Pride of London’s Forest Gate, Chiwetel Ejiofor is up for his first Academy Award at this year’s Oscars – and richly deserved it is too, even if it made his sister cry. As Solomon Northrup, a free man who is kidnapped and forced into labour on a Louisiana plantation, he is 12 Years A Slave’s standout turn, no mean feat considering the cast. But as our career highlights guide illustrates, he’s been terrific for as long as we can remember. A warm, serious-minded man, his name will tiptoe tentatively across many pairs of lips between now and Oscars night – hey, it’s easy with our handy pronunciation guide– and if yours is one of them you’ll need our quickfire run-through to swot up on his best moments.
Oscars night could see an impromptu Children Of Men get together, with Ejiofor, director Alfonso Cuarón, DP Emmanuel Lubezki and VFX supervisor Tim Webber all in attendance. In our minds at least, they’d chat about that sequence, and Ejiofor would have a bit of a grumble about getting showered in all that blood and glass. They could also reflect on how Cuarón’s grungy take on P. D. James’ sci-fi parable of immigration has become more and more pertinent with every Daily Mail front cover. Dispossession, repression and freedom are themes Ejiofor has returned to repeatedly in his career, and he’s terrific in the small but critical role of a tortured activist.
If it doesn’t sound too high-faluting for a film that was released 20 minutes ago, Steve McQueen’s slavery opus could well mature into a classic over years to come. Understandably, considering its harrowing content, viewers will revisit it with a certain trepidation, but if they brave it they’ll find an old friend in Ejiofor to guide them through the sweaty hell of 19th century Louisiana. Whether or not he pips Matthew McConaughey, Bale and co to the Oscar, Ejiofor is simply terrific. As the horrors unfold around him, he provides a stillness many actors attempt but which only the greats – Montgomery Clift, Spencer Tracy, Daniel Day-Lewis – truly master.
The quiet nobility of Solomon Northrup is also evident in Ejiofor’s breakthrough role as Lagos doctor Okwe, an illegal immigrant eking out an arduous and dangerous living in London. There are parallels between these two cerebral, resourceful men, both of whom fight to avoid becoming supine in the face of their circumstances. Like Solomon, Okwe has loved ones who remain heartbreakingly out of reach. For a son of Nigerian parents, Ejiofor’s accent work is as polished as you’d expect, but he also has an uncanny knack for acting without dialogue, speaking countless words with the merest sorrowful furrow of his brow.
So badass he doesn’t even bother with a name, presumably because you don’t need one to beat people’s asses, The Operative could have been a by-the-numbers villain – a Yul-Brynner-in-Westworld automaton – who pursues River and the crew of the Serenity with all the charisma of a filing cabinet. Instead, he’s an enigmatic, occasionally almost sympathetic figure who boasts just enough humanity to make him believable. Which just makes him scarier. Clever chap, that Ejiofor. Joss Whedon had to fight to cast him, with the studio craving a bigger star for the billboards, but we don’t think he’d have too much trouble now.
Chewie, as his close friends call him, picked up a Golden Globe nomination for his turn as a drag queen with the Kinks-riffing moniker Lola. It’s a bold choice from an Ejiofor CV that’s hardly risk-averse; a daring delve into crossdressing that involved more eyebrow waxing and wig wearing than a Toddlers & Tiaras convention. The actor tackles it all with gusto, tackling proceedings up with Lily Savage-y abandon and injecting considerable dignity and force into his role. The film is feelgood froth but it’s still worth a look for Ejiofor. After the Oscars, opportunities to watch him bellow "sex shouldn’t be comfy!" in the general direction of a burgundy knee-length kinky boot may be thinner on the ground.