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Chiwetel Ejiofor revisits Nigerian bloodshed of his youth


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A romance set against a brutal conflict brought an in-demand actor back to his homeland.

Trailer: Half of a Yellow Sun
An upper class couple whose marriage is put to the test when Nigeria breaks into the crippling 1967 civil war that births the short-lived republic of Biafra.
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Chiwetel Ejiofor seems surprised to be asked whether there was a twinge of disappointment at not winning the best actor Academy Award this month for his performance in 12 Years a Slave. ”I feel like I did,” he says.

The British actor with the name that everyone has had to learn to pronounce says all the recognition for Steve McQueen’s emotional drama, including best picture and best supporting actress for Lupita Nyong’o, left him ecstatic about the collective achievement.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton in Half of a Yellow Sun
Many faces: Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton in Half of a Yellow Sun.
”I didn’t feel excluded from the celebration because of the best actor award not going to me,” he says cheerfully. ”And I did feel like Matthew McConaughey gave an incredible performance. So I wasn’t disappointed in the sense of ‘the good Lord gypped me’.”


If that reference to the good Lord determining the Oscars result is a gentle barb about McConaughey’s Bible-thumping acceptance speech – ”He has graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or any other human hand” – it is deftly delivered.

Ejiofor has been deftly delivering for directors since Steven Spielberg cast him in another slavery drama, 1997’s Amistad, when he was three months into his studies at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

Pictured: Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor ) in Julian Jarrold’s ‘Kinky Boots’.
Ejiofor as Lola in Kinky Boots.
He was married to Keira Knightley’s young bride in Love Actually and has been a Nigerian doctor working illegally opposite Audrey Tautou in Dirty Pretty Things, a killer agent in Serenity, a drag queen who helps Joel Edgerton in Kinky Boots, an immigrants’ rights activist in Children of Men, and an American geologist in the disaster movie 2012.

At 36, he has five Golden Globe nominations, a Laurence Olivier Award for playing Othello on the London stage, and an OBE for services to the arts, along with a BAFTA and his Oscar nomination for 12 Years a Slave. With long-term girlfriend Sari Mercer, he was a regular fixture on the awards circuit this year.

All impressive achievements for an actor who grew up in London, one of four children to an immigrant Nigerian father, a musician who retrained as a doctor, and a mother who was a pharmacist.

But Ejiofor’s career really ramped up when he played Solomon Northup, a man snatched to a Southern plantation for a life of brutal misery in 12 Years a Slave, which resulted in widespread acclaim for both star and movie.

”It’s sort of weird,” Ejiofor says. ”It hasn’t felt personal in a way. It’s definitely felt like it’s about the project and about Solomon Northup, and about the whole period of time that was. It’s been a very positive reaction and an increase in attention.”

Since the Oscars, the work has continued – finishing filming the sci-fi movie Z for Zachariah with Chris Pine and Margot Robbie in New Zealand, and preparing to shoot the police drama Triple 9 for Australian director John Hillcoat, alongside Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet and Aaron Paul.

But when Ejiofor shot Half of a Yellow Sun in Nigeria, a love story and drama set amid the civil war of the late 1960s, it was a very personal journey, not just another role.

For one, Ejiofor’s parents fled the war – said to have killed more than 3 million people – to live in London. And on a return visit to Nigeria at the age of 11, he was severely injured in a car accident that killed his father.

The actor and a longtime friend, Nigerian-born playwright and novelist Biyi Bandele, had been speaking about making a film in the African nation for years. Bandele decided his first movie as writer and director would be Half of a Yellow Sun, an adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s Orange Prize-winning novel of the same name.

”It was a very important book in my family,” Ejiofor says. ”It was the first book that really dealt with the Biafran War with such detail and such knowledge of being inside the experience.

”My mother loved the book for a long time, so that’s how I got to read it many years ago. So when Bi told me that he was adapting it and wanted me to look at it, I was just very excited to do it.”

Ejiofor plays a revolutionary professor, Odenigbo, caught up in the war along with English-educated twin sisters, idealistic Olanna (Thandie Newton) and business-minded Kainene (Anika Noni Rose). They are Igbo, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, who established Biafra as an independent republic until the Nigerian government violently reclaimed it in 1970.

Ejiofor says he feels ”very Nigerian” as well as British. ”I’ve spent a lot of time in Nigeria – family trips when I was younger then personal trips as I got older. So it’s a place that has a very deep relevance and significance to me.

”This particular story was so important because the Biafran War was one of the reasons that my parents left in the first place, which was the reason I was born in Britain.

”Also, it told very much the story of my grandfather, who was around the same age – his early 40s maybe – when the war started. Odenigbo is an Igbo professor, and my grandfather was an Igbo accountant and therefore they experienced the war in the same way – as this complete destruction of everything you own, everything you have and, in the end, just travelling from village to village.

”My mother was 13, 14 at the time, so he was travelling with her and the other children. They had eight – so a lot of kids – and they were just moving to avoid the Nigerian forces who were literally blowing up the villages as a way of destroying half the Igbo population.”

What impact did that tragic road accident have on Ejiofor’s life?

”He had been very close to his father,” his financial correspondent sister Zain told Britain’s Daily Mail recently.

”And while the whole family was suffering from his death, the impact on Chiwetel was especially intense.

”He became very focused and threw himself into everything with an intense passion. It was as if he had been given a miraculous chance to live and he was determined to make the most of it.”

It was first thought that Chiwetel had also been killed in the accident. ”When they dragged his body from the wreck, he was very badly injured and lucky to still be alive,” Zain said. ”He’d broken several limbs and sustained a serious blow to the head that left him in a coma for a while. Doctors told my mother to expect the worst.”

By 13, Ejiofor had developed a drive to be an actor, initially in a school play, then as he discovered a love for Shakespeare. He joined the National Youth Theatre at 17 before briefly studying at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

Bandele says Ejiofor has been a top-class actor since well before he was famous.

”The Oscars has taken his visibility to a completely different level, but if you watch him in Amistad, he was great in that. He was very young, a baby-faced Chiwetel, playing this lawyer.”

The playwright and novelist says his longtime friend does not like being called by his teenage nickname these days.

”Shortly after Dirty Pretty Things, he stopped being called Chewy.”

Asked how that car accident shaped how he views the world, Ejiofor answers thoughtfully – keeping the emotion to himself – with characteristic English understatement.

”I suppose you have an appreciation for life,” he says. ”I don’t think there’s an earth-shattering revelation that I had. It’s the sort of thing that probably just focuses you and gives you a deep appreciation for the things around you.

”It’s a very formative age where most people aren’t really in that conversation about life and death and the significance and the transience of the whole thing. You become slightly more equivocal and philosophical at a slightly younger age.

”The only useful outcome of the whole thing is that you’re aware of how precious life is.”

Bandele says Ejiofor has brought his family history to Half of a Yellow Sun. ”Because it took six years to develop the project, it gave him a lot of time to do his research, so he interviewed his grandfather.

”He had 20 or 30 hours of interviews and when he came on set, all the time he would be listening on headphones to these interviews. Then when we started shooting, his character, the accent, absolutely everything to a tee was his grandfather.”

Ejiofor is such a method actor that when his longtime friend visited him while he was playing a drag queen in Kinky Boots, ”in his living room, he had something like 40 pairs of ladies boots and wigs”.

”He’s very, very precise, like no actor I’ve ever worked with.”

At this point in his career, Ejiofor says he is open to exploring any offers, even when his name has been bandied about as potentially the first black James Bond or Doctor Who.

”I’ve never really had a career plan exactly, which makes things easier,” he says. ”The only plan is not having a plan, just really seeing what comes my way and what excites me and wanting to try and do the best work I can.

”I’m not quite at the beginning of my working life, but I feel like maybe I’m at the end of the beginning.”

Half of a Yellow Sun is in cinemas now.

Read more: https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/chiwetel-ejiofor-revisits-nigerian-bloodshed-of-his-youth-20140327-35jex.html#ixzz3VXOx6s4r

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