Smile Politely

Chiwetel Ejiofor: Training for Life in Front of the Camera

Filmgoers probably first became aware of English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor in Love Actually. While his scenes as Keira Knightley’s husband were few, the actor made a definite impression on viewers and filmmakers alike as he has appeared in a series of high-profile films. Lending solid support in Four Brothers, Inside Man, and American Gangster, Ejiofor is now stepping into the spotlight with David Mamet’s Redbelt, a character study in which he portrays Mike Terry, a jujitsu master who’s forced evaluate his moral code when he finds himself plunged into the corrupt worlds of Hollywood and Mixed Martial Arts fighting. While in Chicago, the actor graciously sat down to talk about the film, his career and what is was like to work with playwright David Mamet. After breaking the ice with a discussion about the recent Edward Hopper exhibit at the Art Institute he had seen, Ejiofor gamely answered a question that had been on my mind since I had seen Redbelt.

Chuck Koplinski: So what was easier? Learning mixed martial arts or learning how to walk in heels as you did in Kinky Boots?

Chiwetel Ejiofor: (Laughter) This is a great question. I’d have to say that, it’s very close, but I’d probably have to give it to the heels.

CK: I had a feeling.

CE: It’s probably easier to beat up ten guys – to learn how to do every move in jujitsu.

CK: I would imagine that you’re not even thinking when you’re doing the jujitsu. I would think after a while it just comes out naturally.

CE: Hopefully yeah. Well, they say that in an actual fight, if you remember ten percent of your training, then you’ll be doing very well.

CK: Well, that goes into my next question. How much did you know about jujitsu before you started the film. Did you have any training in any of the self-defense techniques?

CE: I did a little boxing when I was a teenager, but that was it. I literally just started to learn about it. I didn’t know anything about it. Which was great. It was a great way of approaching this character and this film. I was a way of beginning totally afresh and letting people just teach me about it and teach me the philosophies of it as well as anything else. And what it means to people and how people live their lives in this way. As Ixsin Gracie said very famously, “Once you know the philosophies and teachings of jujitsu, you would rather die than live a day of your life without it. To try and discover why people felt and feel so strongly and passionately about it was a massive part of the journey.”

CK: I found an interview with David Mamet on YouTube last night and used that exact quote that you just used about being without it. How long was your training?

CE: Just about a month in London and another few weeks in L.A., just sort of prepping. And when we were doing the film, of course there were time constrictions. But in my spare time, while we were shooting, I was doing it too. So three months or something.

CK:You’re a pretty quick study then?

CE: I had to be in this instance. But it wasn’t like I was part of a class. It was one-on-one training for all the hours that I needed.

CK: In that same interview (with David Mamet), he described that Redbelt as a fight film. Would you agree with that or would you think that it is more? You know, Rocky is a fight film and a love story. I think there is a bit more going on here.

CE: Yeah, I think that it’s a film about a fighter. And it starts to get into the psychology of about what a fighter is in its purest form. And that necessarily isn’t someone who has fights. It’s someone who has a certain mentality when it comes to themselves, their lives, the way they view the martial art that they study and the codes by which they choose to live with the knowledge that they have. I think that Mike Terry is an example of such a guy and is an example of such a fighter.

CK: Is he fighting complacency?

CE: As a person?

CK: Yeah.

CE: I think it’s a sense of fighting for a right to live to way he feels he should in a world that attempts to enforce ways of living. And I think that he believes that there is nothing wrong with having a code and a morality and applying that to a lifestyle and is affronted in a sense, by the fact that, in the morally complex world that we live in, that that’s sort of not allowed. And I guess the film is about that. About someone in the most morally complex environment – the sentiment being the Hollywood producer type of environment. How do you apply your moral code – your moral ethics.

CK: I mean nothing is real in Hollywood. It is a fantasy.

CE: Yeah, it is a sort of smoke and mirrors.

CK: But then, he is completely out of touch with the place with his environment which I thought was probably the most interesting thing about the film. And the Tim Allen character, I’m not sure if he is searching for some truth or is trying to just take advantage of him. I was left with some question as to what he wanted, but in the end of course he does want to sell out.

CE: I think that he is a complicated character in terms of what Hollywood’s about. It is true that a Hollywood guy gets to a certain age and realizes that there is a complete emptiness to some of the stuff. And how long can you be the big guy that beats everybody up and gets paid millions of dollars? How long do you do that without needing to find a way of fulfilling your own personal destiny. How long can the cameras really roll on that? And if there is a hole, then how do you fill it. And these are the conversations that they have in the movie. “How do you decide to fill that hole?” And of course there is one very famous case of somebody coming out of that thing and becoming Governor of their state. I mean, you can’t define somebody by their Hollywood experiences. They need more than that. So I suppose that’s where the energy of that character comes from.

CK: And I think that Eastwood had done that too. Not to the extent of Schwartzenegger, but I think his work has changed to where it is much more complex and it is more responsible than what he had done in the past.

CE: Exactly. And I think that sort of what the Tim Allen character is talking about – just that sense of being required to behave in a certain way.

CK: It’s so safe to stay in that same place because that is what has worked.

CE: And he meets this guy who is sort of this antithesis of whatever value systems he previously had and then they sort of start their dance.

CK: I have a couple of more questions about Red Belt, but I wanted to ask you about your choice of projects. There’s not really anything in your filmography that’s stupid or a sell-out film. And all I hear is how hard it is to find intelligent scripts, to find things that are worth your while, but you seem to be able to do that. Are you just incredibly choosy? Is it just a roll of the dice and you’ve gotten lucky that smart projects come your way. Do you have some grand scheme for your career?

CE: I don’t. I haven’t sat down and worked out my career plan is or what my sense of working is in terms of that. I just know what excites me when I read a film and it at the moment it hasn’t really coincided with stuff that then, except in rare occasions, that have been very massive public movies. It’s important to me to hold on to what I like. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to commit to a project that you’re not invested in. That’s the tricky thing. If you can’t find a way in, then you just can’t do it.

CK: Have you been offered something that has gone on to have huge mass appeal?

CE: I’m sure that if I look through the lists of scripts that have been sent my way, there would have been a few that have gone on to get massive box office. But it’s generally not about that. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s going to be a big film. I’m certainly not doing movies in order for them not to be seen by as many people as possible. In a sense it’s simple. If something appeals to me and I want to do it, I will pursue it. And that could be anything. It just seems at the moment, its fallen into the more independent market. And maybe there are more interesting scripts coming out of that side of things than through the bigger machines.

CK: What was your sense of the martial arts masters that consulted on the screen? Were they giving you some sense of validation for your role, for what you are doing? How did they carry themselves? I thought it was incredibly touching in the last scene when he handed you the red belt. I get the impression that maybe they were out of place on the film set.

CE: It’s interesting because there was a lot of passion about this film from the serious martial arts community and a lot of passion from the actors. And David was able to bring in an incredible sense of production design and the cinematography to it. A lot of people were bringing a lot in and so there was a sense of the stakes being quite high. To me, that’s when a lot of these guys really come alive. And that’s what extraordinary about certain martial arts training, that is becomes part of their psychology. Danny Pino he was very aware of the stake and John Mishado, who I fight with at the end in the underpass, the levels of his game, in terms of raising them. He had to do a lot of acting in the film and he was just brilliant at it. As the stakes got raised in the terms of everyone coming on board to do this movie, these guys really come into their own, which was exciting to watch. As an actor, I ‘m aware of when that happens and when I have to step up. So it’s great to see people in different communities – myself coming from the acting community – them coming the martial arts community – everybody sort of pushing to make something work. It’s very exciting to be in the midst of that.

CK: It’s an interesting dichotomy – as you say that they martial arts community was enthused, yet we have the whole corruption angle in the film as well. But in the end, the message is “staying true to the art is what’s important.”

CE: Yes, I think that’s why the martial arts community has gotten excited about it. It is saying that people that just go into it in a purely commercial way have little understanding of what wealth is there – what psychological benefit is there. A real understanding of the art and philosophies of the martial arts themselves. And although they can use some of the moves to their advantage, without understanding what it means and what it’s about, you gain nothing. You gain .000001 percent of what it has to offer. I think that all the guys that really study jujitsu, whether they compete or not, are aware of what it offers them.

CK: How was it working with David Mamet? I know that they way he tailors his scripts, making them very exact. Is he that way as a director. It is my guess that there wasn’t that much improv on the film.

CE: He puts on a different hat. I don’t think its possible to work with a writer who is a director. I don’t think it works. I think you have to work with a director who’s directing. If he had happened to have written the script as well, then that’s a separate issue, but when he’s in direction mode. He absolutely has to be directing the film and I think David does that. He puts on a different hat and he goes in as a director, and brilliantly so. His eye is keep alive to the spontaneous, which is really what the whole thing is about, just keeping on eye on what can happen in the room and what sort of makes sense all of the sudden. And David is great at that and so he was open to changing things as a director. I mean, he would have to go and put that other hat on and make sure that it all made sense in terms of the rest of the script and the feeling of it and what he wanted his characters to say and then come back and say, “Well, I’ve spoken to the writer and we’ve found a way of making this work.” He definitely has the ability to work both sides of the fence.

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