Since his Hollywood debut (in 1997's "Amistad") the only common thread in Chiwetel Ejiofor's performances has been that they're electrifying -- whether he's playing a Nigerian refugee ("Dirty Pretty Things"), a drag queen ("Kinky Boots"), a spacefaring samurai ("Serenity"), or (as he did recently on the London stage) Othello.
In "Redbelt," the latest offering from writer/director David Mamet, Ejiofor keeps up his habit of never assailing the same role twice. The British actor plays Mike Terry, an American master of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Mike is a quiet, principled self-defense instructor who refuses to "sell out" his martial art, testing the patience of his breadwinner wife (Alice Braga) -- until a series of misfortunes force him to compete in the world of professional mixed martial arts, or MMA.
That's right: David Mamet just made a martial-arts movie. (Actually, he disputes that characterization, more accurately referring to it as a "fight movie.")
"Redbelt," which opened May 9 in Portland, is a strange blend. It mixes Mamet's vivid, specific dialogue (and his love of elaborate con games and male honor codes) with authentic-looking bouts of Jiu-Jitsu. It's performed by an equally strange cast -- one that includes Mamet regulars like Ricky Jay and Joe Mantegna, Tim Allen as a drunk action-movie star, and real, weather-faced fighters like Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini and Portland's own MMA legend Randy Couture.
Ejiofor anchors it all with a quiet performance punctuated with moments of perfectly understated, graceful violence -- moments that look like they were just brutal to learn and choreograph.
I talked with Ejiofor about Mamet, martial arts and the chances that we'll see his glowingly reviewed Othello on these shores any time soon. An edited transcript follows the jump.
CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: [laughs] Yeah. I was thrilled he was gonna be part of the movie. When I was first looking at Jiu-Jitsu and the fighting world for the film, his documentary ["Fighter -- A Documentary"] was one of the first things I looked at. It was just a fascinating insight into the world of a fighter. I think he's a great ambassador for the sport, actually.
But it is a strange mix. But I suppose, in a sense, as soon as one accepts that David's doing a movie about the Jiu-Jitsu world, then it sort of settles the mind to know that Randy's going to be in it, somehow. [laughs]
Q. Had you ever performed any Mamet on the stage?
A. I actually had -- which I had totally forgotten, until I started getting asked that question a lot. And then I suddenly remembered that in high school, I'd gotten together with another person and done quite a bit of "The Duck Variations" for the school. That was my only onstage experience with him.
Q. In his book "True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor," Mamet expressed some strong opinions on the craft of acting. They are decidedly anti-Stanislavsky, anti-Method. As a British-trained technician, do you agree with him?
A. I don't know. That wasn't a book of Mamet's that I've read, actually, and it’s probably one of the only ones that I haven't read.
I remember when "True and False" first came out and there was a lot of talk about it. I'd read another book of his, "On Directing," which I had really enjoyed and found really informative. There was so much talk about the nature of "True and False," and that it was sort of scandalous.... I was a little frightened by it. I didn't want to read it, because I felt like, "What if I disagree so completely that I can't get into his plays?"
I must say, when I came to this project, I was slightly glad that I hadn't read it -- that people's ideas of how they had interpreted his book weren't floating in my head as I was trying to engage in a directorial-actor relationship.
Q. I've heard that (a) Mr. Mamet runs a really low-key set, but that (b) he also has specific ideas on the cadence of lines and how they're said. Are both true? Neither?
A. I think they're both true -- the former more than the latter.
The set was very low-key; the people on cast and crew are regular people he's worked with for a long time, so there's a real family there. That was a massive part of me being comfortable to explore the work as well as I could. And he was very supportive of that -- there wasn't any sense of being finger-wagged or being instructed to say lines in a certain way. And I was glad of that.
There was a very open ability to discuss character. He was a terrific director to work with -- and a director who seemed completely unaware of the leanings and desires of the writer. He was alive to nuances and open to what would happen on the day.
Q. "Redbelt" seems fascinated by the price of purity. You've described your Jiu-Jitsu training as "a world where every piece of food and every bit of exercise, every moment of the day, was designed to get the optimum performance out of my body." Have you retained any of that? Or are you just glad it's over?
A. Well, I'm not glad it's over -- but I'd be lying to say that I'm right in the middle of that particular war. [laughs] It was great to get to a point where the training went really well and you could get really invested in the life of Jiu-Jitsu.
There is a question [in the film] about the nature of purity. There is a purity of thought and a purity of action, and all of that's involved in how you treat your body, how you think about your body and how you act in the world.That is part and parcel of how people seriously practice martial arts. It's a fascinating world.
It would have been nice to have taken away everything -- but there are just traces left behind.
Q. As you've said elsewhere, you like ice cream too much.
A. Exactly. [laughs]
Q. My wife studied Taekwondo, and she was impressed that the film nailed something she's seen -- the level of reverence a martial artist has for the grand master or founder of the discipline.
A. Sure. There is a sense that there's this guy who presides over their knowledge and their understanding, and how much one looks up to this person -- it's unquantifiable.
I saw some interaction with Carlos Gracie -- he was in town on a related matter in Los Angeles. It was incredible to watch the emotional impact he had -- people were incredibly respectful of the guy and his teachings and his philosophy, without it being creepy or something.
Q. It's these guys who can kill you, turning into these reverent....
A. Yeah. It felt like the natural level of respect one would have for an older teacher. It made you feel like, "This is the way things should be."
A. It was tough. I only trained for a few months -- which in martial arts is a very, very short space of time. But I had the great fortune to train with some of the great practitioners in the world in mixed martial arts. And I was able to train with them in one-on-one contact every day. So I was able to learn quite a lot in a short period of time.
The first month, you were really learning the basics and getting the ground rules down as much as possible. The next month would be finding ways of formulating the language into the specific fights we were going to have in the movie, and to make those as realistic as possible. The third month, which crossed into the beginning of filming, was really finessing them so they felt like Jiu-Jitsu fights. That was the real test.
Q. You've worked with American writers with really specific writing voices, including Joss Whedon and David Mamet. Are they in any way similar?
A. They're similar in the sense that they're able to tap into choices for an actor that aren't obvious. That is something that Joss does incredibly well, and David also: They produce moments that surprise the performer.
A. I don't know if there is, actually. There was talk of doing sort of a film version of it, but it's a tough play to make into a movie. It would be a few years down the line yet. But we may try and rebuild the play and bring it over to the States.
Q. What's the difference between playing Othello at 18 and playing him at 30?
A. Oh, everything. A massive change. A huge amount of understanding. [laughs] There's a chance to appreciate the the landscape of the play. You know, I really didn't know anything about it when I was 18. There was the wonderful language that I took out of it -- but the emotions and the ideas that Shakespeare is getting at are complex. It's something you really tap into later on.
A. I don’t know if it does. Acting is, in some ways, an attempt to not be duplicitous at all. It's an attempt to tell the truth -- through oneself and the character you're playing.
Obviously, there's an element of pretending. But it's not pretending in the sense that you're trying to fool somebody. You're trying to present something as well as you can in order to get someone to believe the narrative and the story.
Q. How were you approached by Mamet for the project? He's famous for hating auditions. Did he just call you and say, "Do you want to do this?"
A. More or less, yeah. He was familiar with my work and he called me and sent the script and that was it. [laughs]
Q. Was there a moment where he went, "Just so you know -- it's a martial-arts movie"?
A. No, he didn't. I was aware beforehand that the part was a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructor. My only worry was whether I could get to a place where I could do that. But I was assured the people I'd be working with were so skilled and dedicated that it was going to be possible. And they were.
A. It's a lifestyle thing, I suppose. It's like learning a language -- once you've learned the basic moves of Jiu-Jitsu, then it's all about interpretation and creativity. It's like becoming a great orator -- there's alchemy involved. And there's a sense that if you apply your life to it somehow, then it rewards you both inside and outside the ring. People who live the life find that they are able to speak the language both physically and emotionally.
Q. Your first Hollywood film was with Steven Spielberg, and you've worked with directors most actors would kill to work with so early in their careers. But you've also said, repeatedly, that you have no career strategy or game plan.
A. Yeah. [laughs] I feel incredibly privileged and lucky to be able to work with the people I have in the way that I have. I don't really know what to put it down to, but it's certainly been extraordinary.
Q. As you get more successful, do you find yourself having to plan more or less?
A. You know, I feel like I should start planning more, really. I haven't gotten round to it because I don't know where to begin. How do you plan a thing that is chance?
I feel like I should. I feel like that's the mature thing to do. But I don't know quite how to put that into practice.
Q. I love the way Whedon gives The Operative an honorable point of view. Was it strange to suddenly have to deal with that "Firefly"/"Serenity" fan base?
A. It was fun. It was great. I didn't expect it completely, to the degree that the Browncoats are around. But it was, and still is, pretty amazing. It's a real testament to Joss and his creative ability that people are that excited by his work. It's an incredible fan base, and I felt very privileged to be on their radar.
Q. Do you think the public knowing less about the actor as an individual makes it easier for them to invest in the character?
A. [pause] I do think that, yeah.
Q. Because I know you're a pretty private guy.
A. Well, yeah, to a degree. I'm not religious about it. But I remember when I started watching films and I didn't know anybody. I didn't know who anybody was in "The Godfather" when I first watched it, not even Brando. I was too young to know. They were all characters, and they were incredible performances anyway. And I always felt it just helped if you're not investing something before the story starts.
I've sort of answered that the long way round, but yes -- I do think that, actually. It's exciting not to know that much about somebody -- to not know the ins and outs of what they like to wear or the color of their socks. When you're watching a movie, they're a completely different character.
A. It was a great, great privilege to work with them. Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, David Paymer -- these are guys, when I'm watching them in movies, I can't take my eyes off them. They've worked the craft of screen acting to this extraordinary degree.
Q. Did you have any questions for them about their days in Chicago theater?
A. I didn't really get into that, but I was able to sort of talk to them about performances of theirs without trying to embarrass them.
Q. You didn't want to nerd out.
A. Right. [laughs] You don't want to make Joe Mantegna blush.
"Redbelt" opened in Portland on May 9.