From phones in theatres and selfie hassle to panto, painful nicknames and paintballing with Michael Fassbender’s dad, Chiwetel Ejiofor comes out swinging
It’s everything. It’s an amazing performance by De Niro. He’s on fire. He burns a hole in the screen. Him and Joe Pesci together – you don’t know where the acting stops and the person starts. I love that it gets so dark and dangerous.”
Chiwetel Ejiofor is explaining why he loves Raging Bull. Most people love Raging Bull, but few of us get to be photographed in the style of Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta – as Ejiofor just has for our cover shoot. Lucky beggar.
He’s earned it. The 38-year-old is as hot as they come in the acting world. His Bafta-winning, Oscar-nearly-winning turn as Solomon Northup in 12 Years A Slave saw him go from ‘that bloke you recognise’ to one of the biggest – and most awkwardly pronounced by awards hosts – names in cinema.
His latest film is The Martian. Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel about an astronaut stranded on Mars (and the biggest self-publishing phenomenon not to feature metal balls and a safe word) sees him play Vincent Kapoor, Nasa’s mission chief.
But this is a new-found fame with drawbacks, as he’ll explain. So it’s a good job we meet in a near-empty pub for our chat, which starts, naturally, with that photoshoot.
How was the shoot? Did you stay off the burgers?
No. I work out quite a bit, and I used to box. I started boxing when I was in LA. I wanted to get in shape and it’s the most gruelling thing you can do. Over a few weeks, you notice the change in your body. I did it at City Of Angels Boxing and, on our two days off, we’d run up the canyon in the heat, towards the Hollywood sign.
At which point you wonder why you’re doing it?
[Laughs] Yeah, you question what’s going on. When you see results, it’s euphoric. You operate differently in the world when you’re fit.
Robert De Niro in Raging Bull is the archetypal film body-transformation. It must be more fun to put the weight on, right?
It’s hard to put weight on. Rumour has it De Niro went around Italy eating pasta. Sometimes you’re not hungry [laughs]. Force-feeding yourself is not pleasant. And what it does to your psychology, if you’re not used to being sedentary. I wonder how De Niro felt.
And you’ve got to lose it again afterwards.
Maybe that’s the fun bit. Maybe a jog and eating healthily seems like fun all of a sudden.
If you had to pig out, what would be your cuisine of choice?
I don’t think the local Italian is going to cut it. I’d need burgers and fried chicken and lots of chips.
Basically, you’d need America.
Yeah, I’d go to In-N-Out Burger for breakfast and just start piling it on.
De Niro must be a hero to you.
Absolutely. I don’t know any actor who’d be like, “De Niro – who’s he?” He’s clearly one of the best actors there ever will have been.
It’s a stupid question, but would you like to work with him?
It depends on the work. I don’t have to. I’m perfectly happy to watch his work, that time where you could do The Godfather: Part II, then The Deer Hunter, then Raging Bull. Then, later, do Midnight Run and Jackie Brown into Analyze This. He just continues to switch it up.
He seems to do a lot of comedy these days. Do you wish he was still doing those raging roles?
I think everyone’s trying to investigate a different mood, different tones to their work. Even if he is doing more comedy, he’s still not applying the same tone twice. When people reflect on what he’s done in the past 15 or 20 years, they’ll be surprised to realise that there’s still some incredibly good work in there.
And he’s earned the right to do it.
He can do what the fuck he wants [laughs]. He’s Robert De Niro.
Are you worried about people thinking you’re a bit serious, because of your roles?
It’s not a profession where you can influence that directly. Maybe over 10 years you can, but you can’t wake up on a Tuesday and think, “I feel like doing a really funny movie that’s dramatic and heartfelt.” You assess what comes towards you. For example, I had no idea I was going to do a play [Everyman] this year, but a conversation with [artistic director of the National Theatre] Rufus Norris changed the course of my entire year.
Film acting looks much easier than live theatre, but actors always say they love theatre. It must be terrifying, surely?
You love it because of that. It can be brutally terrifying. You’ve got all these lines to learn, scenes to get right, a character to follow. There’s no way of avoiding any part of it. But you get through it and there’s this euphoria. People come by and say they liked the show. You fall in love with the theatre and the community of theatre and your friends turn up. Before you know it, you’re having a great time and you turn into a luvvy.
So you turned into a luvvy?
That was a long time ago, darling [laughs].
Benedict Cumberbatch made a plea for people not to use phones at his Hamlet. Is phone use a problem you’ve noticed too?
Benedict has that thing where his fans are slightly hysterical. I’m glad that’s not something following me around [laughs]. People turned up, but they didn’t try to record it for their grandma. I did see somebody texting, which was distracting.
Was it tempting to shout at them?
I just thought it was so weird to be texting. That’s very involved. Maybe excuse yourself and go out.
Maybe they were enjoying it so much that they were checking your IMDb page to see what films they could watch you in.
Yeah – “Where do I know this guy from?”
So, The Martian. Is a Ridley Scott sci-fi on everyone’s tick list?
I always wanted to work with Ridley and I got a chance to do that with American Gangster. I loved working on that, but, even if I wouldn’t have admitted it to myself, yes, I still wanted to do a Ridley Scott sci-fi movie [laughs]. There was still a part of me thinking, “This needs to be in space.”
Though you didn’t quite get there in The Martian.
I wasn’t in space, but I was in Nasa and it’s a space sci-fi movie directed by Ridley Scott, so I’m satisfied. And it’s fantastic. Operatic. Those landscapes of Mars are almost tempting.
How tempting? There’s a programme to find people to make a one-way trip to colonise Mars…
I won’t be signing up just at this minute. The ideas around starting a community are interesting, but it’d be hard work. I wonder where it’d lead. What would it mean to be the Martian people? How would they attempt to be distinct from the Earth people? Where does that lead in 50,000 years? Probably not a good place [laughs].
It’d be the equivalent of the founding fathers.
Not really, because it’s without the psychological impact of the destruction of the Native American people. It is a genuinely empty environment.
Until the subterranean Martians pop their heads up.
Yeah – “What are you up to?”
So, Ridley Scott sci-fi done. Do you have any less-glamorous ambitions? The acting equivalent of a guilty pleasure?
Erm, panto? [Laughs] I love telling stories and being on stage and I’m excited by the idea of it not being particularly serious. “He’s behind you!” – always makes me laugh.
I wonder how many Bafta-winners have done panto…
I’m sure Kenneth Branagh’s done it at some point. He seems like he would. Ian McKellen – I think he did panto.
He did Corrie.
Corrie and panto – there’s two guilty pleasures right there.
What about James Bond? Would you do that?
There’s no point in me answering that question, is there? [Laughs] It just creates ridiculousness.
I have to ask about 12 Years A Slave – how much did that change your life?
I became more famous, but that’s about it. I’ve always been lucky enough to have a job, have a gig. The places I live in, I lived in before 12 Years A Slave. The process of finding material you want to work on is equally as complicated. I suppose there was access to more scripts, but not necessarily an equivalent increase in great scripts. The main thing is that more people ask me for a selfie.
Have you got a selfie face? Smile or serious?
I think I do a half smile, but I try to avoid them. They just take up so much of your day. It’s a bit sad, because when somebody asks you for something, they’re just not aware of how often you’ve already been asked that day. At a premiere or festival, it’s great, but in Tesco? I don’t think so.
12 Years… is such an intense film to watch. Could you have any laughs making it? Was there any gallows humour?
There was no laughing on the set. There was nothing to fucking laugh about. It was a deeply intense experience, working day to day. Now, the weekends were a blast, out in New Orleans. Me and Fassbender, Lupita, Giamatti, Cumberbatch, Dano – we went out, we had big dinners, there were parties. But Monday morning was fucking serious as a heart attack.
Did Michael Fassbender scare you making that film?
That relationship was fascinating to me. It was about someone being a rock and someone being water, and eventually the water wears the rock down – it takes a long time, and it takes even longer for the rock to realise what’s happened. So I didn’t feel fear, because I always had that in my mind. I was only once scared by Michael – when we were paintballing and he got me cornered. I was running out of bullets and tried to make a run for it, but he got me.
So does he have a scary paintball face?
Yeah. Him and his dad. The first thing his dad said to me was, “Cover me!” and then ran after the opponents. Jesus. What the fuck are you doing?
Final question: does anyone ever call you Chewy?
People used to call me Chewy at school, from about eight to 15. Even when I tried to explain that I didn’t like it, it gently permeated out to the ‘real world’, to the point where I got totally sick of it. I could barely watch Star Wars. It makes my hair stand up every time the name’s mentioned.
Does that mean you’re discounting yourself from any of the future films? Or only if they feature wookiees?
Well maybe they should just call him by his full name. I bet Han Solo never asked Chewbacca whether it was OK [laughs].
The Martian is at cinemas nationwide now
(Images: Marco Grob/Fox/Kobal/Rex)