With a disarming façade and subtle intensity, British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor quietly embarked upon a film career after several successful stage performances with a noticeable supporting role as an interpreter in Steven Spielberg's historical drama, "Amistad" (1997). From there, Ejiofor was able to carve out an impressive career in a short amount of time, though most audiences would have been hard-pressed to place the name or face. But he did earn high critical praise, particularly for his low-key performance in Stephen Frears' gritty urban drama, "Dirty Pretty Things" (2002). Though he earned several small awards for the role, Ejiofor remained a relative unknown in the United States. He sought to change that with roles in the popular British romantic comedy "Love Actually" (2003), Woody Allen's tragicomedy "Melinda and Melinda" (2004), and by playing a sassy drag queen in "Kinky Boots" (2005), which earned him his first Golden Globe nomination. Ejiofor graduated to bigger studio films, supporting Denzel Washington in both "Inside Man" (2006) and "American Gangster" (2007), while delivering a fine turn as the leader of a rebel group in the dystopian thriller "Children of Men" (2006), all of which illustrated that it was only a matter of time before he became a household name.
Ejiofor was born on July 10, 1977 to Nigerian émigrés in Forest Gate, East London - his dad was a doctor; his mom, a pharmacist. Ejiofor discovered his true calling at an early age when he became enchanted by Cary Grant's performance in "Once Upon a Honeymoon" (1942). At 13, Ejiofor began performing in school productions and for the National Youth Theatre, where he tackled the title roles in Julius Caesar and Othello. Ejiofor continued acting at Dulwich College, located in the heart of London and founded by Shakespearean player Edward Alleyne in 1619 for the benefit of actors. Ejiofor moved on to the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, where he garnished a reputation as a commanding stage presence in productions at the Almeida Theatre Company and the Royal National Theatre.
He then made his first appearance on screen in the made-for-cable movie "Deadly Voyage" (HBO, 1996). The stylish suspense thriller followed nine African refugees who sneak aboard a Russian cargo ship en route to France. Though Ejiofor's role as Ebow was not exactly high-profile, he did manage to catch the attention of Steven Spielberg, who cast him in his historical drama, "Amistad" (1997). Starring Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins and Djimon Hounsou, the 19-year-old Ejiofor played the small role of Ensign Covey. But the high-profile part allowed the still relatively green Ejiofor to find more promising parts.
After "Amistad," Ejiofor starred as Rix in "G:MT" (1999) - or "Greenwich Mean Time" - which chronicled a group of multi-cultural London twenty-somethings who get together four years after their college graduation to figure out what to do with their lives. Ejiofor then nabbed the lead role in "It Was An Accident" (2000), in which he played Nicky Burkett, a young black man who tries to stay on the straight-and-narrow after a stint in prison. He landed a role in the high-profile romantic comedy, "Love Actually" (2003), co-starring Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth and Laura Linney, in which he played Peter, husband to Keira Knightley's Juliet. The young couple finds their new marriage in trouble when another man falls in love with Juliet.
Ejiofor then made his break-out appearance in Stephen Frears' "Dirty Pretty Things" (2003), where he played Okwe, a kind-hearted Nigerian doctor who works at a West London hotel with Senay, a Turkish chambermaid, played by the doe-eyed Audrey Tautou from "Amelie" (2001) fame. The hotel is run by Senor "Sneaky" and is home to drug deals and prostitution. But when Okwe finds a human heart in one of the toilets, he uncovers something far more sinister than just street-level crime. Ejiofor turned in a subtle, yet powerful performance in the film which garnished the attention of critics and Hollywood alike.
The acclaim resulted in a flurry of work for the actor: he played Orsino in a multicultural version of the Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" (2003), set in the modern day for British television, followed by a modern telling of the Knight's Tale in a BBC production of Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" (2003). He next took a supporting turn in Spike Lee's relationship comedy "She Hate Me" (2004) and played a member of the South African Parliament who cannot remember the torture he once endured as a captive political activist in "Red Dust" (2004). He was then tapped by writer-director Woody Allen to deliver a charming turn as one of Radha Mitchell's suitors in the tragic portion of the dual-structured "Melinda and Melinda" (2005).
Once again proving his versatility, Ejiofor played a charismatically sadistic crime boss responsible for the murder of the adoptive mother of four sons who scour the streets of Detroit on a quest for revenge in "Four Brothers" (2005). Directed by John Singleton and starring Mark Wahlberg, Andre 3000, Tyrese Gibson and Garrett Hedlund as the avenging sons, "Four Brothers" was a straight-forward and often violent revenge thriller that either pleased or disappointed critics for its simplistic narrative. Another captivating villainous role followed when he played The Operative in the sci-fi adventure "Serenity" (2005), Joss Whedon's surprise extension of his failed Fox TV series "Firefly" - indeed, Ejiofor's acting blew most of the franchise's regulars right off the screen.
Ejiofor reunited with Spike Lee for the directors stylish crime thriller "Inside Man" (2006), playing a savvy New York detective whose partner (Denzel Washington) is engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse with a bank thief (Clive Owen) trying to pull off the perfect heist. For his next role, a sassy female impersonator fed up with collapsing high-heels in "Kinky Boots" (2006), Ejiofor underwent a radical physical transformation - he was fitted with long artificial fingernails, had hair removed with wax and was fitted with a string taped around his face so that, when pulled, he was given an instant facelift. Inspired by a true story, "Kinky Boots" followed a young man (Joel Edgerton) who suddenly finds himself in charge of the family's struggling shoe manufacturing business after the unexpected death of his father. But instead of continuing to make the same cheap knock-offs, he decides to make sexy cross-dressing footwear with Lola (Ejiofor) - a cabaret performer whose detached heel sparks the unexpected enterprise. Ejiofor earned critical kudos across the spectrum, earning the actor his first Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy.
Meanwhile, Ejiofor joined an ensemble cast for "Tsunami, the Aftermath" (HBO, 2006), playing an anguished father desperately looking for his six-year-old daughter after the massive 2004 tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia ripped her from his arms. The actor earned a second Golden Globe nod for the role, this time for Best Performance by an Actor in a Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television. He rounded out a good year with a strong performance as the leader of a resistance movement in Alfonso Cuarón's "Children of Men" (2006), a futuristic dystopian tale about a former political activist (Clive Owen) turned down-and-out bureaucrat who is convinced by a former lover (Julianne Moore) to help transport a young pregnant woman (Clare-Hope Ashitey) - who carries the world's only child after all humanity has become infertile - to the fabled Human Project in order to save the future.
Ejiofor next co-starred in "Talk to Me" (2007), a biopic that focused on African-American ex-convict, Petey Greene (Don Cheadle), who became a success on radio and television talk shows, only to succumb to his alcohol addiction. Following a supporting role in the neo-noir thriller "Slow Burn" (2007), he was the brother of the once-powerful heroin kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) in "American Gangster" (2007). Keeping audiences off balance with widely varying parts, Ejiofor played a Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor in David Mamet's "Redbelt" (2008), which he followed with a turn as the scientific advisor to the President of the United States (Danny Glover) in Roland Emmerich's epic disaster flick "2012" (2009). In a rare television role, he starred in "Endgame" (PBS, 2009) and portrayed Thabo Mbeki, the director of information for the African National Congress in the final days of apartheid, who forms a relationship with Will Esterhuyse (William Hurt) during secret talks with the National Party. The role earned Ejiofor a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television.
Staying with Hollywood productions for the espionage thriller "Salt" (2010), which found him squaring off against a lethal secret agent played by Angelina Jolie, Ejiofor made two rare forays into television, first starring in the BBC detective series "The Shadow Line" (2011) along with Christopher Eccleston and then portraying a 1930s bandleader in the miniseries "Dancing on the Edge" (BBC, 2013), for which he was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie. Later in the year, he returned to big-screen features with a vengeance as Solomon Northup, the real-life subject of the period drama "12 Years a Slave." Based on Northup's own book, the film, directed by Steve McQueen and also starring Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch, garnered major pre-release buzz, with Ejiofor considered a lock for an Oscar nomination thanks to his emotive and nuanced portrayal of a free man sold into slavery.
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Made feature film debut in Steven Spielberg's "Amistad"
Earned critical praise for his performance in "Blue/Orange" at the Royal National Theatre
Appeared in the thriller "Dirty Pretty Things"
Was featured with an ensemble cast in Richard Curtis' romantic comedy "Love Actually"
Was cast opposite Radha Mitchell in Woody Allen's "Melinda and Melinda"
Joined an ensemble cast for "Tsunami, the Aftermath," a two-part HBO/BBC joint production; earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a TV Movie
Played a flamboyant transvestite cabaret star in "Kinky Boots"; earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor
Portrayed the the leader of a resistance movement in Alfonso Cuaron's dystopian-future adaptation "Children of Men"
Played Frank Lucas' brother in Ridley Scott's "American Gangster," co-starring Denzel Washington as Lucas
Was cast with Ray Liotta in the thriller "Slow Burn"
Co-starred with Don Cheadle in "Talk to Me"
Cast as a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner and self-defense instructor in David Mamet's "Redbelt"
Portrayed Thabo Mbeki, director of information for the African National Congress, during the final days of apartheid in South Africa, in the Channel 4 TV movie, "Endgame"; earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a TV movie
Played a scientific advisor to the President in Roland Emmerich's disaster film "2012"
Appeared in the action thriller "Salt," starring Angelina Jolie in the title role as a CIA officer accused of being a Russian spy
Starred in the BBC TV series "The Shadow Line"
Starred in the lauded historical drama "12 Years a Slave"
Co-starred in Ridley Scott's feel-good sci-fi feature "The Martian"
Joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe in "Doctor Strange"
Reprised "Love Actually" role in "Red Nose Day Actually"