On the balcony of the bar at the Young Vic, a group of women enjoying pink drinks are looking through the windows of the theatre’s Club Room. Inside, they see Chiwetel Ejiofor talking to Esquire, with only two hours to go until curtain up. They look with some puzzlement at their watches, then at one another. But everything’s going to be alright.
The 36-year-old south Londoner is about to take the stage in the antepenultimate performance of A Season in the Congo, in which he plays Patrice Lumumba, the beer salesman who led that country to independence. “I’m fine until about an hour before a show,” he says, “and then I have to knuckle down into it. It’s hard to maintain a life when you do a play. You feel you have to pretend to go through a normal day, knowing that in the evening you’ll be doing this.”
Pretending, though, is what Ejiofor does best. The year after he won an Olivier Award in 2008 for his Othello, he was ready to reboot the human race with the US President’s daughter at the conclusion of 2012, the apocalyptic popcorn flick. Also at the movies, he’s been a remorseless sci-fi assassin in Serenity (2005), a Zen mixed-martial artist in Redbelt (2008) and a drag queen who saves a Nottingham shoemakers in the British comedy Kinky Boots (2005). The latter recently became the latest film-turned-musical, and is doing what they call “boffo” business on Broadway. “I had a conversation about it,” says Ejiofor, of the possibility that he might take his character from screen to stage, “but I thought I’d break my neck being on stage in four-inch heels every night.”
Cross-dressing’s loss is awards season’s gain, however, because Ejiofor’s work in 2013 could lead him to the biggest prizes in theatre, TV and film: for A Season in the Congo, for the Thirties’ jazz band BBC Two drama Dancing on the Edge and for his leading role in the forthcoming 12 Years a Slave.
The film, which confronts 19th century American slavery head on, is everything you may have heard or read about it: brutal, humane, unflinching. It is British director Steve McQueen’s third magnificent film out of three, after Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), and has caused a considerable stir on the film festival circuit, as well as attracting almost uniformly positive reviews. Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery, ultimately to Michael Fassbender’s sadistic Master Epps. (The film also stars Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Benedict Cumberbatch).
“Steve has made something stunning, in the real usage of the word. Everybody knew that making this film would be intense,” says Ejiofor. “It was an intense shoot, it really was, and there was no real way around that. But I felt that had to be the experience.
“We shot it in different plantations around Louisiana, but centred out of New Orleans. A wild city, music everywhere, bars open all night. Drive-through daiquiris.” There was little time to make the most of the amenities, though: Ejiofor says that he and Fassbender managed “one weekend to get to know each other a bit beyond the world of the film.”
Esquire is hardly the first publication to be heavily backing Ejiofor for a best actor Oscar nomination. But, as ever, he takes such flattery in his stride.
“You can’t play for that,” Ejiofor says, of awards. “You just do what you do.” And with that, he’s off to transform himself again.
12 Years a Slave is out now.