It’s hard to believe that it’s just been five years since London resident Chiwetel Ejiofor came to prominence with his starring role in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, and since then, he’s worked with many filmmaking greats: Woody Allen, Spike Lee, and Ridley Scott, among others.
When he was asked to star in Redbelt, David Mamet’s first movie in four years, Ejiofor might have found one of the best roles of his career playing Mike Terry, a struggling Jiu-jitsu trainer coerced back into the ring as part of the mixed martial arts fighting circuit when an event he witnesses threatens to close his dojo. The movie also stars Emily Mortimer, Alicia Braga (I Am Legend), Tim Allen (in a serious role no less), Joe Mantegna, Mamet regulars Ricky Jay and David Paymer, as well as a number of real-life fighters, boxers and martial artists making their screen debuts.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Ejiofor for our first interview with him in nearly four years years, the last time being for Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda.
CS: I know you come from a London theatre background, and one would imagine David Mamet is as known and revered among theater actors there as he is here, so how did he approach you about this role and what was your reaction?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: Well, he was familiar with some of my work. We actually share an agent which is not unusual, so he’d seen a few of my films and on the basis of that, he wanted me to play the part, so it was an incredibly straight-forward process and it was very exciting for that reason.
CS: You haven’t been in a lot of action-type stuff, but did you have any sort of martial arts in your past that made him think you could pull off that aspect of this role?
Ejiofor: No, in a sense, I didn’t have a background like that, and he certainly knew that. I didn’t know if it was possible, but he believed and I believed him that it was possible to get up to a certain point whereby these things could happen in the time we had.
CS: In this movie you’re surrounded by the real guys who do this stuff, so was that helpful or did you still have to do a lot of training beforehand?
Ejiofor: Yeah, a lot of training, so I did months of training beforehand, literally as soon as I got on the phone with David, he called me in London to talk about the script, next thing was getting into training for it. You looking at the demands and checking the time, you think you better get going. I worked at night training at the Roger Gracie Academy in London, the Gracie family being one of the preeminent families (in martial arts). I basically got training there in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and they have academies everywhere and they have one in London. Then I started for a month and learned all the basics and everything together and sort of had a very intense time. I learned the Jiu Jitsu and everything, and then I went over to L.A. and started working with Renato Magno who was this extraordinary figure in martial arts and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and was also David’s instructor. David had been instructed in the core basics, so Renato was there, and I worked with him basically every day intensely. It was an incredible experience, incredibly draining, but it was energizing at the same time. There’s this sort of beauty of involving yourself in this sport, and then I continued even as we began shooting I was still training. So it was about three months in total until the time I started doing the actual fight sequences in the movie, so it was a pretty intense time.
CS: Since you were playing a trainer, did you learn things from your trainers in terms of how they motivated you and use that as part of the character?
Ejiofor: Yeah, exactly. You know you’re not only learning what they’re teaching, but you’re learning how they’re teaching it. It was absolutely fascinating and even just having the honor of being right next to Renato when he was handing out belts to his students when they had achieved a new level. You just get to see the emotion that’s involved and the training that it takes, and after a period of time you start to understand it more.
CS: Were you able to get a belt yourself?
Ejiofor: I didn’t, no, but I was walking around with a black belt, and it felt like a cheat, but I handed it back on the final day, but if I was to stick it out, I’d start out as a white belt.
CS: I’ve talked to a lot of actors who’ve done this kind of training for a role, but do you think you could actually take your training to a point where you could actually do something like this in real-life?
Ejiofor: No, I’d be able to do some basic moves, but you wouldn’t have the finesse now a year later like when I was in the mix of it. I certainly couldn’t even think about using them in some sort of aggressive situation if somebody was attacking me. They’d have to attack me in the correct sequence and then I could actually engage in them. (chuckles) I mean, who know? Maybe if I was to get it into some other role, I could go back and be like, “Oh I can do this.”
CS: This is a great role for you, but not really a typical Mamet character. Did you feel that way at all and were you familiar with Mamet’s work beforehand to realize that?
Ejiofor: Yeah, yeah, I was pretty familiar with his work, but I don’t know if it’s true that it’s not typical, maybe it’s not typical of some of his characters. Like Mike Terry, I think he does have flaws. I remember watching “The Untouchables” and Elliot Ness, and that sense of them having this kind of this kind of code and that all being undermined and taken away, but yeah, several times I’ve found in “Glengarry Glen Ross” where you can’t really find any redeeming feelings, that is true there. I remember reading “The Water Engine,” years ago, Mamet’s play, and then again there’s a character who has this sense of being slighted by the world and is undermined by the system, so I think there are filters of it.
CS: Also, Mamet tends to do ensemble work and this really is about your character and his interaction with all these other characters.
Ejiofor: Yeah, it is true, that this is a character who the audience is able to almost get on side with in order to tell the story, and I think Mike Terry leads the audience through the story.
CS: This has a great cast of actors, including a lot of Mamet regulars and then all these fighters and boxers, so what’s a Mamet set like?
Ejiofor: It’s just a great time and it’s just a great energy, and it is exactly that. You have these sort of fantastic and talented and beautiful women like Alicia Braga and Emily Mortimer, these extraordinary people. Then you have these Mamet regulars, Ricky Jay, and David Paymer and Joe Mantegna, and they’re brilliant character actors, and you know that they’re invested in their work, where you have that feeling they could do it all in their sleep. They’re the best, and they’ve done it for so long, they have it down like it’s second nature, like drinking water. It’s great to be around with them, great to work with them, and then you have these fighters coming in who are at the top of their game, the Machado brothers, Renato Magno, Rico Chiapparelli, who are just great fighters, then there’s Tim Allen in this serious role, and then cracking jokes every time the camera stops rolling. You have this real community, this extraordinary theatrical, artistic place.
CS: Is it all like doing a play with rehearsals?
Ejiofor: No, I don’t think it’s like a play. It’s actually sort of the opposite. Everybody is really in there to mine for the truth and that’s really, really great.
CS: How did you work on picking up the distinct speech patterns of Mamet’s dialogue, is that something you collaborated with him on to get the right pacing and feel?
Ejiofor: Well, it’s like approaching it in a classical context. You want to keep the rhythms of his speech patterns, and also, you want to try to make it as natural as you can, you want to somehow own it and make it some sort of self-exploration at least in the way of detailing how you interpret the language and how you interpret the rhythm, but without ever sacrificing the rhythm or the language, and that’s I think how you approach classical text.
CS: And you probably would know having performed Shakespeare and worked with Woody Allen.
Ejiofor: Yeah, exactly. In fact, Mamet often times writes in a sort of pentameter and a beat, which is exactly what Shakespeare does, so you give into that.
CS: Your character makes a lot of flawed decisions, so do you ever in your own end go, “If I were him, I wouldn’t do this” or do you have to just go with what the director thinks your character would do in these situations?
Ejiofor: Well, you do sort of figure that out beforehand. You read the script a hundred million times and then you find a way of understanding the character and then when you are doing the work as the character, then all those decisions make sense, rather than if you try to invest every moment with “What would I do and on what grounds?” It’s all part of developing the character that you are somehow able to justify all those decisions.
CS: You’ve worked with so many great directors, with Spike Lee twice and Ridley Scott and Woody Allen. In your head, do you have some sort of checklist of directors you’d like to work with?
Ejiofor: No, not really. I mean I’m just incredibly fortunate. I think the checklist of the people I’ve worked with–well I think only maniacs have a checklist of the people they’ve worked with–every once in a while you just think, “Oh, I’d like to work with him,” so I’ve just been incredibly fortunate in that aspect, and it’s been a wonderful thing to happen.
CS: I’ve interviewed a number of actors who’ve worked with Woody Allen and you were the first person who shared his unique working style with me, which many actors find surprising. Do you think you’d want to do another movie with him if given the chance?
Ejiofor: Yes, absolutely, I’d like to and it’d be great. It’s a very interesting time, and I think all the directors that I’ve worked with to signature the entire events and New York, when I was working here with Woody Allen, and working with Spike here, or working with Ridley. The directors create an environment in a way.
CS: Yeah, you’ve worked here a lot even though we haven’t seen you at the junkets for many of these movies. Have you had a chance to do theater here and is that something you’d like to do?
Ejiofor: No, I’ve never done any theater here, yeah, sure.
CS: What are you working on next? I know Danny Glover has been developing a movie about Toussaint Louverture for some time that you were involved with. Are you still going to do that?
Ejiofor: Yeah, well that’s still in development and pre-production, so we’ll see how that goes, but I’m going to work on a film called “Endgame,” that’s about to start with Pete Travis (of “Vantage Point”) and I play President Thabo Mbeki. We start rehearsals Monday. We’ll see what happens with “Toussaint.” I’ve spoken with (Danny) and he is very passionate about it, so we’re just trying to work it out and get it done.
CS: Do you have any passion projects or dream parts that you’ve always wanted to do yourself?
Ejiofor: Well, there are a few, and it’s just a question of figuring it out. I think this is an extraordinary profession to be able to experiment with different things and to be able to explore, and even though there are various kinds of channels you sometimes have to go through, it’s still maintained as the central nature of being one of the most amazing ways of expressing yourself artistically, so yeah, there are various things that I would like to do at some time, but it’s just a matter of the stars aligning.
CS: You’re very busy with a lot of roles, so I think a lot of it is finding the time, but would you ever want to write, or be more creatively involved production-wise, or even direct a movie yourself?
Ejiofor: Oh, for sure. I’m excited by the prospect of those things, and I’m intrigued by the practicality that goes with it. More than anything, it’s time management sort of allocating the moments to pursue that.
CS: Having worked with so many great directors and actors, what’s the single greatest thing you’ve learned, either from watching one of these directors or working with one of these actors?
Ejiofor: I think it’s basically when I was working with Spike. I mentioned this story the other day when there was an award given to Spike, and I said a few words. What I was saying was that when I was working with him, early in rehearsals, I was working on this New York accent for the movie, and it was uncomfortable, and I said, “The one thing I might find a little tricky is doing improvisation.” I was aware of course that Spike has a style of working sometimes and he likes to throw those things in the mix, and I just wanted to get it out there because there might be a complication if I had to do any improvisation because I wasn’t then as comfortable as I am now with the accent, and Spike said, “Don’t worry about it.” I think what he meant was that of course, he was going to do improvisation and there was a lot in the film, but it was a sense of, “Don’t panic about it, don’t worry about it anymore, just get on with it, and make sure you’re doing what you want to do.” So of course I didn’t worry about it, and it worked out, but it was a great way of just engaging me and just charging me and to get me into the rhythm with which he works and which he paints his films.
CS: This was when you worked on “Inside Man”?
Ejiofor: Yeah, this was the last time, and I loved that he said that. He just sort of smiled and said, “Don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it.”
Redbelt opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, May 2, and nationwide a week later, but first, it will kick-off the 2nd Annual ESPN/Tribeca Sports Film Festival on Friday, April 25 with another screening on Sunday, April 27.