Smart casting has been a hallmark of the Marvel movie machine since it began taking over our summers, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, the newest member of the comic-book movie universe, is the latest acclaimed actor to pull on a very tight bodysuit in November’s Doctor Strange. Classically trained on the London stage, Ejiofor has anchored extreme films like Children of Men and 12 Years a Slave, which he was nominated for an Oscar for, with his humanity and restraint. He is also known for being a bit of a method actor, but that commitment can be hard to follow through on when you’re playing a mystic with “interdimensional capacities.” For this year’s Royals portfolio, we paired him with Chris Evans, who everyone knows as Captain America but who shares Ejiofor’s affinity for the offbeat part.
At any time in your life, who would you say was royal to you? Well, so many people have been royal to me. I suppose when I first started, I did a play, Blue Orange, with Bill Nighy and Andrew Lincoln, and they were amazing. I was like 24, and we did the play for a long time. To me, that experience was so incredible and I will consider them in our little trio as royals forever.
What was the very first thing you auditioned for? I started off doing plays in high school, so the very first thing that I ever auditioned for was actually a high school play. It was Measure for Measure. At that time, I was just sort of studying English literature and wasn’t that connected to the theater at all, until I read Henry IV in class, which initially I found very boring, and then was really, by the end of that week really inspired by it. And so I went down to the theater to see what they were doing, and auditioned for Measure for Measure. I got the part of Angelo, and loved it.
Did your parents encourage you to be an actor? They didn’t want me to be an actor, initially. When you come back from school and you say to your parents, “Oh, I’ve got it, Mom,” [Laughs] you know, it’s never a great conversation. So it took a little persuading. It was only really until my mother recognized how much of a part of my life that it had really become, and that I was spending all of my spare time in the theater, working on plays. By then I was directing some plays in high school, and in the summers I’d go off to the National Youth Theatre, and then I started applying to drama schools and so on. And then it just become part of my life. At that point, she kind of acquiesced.
Did your parents go to the Oscars with when you were nominated for 12 Years a Slave? My family was there, yeah. My mom, my sister, we all went to the Oscars together. It was a terrific occasion.
Was it fun or was it stressful? You won Best Picture, which is always nice. That’s always nice, yeah. I think the Oscars was fun and exhilarating. And it was also at the end of a very long period of promoting the film. At the end of about half a year of talking about it, there was also a sense of relief. That you kind of have arrived at the end of this epic journey, and then of course for the film to win Best Picture was an amazing end to that experience.
It was fascinating to watch your face when they announced it. You did look like you didn’t know, and then when they read it out loud, it was like a light bulb went on behind your face. It was quite beautiful. Oh, great. [Laughs] I think it was quite fun, because a few of us were nominated. I think going through the entire process of awards season can probably be quite isolating if you’re not with all of your gang, you know?
So tell me about your character in Doctor Strange. I play Karl Mordo. He’s the first person, along with the Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton, to really introduce Stephen Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, into their kind of mystical, weird, and wonderful world.
Do you have actual powers? Well, we’re very mystical. We have capacities that are interdimensional, let’s say.
Interdimensional? Yeah. [Laughs]
Did you become method about this? Did you start to feel that you had these powers? I didn’t, no. [Laughter] I didn’t become method on this one in that way, but I did want to like learn more about the science behind it, the quantum physics and string theory.
If you could be either fly or be invisible, which would you pick? I would definitely prefer to be invisible, out of those two. It would annoy me slightly if you had to make a definite choice, in that being invisible meant that you could no longer, you know, fly.
So you want both? I would like to have both.
And if you had to pick any super power, what would you pick? I would go for invisibility over almost anything else. I mean, it’s so perfect.
But wouldn’t you worry that you’d hear things that you wouldn’t want to hear? That would be precisely why I wanted to be invisible [Laughs]. So I could be in places that I wasn’t supposed to be and hear things that I wasn’t supposed to hear, you know? That would be great.
And what movie makes you cry? The film that consistently makes me cry is It’s a Wonderful Life, and also Bicycle Thieves makes me cry.
Is there a particular moment in It’s a Wonderful Life makes that you cry? When she runs down the stairs and she says, “It’s a miracle,” when all the donations come in. It’s so beautiful. It’s so hopeful.
It sounds like you watched a lot of old movies growing up. I did. You know, I actually wish I still did. I think that the sort of clear narrative drive and storytelling was something that I found very engaging. I mean, I don’t know whether we’d consider those stories to be quite simple now. Maybe we do, but they seemed very clear to me, very ethically clear, and I liked that. Maybe that’s because I was young, but I suppose I miss that a little bit.
And now you’re in a movie about good vs. evil, so that’s good. It’s, it’s a bit more complicated than that, actually. [Laughs]
Oh, really? The interesting thing to me about superhero movies is that they are more complicated now. There seems to be a lot of moral issues that they bring up. I wonder if that’s something you find compelling. I definitely think that the moral complexity is, to quote Prince’s “Sign of the Times,” something that is part of our world in a very real way. There are no simple solutions, and nobody can really hold their hands up anymore and claim that they’re across the board the good guys, you know? I think that the films, and certainly superhero films, uh, have a responsibility to reflect that.