Chiwetel Ejiofor is a name that you won’t forget in a hurry. In 2014, he became a household name with his role as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, gaining him an Oscar nomination for his performance. But you’ve probably seen him before.
Born in Forest Gate in London, Ejiofor started acting in school plays at the age of 14 and joined the National Youth Theatre not long after. However, after three months, Ejiofor dropped out to star in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad.
Ejiofor soon returned to his stage roots, starring in a number of shows at the Royal National Theatre and the Duchess Theatre, even winning the Jack Tinker Award for Most Promising Newcomer at the Critics’ Choice Theatre Award in 2000.
In 2002, Ejiofor landed his first leading role in Dirty Pretty Things, however it was in 2003 that he ended up in one of the most recognisable British films. While it was a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ performance, Ejiofor starred in Love Actually as Keira Knightley’s husband, Peter. With a screen time of only a couple of minutes, Ejiofor is easily missed, but gains a lot of sympathy as his best friend, Mark (Andrew Lincoln), confesses his undying love to Keira Knightley on their doorstep!
A couple of years later, Ejiofor starred in Kinky Boots, a film which would reward him with numerous award nominations including a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical. Based on a true story, Kinky Boots is the story of a drag queen who comes to the rescue of a man who needs a new product to keep his family’s business afloat. Ejiofor not only donned the full drag queen garb, but also sang and danced for his role as Lola.
12 Years a Slave, however, was the film that really brought Ejiofor to the forefront of acting. Based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave follows the experience of Northup, a free black man in New York who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana. In an interview with The Playlist, director Steve McQueen commented,
“Chiwetel Ejiofor was always going to be Solomon Northup for me. I was looking for someone that had that genteelness, that kind of humanity. Knowing that humanity was going to be tested under circumstances, I needed a person who could actually keep hold of that, even through periods of extraordinary trying and extraordinary situation where it would be tested to its absolute limit. He was the only person.”
That doesn’t mean that Ejiofor accepted the role straight away, however. With McQueen considering it to be the role of a lifetime, Ejiofor was initially nervous about accepting the role. After taking on the role, Ejiofor learned to play the violin, collected slave stories, and immersed himself in the Louisiana plantation culture before filming.
While Ejiofor was pipped at the post for the Best Actor award at the Oscars by Matthew McConaughey, he still won a total of 37 awards including Best Leading Actor at the BAFTAs, for his outstanding performance.
Since 12 Years a Slave, Ejiofor has continued to star in big name films, including the latest Matt Damon flick, The Martian.
Chiwetel Ejiofor will return to the big screen in 2016 as Terrell Tompkins, a tortured thief in Triple and as Baron Mordo in Doctor Strange, alongside another Brit favourite, Benedict Cumberbatch.
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