I’d seen them all in the first and second row, but I was just so elated that they were all there and they were all so supportive and enjoyed the show. I think it was one of those moments where I really decided that I wanted to do this professionally.

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Have you ever cheated death?
Well, you never know 100%. I was certainly very lucky to survive the car accident I was in when I was 11, but I’m sure there were some other hair breath escapes – mainly to do with just being a kid and running around like a mad person. Like climbing up a tree and realising you’ve gone that little bit too far…


Where’s your favourite place in the world to eat, and what’s your order?
There’s a Cuban café in Silver Lake in Los Angeles that I really, really like. I only know it as that Cuban café in Silver Lake. I have a coffee (a large Americano) and they do a fresh grapefruit juice, and then I have a very simple croissant – ham and cheese – and I love it. It’s real comfort food for me.


What’s the best age to be?
Someone told me once, when I was a kid, that being 42 was is a really great age. For some reason, that's always stuck in my mind. They say that you’re really, completely yourself and completely in control of your own life. 


What’s your hidden talent?
Table tennis. I’ve played it since I was young. Obviously, in recent times, it’s harder to be interested in collecting all those balls, but I’ve always loved it and I’ve always felt like I was pretty good at it.


Who’s been the closest you’ve had to a mentor?
Ed Wilson, who used to run the National Youth Theatre for the time that I was there (he passed away in 2008), was really instrumental in my appreciation of theatre and my appreciation of artistic life. He was deeply passionate about young people and really giving them a platform to express themselves. 


Desert island film, book and album?
A book I could read anywhere is 100 Years of Solitude. It's extraordinary. I remember the first time I read it just being so struck by how unlike anything else I’d ever read, how full my imagination was by the end of it; I was full of images and imagery and just a sense of mystery. An amazing, beautiful book.

For a film, I’d say Raging Bull, because I’m always stunned by Robert De Niro’s performance – it constantly amazes me, the transformation, this sense of deep contact that he makes with this guy. It’s a real marvel to me.

There's a song by Paul Simon, called Late in The Evening. I always find it incredibly touching, the story of his life and the different experiences you have at different stages.


What’s the best night out you’ve ever had?
It’s funny, I remember there was a time when I was like, “that was the best night I’ve ever had,” and now I’ve forgotten what that was! I was probably 22 or 23, and it was probably one of those sprawling nights that used to happen with some friends of mine, when we'd go through Brixton and then into Clapham and then maybe end up at a house party in Clapham North or Balham, before winding back at Camberwell. This was a really long time ago. I was a real South London boy. 


What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?
As you get older you discover everything that they say is bad for you is bad for you, and everything they say is good for you turns out to be good for you. I suppose that’s the advice I would give to my twenty-year old self: don’t party quite so much. Especially on the Millennium – that night wasn’t as fun as it should have been. And really pursue your dreams. Why not?

 

 

Chivas are launching The Venture, a global competition with an ultimate $1m prize fund, which is open to anyone to enter with a social enterprise idea. A UK finalist will win £10K and access to specialist business advice. BAFTA winner Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in a short film to inspire would-be social entrepreneurs and to introduce the concept that there is a new way of doing business. View the film, find out more or enter the competition at theventure.com.


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MORE ESQ&A: 

ESQ&A: Cillian Murphy
David Cronenberg: The ESQ&A
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