The acting bug bit Chiwetel Ejiofor early. By the age of 13, he was already a seasoned actor appearing in theatrical productions in and around his native London, beginning the evolution that would make him one of the world’s more bankable and versatile actors, despite not being a household name.
Ejiofor, 35, won numerous film and theatrical awards in Britain in the early oughts, as well as more recent Golden Globe nominations in 2007 and 2010. Cast in films from Steven Spielberg’s historical epic Amistad to the thriller Dirty Pretty Things, Ejiofor went on to co-star in other films, including American Gangster, Four Brothers and Inside Man. His range encompasses theatrical roles (including award-winning interpretations of Romeo and Othello, the latter hailed by Britain’s Daily Express as one of the most memorable performances of Othello in recent years) as well as daring film portrayals— from a drag queen in Kinky Boots to a mixed martial arts fighter with principles (Redbelt) to a presidential adviser confronting the apocalypse (2012). In one of his latest films, Endgame, he’s cast as Thabo Mbeki in a story that examines secret talks between the African National Congress and the Afrikaner government just before the fall of apartheid.
Ejiofor is a black actor, but one whose restless and daring intellect and insights into the human condition are moving him fast into the realm of actor — with no ethnic modifier necessary. He’ll ultimately make his impact on the wider world with the breadth of his range and possibilities as an actor, and in demonstrating how his creative scope expands that of black and minority actors internationally.
His successful presence in Hollywood films from independents to major blockbusters similarly widens the potential marketability for other black and minority actors in that most popular art form in the world. But for all the determination Ejiofor exhibits — he next stars opposite Angelina Jolie in the spy thriller Salt — the roots of those interests remain a mystery to the actor himself.
“I’ve never completely understood what draws me to a role, specifically,” he said on a press tour in August 2009. “And every time I think I understand it, I read something else and I think, ‘oh, I’m gonna do that… if I just think something’s cool, or I think it’s interesting or I think it’s funny… or I just think it potentially could make a good movie… then I’m excited by it.”
Click here to view a timeline of the history of African-Americans in cinema.