Ejiofor: From Transvestite to Othello to Sensei

Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor has starred in an impressive string of critical and box office hits since his big, Hollywood break in Dirty Pretty Things. This month, he becomes a true leading man at the head of David Mamet's latest effort, the jiu jitsu-infused Redbelt.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

He's worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood - Russel Crowe, Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster - but you probably don't even know how to pronounce his name. Well, since you're likely to be seeing it on more and more marquees, here's a little tutorial: Chiwetel Ejiofor. One more time: Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Now, as acting goes, he has been very hard to typecast. He's played an immigrant doctor in "Dirty Pretty Things," a transvestite in "Kinky Boots," a Brooklyn cop in "Inside Man," and Harlem drug dealer in "American Gangster." Not to mention Othello on the London stage.

His latest role is a jiu-jitsu teacher in David Mamet's new movie "Redbelt."

(Soundbite of movie, "Redbelt")

Mr. CHIWETEL EJIOFOR (Actor): (As Mike Terry) The hands are not the issue, the fight is the issue. The battle is the issue. Who imposes the terms of the battle will impose the terms of the peace. You think you have a handicap? No. The other guy has a handicap if he cannot control himself. You control yourself, you control him.

NORRIS: When Ejiofor's principled character runs into money trouble, he's forced to choose between his martial arts school and his strict ethical code. Chiwetel Ejiofor recently dropped by our Washington, D.C. studio. I asked him about jiu-jitsu; he says it's as much about how you live as how you fight.

Mr. EJIOFOR: It's a submission contest, which means that there's no - there's no time limit. So it can last for as long as it lasts, which means that you have to have a lot of strength, a lot of stamina. But I think the philosophy in many ways is kind of based around a sense of morality, of a good style of living, of approaching life in a certain way, and with that to have a non-clouded conscience or morality in many ways. You then approach a fight with a clear mind.

NORRIS: And we're talking about Brazilian jiu-jitsu...

Mr. EJIOFOR: Yeah.

NORRIS: ...which for the uninitiated, perhaps you could just explain exactly what that is.

Mr. EJIOFOR: Well, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is an extension of a sort of Judo form. It's grappling wrestling, and it becomes a kind of body chess game where, you know, you have certain locks and positions that you get your opponent in. And it's - the end result is one of submission because, you know, the move and the lock you have your opponent in is unbearable and used any greater would cause serious harm. But really what's happening is a real psychological mind play with the two very physically fit athletes that are attempting to, you know, outmaneuver each other in very, very subtle ways. Even being still. You know, sometimes watching a jiu-jitsu about you'd be forgiven for thinking everybody is frozen and wondering why they're pouring with sweat, because even standing still and waiting for the moment to then apply a move is incredibly strenuous.

NORRIS: Now, you played Mike Terry. He is the jiu-jitsu master. There is this move where he climbs up a wall and does a backflip and...

Mr. EJIOFOR: Mm-hmm.

NORRIS: ...twists like a cat almost. And coming back over the flipside - backside of his opponent. Was that you?

Mr. EJIOFOR: Well, I mean, what I would say is, you know, I did, you know, 99.99 percent of my stunts.

NORRIS: You didn't answer the question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: And you're not going to answer the question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Now, I want to ask you about the dialogue in this film. David Mamet's dialogue is so precise, there's a certain rhythm to it. It's almost like a jazz composition. And before we go on, it might be helpful just to hear a bit of this.

(Soundbite of movie, "Redbelt")

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As character) (Unintelligible)

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Mike Terry) No, he just left.

Unidentified Woman: (As character) Left?

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Mike Terry) Yeah. Maybe he went into the club.

Unidentified Woman: (As character) What happened to Lindo?

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Mike Terry) Isn't he on at the club?

Unidentified Woman: (As character) Um, that's funny.

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Mike Terry) Weren't you going to the mountains?

Unidentified Woman: (As character) Why would he go to the club?

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Mike Terry) Is he working tonight?

Unidentified Woman: (As character) Club? No. No, no, no. He's hasn't worked at the club in months. Listen, I have to tell him something, okay? Tell him...

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Mike Terry) Why?

Unidentified Woman: (As character) Why what?

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Mike Terry) Why hasn't he been working there?

Unidentified Woman: (As character) Yeah, no. Listen, I gotta get home.

(Soundbite of car)

NORRIS: Almost sounds like a Who's On First conversation there. That was Mike Terry actually speaking to the wife of one of the students.

Mr. EJIOFOR: Yeah...

NORRIS: In his studio. When you're working with David Mamet's dialogue, which has this very precise cadence to it, is it difficult or limiting for you as an actor? Because if you vary from that, it takes away the very thing that makes it Mamet.

Mr. EJIOFOR: Hmm. I find it exciting and very natural as well.

NORRIS: Natural?

Mr. EJIOFOR: Yeah.

NORRIS: Because it doesn't sound natural.

Mr. EJIOFOR: Sure, but it's - it's - to a large degree it's the way people speak, you know, when they're trying to communicate complicated ideas to each other or trying to hide something or whatever. You know, then suddenly - especially if there's something that is trying to be discussed that is in a slightly more clandestine manner, people's cadences become very erratic and the way they talk becomes very complex. And it's that that David is sort of listening to in that sequence sort of tuning into.

NORRIS: Almost like the psychological sparring in jiu-jitsu.

Mr. EJIOFOR: Sure. Sure, that could be, yeah, an analogy. Yeah.

NORRIS: In addition to this film, you also were preparing to play Othello...

Mr. EJIOFOR: Yeah.

NORRIS: ...on stage. What's more challenging as an actor, the physical demands of a role like this or the sort of psychological and internal demands of a role like Othello on the stage?

Mr. EJIOFOR: Well, in a strange way they sort of, you know, lent into each other. You know, I did this film and it taught me a lot about stamina and endurance and, you know, it was a tough shoot in the sense that we did do a lot of the fight scenes midway through the shoot, which meant the last few weeks of shooting were quite tiring. And there were a lot to be - you know, there's a lot to be said for the ability to conserve energy, and that became very important as we started to end the shoot.

And going into Othello, that is also very important. You know, the plays aren't really designed to be performed as many times as we were doing them, you know, eight shows a week. So you know, I mean, Shakespeare would have laughed, because it's just not designed for that. So it became very important to be able to conserve energy, you know, in a very serious way. And so some of what I learned actually doing "Redbelt" was very useful when it came to doing "Othello."

NORRIS: Sounds like you're still practicing jiu-jitsu.

Mr. EJIOFOR: Well, no. I'm not. I loved it, you know, I did. I thought it was just an amazing thing to get involved in. But as an actor, I should say, really I feel that, you know, once - if you approach something for a specific role, then it's sort of important, as well as anything, to let it go as well, and so I did.

NORRIS: Chiwetel Ejiofor, thank you very much.

Mr. EJIOFOR: Thank you.

NORRIS: Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in "Redbelt," a new movie written and directed by David Mamet. It opens in theaters nationwide this Friday.

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'Redbelt'

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 'Redbelt' i i

Against his better judgment, principled martial-arts master Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor, center) takes down a pair of policemen who get in his way. Lorey Sebastian/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Lorey Sebastian/Sony Pictures Classics
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 'Redbelt'

Against his better judgment, principled martial-arts master Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor, center) takes down a pair of policemen who get in his way.

Lorey Sebastian/Sony Pictures Classics
  • Director: David Mamet
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 99 minutes

In this quasi-inspirational martial-arts drama, the scuzzes and scumbags — usually front and center in David Mamet movies — play supporting roles to the principled guy who'd normally be their patsy. Inspiration? From Mamet? Well yes, in a manner of speaking.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is Mike Terry, the aphorism-spouting proprietor of a martial-arts school, whose mantra in a fight-to-win profession is "fight to prevail." Mike's a compulsive do-gooder, out to help (a) a manic woman with drug issues (Emily Mortimer), (b) a police officer with control issues (Max Martini), (c) a wife with money issues (Alice Braga) and (d) a self-destructive Hollywood celeb with self-image issues (Tim Allen). As you might imagine, this leads to a plot line that feels as scattered as it is overthought.

With Mamet regulars Ricky Jay (as a fight promoter) and Joe Mantegna (as his crooked lawyer) haunting the story's fringes and sputtering in the writer-director's patented brand of street-speak, the film is never dull. But Mamet isn't terribly comfortable with the Rocky-style big-fight finish his plot requires — and in trying to finesse it, he's left his film fighting to prevail over a finale that's at once implausible and clumsy.

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