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Chiwetel Ejiofor on bringing his ‘Maleficent: Mistress of Evil’ character to life

The British actor says the fantasy film was important and fun

Chiwetel Ejiofor learned a trick: Stop overthinking.

The British actor — who in 2013 destroyed us in 12 Years a Slave with his emotional portrayal of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery — surprised himself as he was working his way through his directorial debut, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind. The movie premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

Ejiofor is a masterful actor; a 2006 BAFTA Orange Rising Star Award, five Golden Globe nominations, an OBE from Queen Elizabeth II, Screen Actors Guild nominations and an Oscar nomination back that up.

But his experience of being behind the camera challenged him to approach acting in a different way — and he felt it bringing his Maleficent: Mistress of Evil character Conall to life. The film will be released on Friday.

“I’m going to give myself away a little bit, but you do the work and you do all the preparation and then you hand over the project,” he said with a chuckle. “Occasionally, you run into someone who says, maybe at a party or something, ‘I’ve been looking at your face for about a year.’ And it’s your only interaction with the editorial department. And that’s always been my experience until directing a film and being in editorial day after day going through the minutiae of a performance, peeling it apart, putting it back together, all of the work of postproduction, which really then after that process just informs so much of what I then bring to acting now.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind was something that I was working on for a long time and very passionate about, so I prioritized it.”

“And equally, there are risks you can take. I used to always feel a little bit like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do that in case it ends up in the movie and I don’t like it very much.’ But that can hold you back from just taking certain risks and making certain choices that maybe don’t work. I think it’s made me a better actor. I hope.”

Has he looked at his resume and glowing reviews?

Ejiofor’s projects and choices since his Oscar nomination have been remarkable. He’s been able to use his influence in the industry to get pieces made that might otherwise go unnoticed. These past few years, the Sundance Film Festival has benefited from his presence and from projects such as his directorial debut.

“There are loads of scripts that I haven’t got rid of that are piled up in a corner that I need to start sorting through. I realize that there are films that I didn’t make but that I saw,” Ejiofor said. “I even might’ve forgot that I read [those scripts], or I was centered at some point. And it’s so interesting to think about the films that you don’t do, but then later on you might have loved that movie. It’s a sort of strange thing.”

It’s not so strange. In 2014, Ejiofor walked away from the Oscars without a statuette, but with a greater purpose.

In between the big-budget flicks such as 2016’s Doctor Strange, this summer’s The Lion King and his new film Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, he’s turned in beautiful work such as 2018’s Come Sunday (a real-life story of a preacher who is excommunicated) and 2019’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, about an African schoolboy who comes from a family of farmers and is trying to save his village from a drought.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind was something that I was working on for a long time and very passionate about, so I prioritized it. In the end you have to because it becomes such a kind of focal point for your life. And if you don’t do it, nobody’s pushing that particular boulder uphill,” he said. “I was just thrilled with the film and the whole experience of doing it.”

Not that he doesn’t still love the big films that we see him impacting. He does — as long as the messaging is right. It’s why he said yes to the Maleficent sequel.

“I just thought it was powerful, important and fun,” he said. “And I’d not done really that sort of deep investment into the fantasy world, and so I thought that’d be really interesting to explore and then to do that within the context of somebody that I respect and admire, like Angelina Jolie and how her films always represent her worldview. That’s a special thing to be part of.”

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment reporter and the host of Another Act at Andscape. She can act out every episode of the U.S. version of The Office, she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.