Rob Edelman: Chiwetel Ejiofor
So many actors who start out on the stage abandon their roots once they hit it big on the big screen. A classic example is Marlon Brando. After becoming a Big Name on Broadway in 1947, originating the role of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Brando headed for Hollywood and forever left the theater.
Not all American actors make this choice. For instance, three-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper recently completed a run on the London stage in THE ELEPHANT MAN. Yet so many British actors, including those who are film stars and Oscar nominees and winners, effortlessly combine careers on stage and screen and also television. Judi Dench comes to mind here, and she is not alone. Another actor who fits this description is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who in recent years has become a personal favorite. A few years back, he was brilliant on stage playing Othello at London’s Donmar Warehouse. Two years ago, I saw him yet again in London playing Patrice Lamumba in A SEASON IN THE CONGO at the Young Vic.
On my most recent London trip, Ejiofor was positivity riveting in a devastating play titled EVERYMAN, presented at the National Theatre. Here, he is the title character: a man who is celebrating his fortieth birthday, and who has spent has life awash in overindulgence and self-absorption. But then, before his birthday bash ends, he suddenly dies. How could this be? In his mind, he still is young and vibrant. Surely, this must be a mistake. But it is not, and so “Everyman” must look back on his life, contend with his past relationships and abuses, and see if there is anyone who truly loves him, and who will champion him.
(By the way, if you are unable to head off to London to see live theater, there is an alternative. A range of British stage productions now are being broadcast live into cinemas. One of the more highly anticipated upcoming presentations is the much-ballyhooed version of HAMLET, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.)
In the past decade, Chiwetel Ejiofor also has risen in the film world. A couple years ago, he earned a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination for 12 YEARS A SLAVE. But he remains and actor first, and not a celebrity who basks in his fame. At the Toronto Film Festival press conference for 12 YEARS A SLAVE, I asked Ejiofor if he preferred one medium over the other. His response was that it was the property, and the role, that mattered most, rather than the medium. This, surely, is what allows him to take up the challenge of appearing in a play as powerful and provocative as EVERYMAN.
And lastly, unlike certain “Hollywood types” who require a limo and a posse in order to cross a street, there was Chiwetel Ejiofor, post-EVERYMAN performance, all by himself and making his way among the crowd outside the National Theatre on a sunny August afternoon.
Rob Edelman has written several books on film, television, and baseball, and was a longtime Contributing Editor of Leonard Maltin’s annual Movie Guide. He teaches film history at the University at Albany.
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