Celebrated Nigerian-British actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor was in the country last weekend for the premiere of the blockbuster movie, adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. Showtime Celebrity cornered the ‘12 Years a Slave’ star, who played the lead character in the film as he talks about his involvement in the film, his Oscar nomination as well as his blossoming career.
How do you feel playing the lead role in the film adaptation of
Chimamanda’s “Half of a Yellow Sun,” especially when you have not visited home for such a long time?
I haven’t been out of the country for too long. We shot the film in Calabar about a year and six months ago. I feel really excited about starring in the film. It is one film that I am deeply passionate about. I’ve known Biyi Bandele for about twenty years now. We talked often since I featured in a short film he made some years ago.
We talked about wanting to make a film in Nigeria, trying to combine all of the possibilities and make a large scale film in the country. My mother introduced me to Chimamanda Adichie’s book in 2007, not long after it came out. She just found it deeply affecting and very beautiful.
So, it was a perfect confluence of events when Biyi Bandele told me he was adapting the novel for the screen and we started to plan how we could take the project out there. I was desperate to tell this story. I feel incredibly privileged, happy and delighted to be in a position right now to be presenting this film here in Nigeria.
After ‘Half of A Yellow Sun’ and ‘12 years a Slave’, we hear that you may be the villain in the next James Bond movie. How true is it?
In terms of the Bond thing, it is speculation at this point. You will be the first to know when I know. It’s been a remarkable time for me this year and I am part of the experience. I have been in Nigeria making this film.
I am so passionate about it. It is so much a part of my own family history and heritage and very directly in terms of the war my grandfather experienced. I wanted to relate and express it in some ways. I think the projects I have been lucky to be involved with have been very meaningful to me.
In 2006, you were nominated for the BAFTA Orange star award by 2014. You have won the award. How did you feel losing out of the major one, the Oscars?
I felt fine. I felt like the film, 12 Years a Slave has been so wonderfully celebrated and it was really received in the spirit that has remained with many people across the world.
I just felt incredible joy for the film itself, winning the Academy award; for Lupita winning the Academy award; for John Ridley winning the Academy award, for all of us who were nominated for the extraordinary moment. Also, for Steve McQueen an extraordinary film maker who makes rare, special and precious films.
I felt very happy. In the end, it’s always the celebration of cinema and celebration of film.
I think it is incredible in this part and extraordinary commitment from an actor. I give credit to the profession. I was happy to see him win as well and I was also thrilled for her film and thrilled for the diversity that was in the entire reward system. I think the diversity in film is good for business.
Did you find it very easy relating to the role you played in the film?
I played Odenigbo who is a Professor in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. At the beginning of the film, he is in a relationship with Olanna, played by Thandie Newton.
He is described variously as a revolutionary, as somebody who is focused in a way on the ideas of a kind of exposed separatist to ideology in terms of how the Igbo nation met the aggression they were faced with after independence. In the course of the conflict, he learnt a lot in terms of the cost of everything.
The cost of political movement, cost of his relationship. One of the things, I loved about the film was that people were constantly learning, constantly growing and our relationship are constantly developing in the midst of conflict.
It’s not that the conflict then should have overtaken every other thing that is happening and of course, that has never been the case in conflicts. People learn about each other.
They grow with each other, sometimes they fall in love with each other in the face of the wilder implications of the conflict that happen and this is a story about the beautiful book by Chimamanda Adichie with extraordinary character which is very dramatic to me.
What is your impression about the Nigerian actors?
We have a terrific cast. It didn’t surprise me because one of the reasons I wanted to work and make film in Nigeria is because I feel there are a lot of incredible talents in Nigeria that are sometimes not totally recognised internationally.
I wanted to be part of it, at least, bringing a bit more recognition to that and so, we had the likes of Genevieve, and a number of people who are extraordinarily talented.
They have made a lot of films and are incredibly aware of the professionalism involved in the highest level of Hollywood of how to do it. I’m excited to be part of bringing a slightly broader recognition of Nigerian talents. Nollywood is recognised throughout Africa and to get some of those people into European cinema is obviously very fine.
Are you open to working with more producers in Nigeria?
Yes, I want to make films, harness and utilize Nigerian talents and potentials. I think there is a strong market for that overseas and that is why I was excited to make this film amongst other reasons. But I wanted to make it from here.
How Nigerian are you?
I don’t know how you measure these things. I was born in London, raised in Forest Gate, South London and brought up with friends and family who were also born in the same circumstance.
I love Nigeria as well. Of course, the country is a major part of my heritage and my family that I adore. I never claimed to be 100 percent through and through Nigerian as much as I would like to, but the truth is that I’m both and I am also proud to be British.
There is no doubt that Britain has offered me an extraordinary opportunity in my life and I wouldn’t denigrate that for a second. But I am both things and I hope the internationalism of that can really contribute to something.
What’s your next project?
My next project is that I want to make a new film for Triple 9, which is directed by John Helper . We will be shooting in Atlanta, Georgia during the summer.
How were you able to manage the Nigerian accent fluently in the film?
It is not a mystery. My parents are Nigerian and Igbo. I spent a lot of time in Nigeria visiting families ever since I was a child and also, as an actor. You play with people and try to connect with those things.
Which of the Eastern states do you come from?
How do you react to movies that do not portray Africans correctly?
Part of making this film is to redirect and reconstruct what I think is truthful of Africans, Nigerians, the continent and those of the diaspora. I feel it’s time to move away from films that are two-dimensional African character which don’t have any more place in the cinemas, quite frankly. I think the people need a lot of times to understand the kind of post war as in second world war situation.
It’s no longer your grandfather’s Africa, it is a very diverse, different place than it was two generations ago. People have been slow sometimes to catch up with what Africa means and is and very specifically to me, it’s just a miniature Nigeria. I found it frustrating as well.
There are people who want to come here because they are aware of this kind of misconception. The African stories are remarkable with such strong narrative drives that people would be engaged with and at the same time, learn more about Africa.