For his shattering portrayal of a free black man captured into enslavement in “12 Years a Slave,” Chiwetel Ejiofor was nominated for a 2014 Oscar for best actor. The son of Nigerian parents, Ejiofor is a guy worth getting to know a few things about. Whether or not he nabs that statue in February, he’ll likely be around Hollywood for a while!
Sources: guardian.com, wikipedia.com, huffingtonpost.com, backstage.com.
Born in 1977 in East London’s Field Gate neighborhood, Ejiofor is the son of Christian Igbo immigrants from Nigeria. His father Arinze, a doctor, and his mother, Obiajulu, a pharmacist, fled their Nigerian homeland during the brutal Biafran conflict in the 1960s, as extreme violence toward the Igbo nation escalated.
When Chiwetel was 11 years old, he was involved in a head-on collision while on a vacation in Lagos. Everyone in the car except Chiwetel was killed, including his father. “That chance he had at life…he really went on to make the most of it,” said his sister, Zain Asher (pictured above with Chiwetel and a third sibling).
Apparently chastised by his mother for writing Shakespeare quotes all over the walls, Chiwetel was irrevocably bitten by the bug when he saw a Cary Grant movie at age 7. He joined Dulwich College and the National Youth Theater, and then the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. His life forever changed, though, when a very famous director cast him in his new film.
Chiwetel was cast in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film, “Amistad” as the translator for Djimon Hounsou’s character. It was a small role, but the London theater community took notice. His roles in “Othello” and “Blue/Orange” for the Royal National Theater brought stage awards and national acclaim.
When Stephen Frears cast Ejiofor in the role of Okwe, the weary London taxi driver involved in a bizarre murder mystery in the 2002 movie “Dirty Pretty Things,” international acclaim followed. The film and his performance were critically lauded, and directors like Woody Allen and Spike Lee jumped on the Ejiofor boat. Within a few years, he had movies like “Melinda and Melinda,” “She Hate Me” and “Love Actually” under his belt.
Small film roles popped up for Chiwetel, but nothing would prepare him for the opportunity he was given in Steve McQueen’s film, “12 Years a Slave.” Asked to play the extraordinary Solomon Northrup, Ejiofor at first hesitated. “It was an amazing story, but I didn’t know if I was the guy,” he said. Thankfully, he got on board.
The 35-day shoot in Louisiana was intense. Actors Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, and many others become deeply immersed in portraying slave owners and slaves. Ejiofor’s role as Northrup meant experiencing brutal punishments, and multiple lashings and trauma wounds were recreated on Ejiofor’s body. “I had some padding, but I think it was really just an important part of it,” he said.
Picked by many critics as the best film of 2013, “12 Years a Slave” received nine Oscar nominations on Jan. 17, including best picture and best actor for Chiwetel Ejiofor. The praise for his performance was overwhelming; appearances on Oprah and other huge TV shows followed, as well multiple critics awards.
And she loves him lots! Ejiofor’s little sister, Zain Asher, is a CNN news anchor. Watch this video of her teary reaction to her brother’s Oscar nomination.
It’s the beginning of something new for Chiwetel. Besides plowing through the awards circuit and red carpets, he will be featured in both the play and film adaptation of “A Season in the Congo.” Rumors of Ejiofor and Ewan McGregor pairing up for an “Othello” film version are rumbling beneath the surface. Whatever direction this talent takes, we’ll be waiting in the audience.