KINKY BOOTS: An Interview with Chiwetel Ejiofor
April 12, 2006
Like a handful of other English and European faces, Chiwetel Ejiofor is expanding the parameters of what actors of color can accomplish on film. Before a few decades ago, the range of roles for blacks and other ethnicities was fairly limited - sidekicks, villains, or token ideals, with not much in between - but with the advent of actors like Ejiofor, all of that is set to change. He has already been noticed in acclaimed works by Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things), Spike Lee (She Hate Me, Inside Man), and of all people, Woody Allen (Melinda and Melinda). But following a surprisingly complex turn in last fall’s “Serenity” and his forthcoming role in “Kinky Boots”, opposite Joel Edgerton, his star is set to explode not only as an actor of merit, but an outright movie star.
In “Kinky Boots”, Ejiofor (pronounced ‘edge-o-for’) plays Lola, a cross-dressing transsexual who strikes a deal with a desperate shoemaker (played by Edgerton) in the search for a perfect pair of heels. The 31-year old actor recently spoke to Blackfilm.com at the movie’s recent press day in Los Angeles, where he talked about the challenges of six inch heels, staying liberated from the pressures of Tinseltown conformity, and leaping back to the future for some upcoming projects.
How long did it take for you to get completely comfortable wearing all the clothing you had to wear for this role?
CHIWETEL: It took quite a long time. It was up until, I think, almost when we started really shooting it. We had quite a long period of rehearsals and choreography and getting used to all the different aspects of it, and a number of meetings with Sammy Sheldon, who did all the costume design, and Trefor Proud, who did the hair and makeup. So there was a lot of preparation time, and then also putting together the music and choreographing stuff with the rest of the guys doing all the numbers. But it took all the time that we had, really, to really feel completely sort of comfortable and almost become a kind of idea, or sort of second nature, and just sort of turning up and getting into the
makeup chair and the transformation beginning. And just sort of shocking moments along the way. I think when I first had my eyebrows waxed, I was pretty disturbed. [laughs] But then all of that was sort of geared towards creating this kind of character which all of that sort of helped do, really. Even the trepidation and the sort of nervous energy was all a great part of learning about Simon and Lola and the character
research, in its own way.
How much of Lola or Simon is a part of you?
CHIWETEL: I don't know. I think in the end...When I first read the script, I really didn't know the answer to that question, and I would have assumed a tiny bit. But then, certainly by the end of the rehearsal period, I was completely aware that it was something that was very much part of me, even if it wasn't something that I had ever considered or
known about. So it was kind of a fun, sort of eye-opening experience, just getting in touch with a completely different side of your nature. It was just fun. And then at the end of it all, sort of putting it away in a box that, you know, who knows where it is now? But there you go. And it's interesting to know.
What were your favorite songs to learn?
CHIWETEL: I think my favorite song was "Yes Sir I Can Boogie" actually. I just think it was just an all-time classic tune. But all of them, you know, we had a good time choosing them, and I had gone to Julian about the song "Whatever Lola Wants" which is something that I just remembered from years ago. So he hadn't heard it, actually, at the time. You know, we were just playing around with a number of different ideas, and over
that period of time, I listened to all the songs that could possibly be used in the clubs. And we just kind of narrowed it down to the ones that we really felt were not only good songs in their own right, but somehow were progressing story in a way that sometimes works in a musical, but using those songs to actually tell a little bit of the tale of the film.
So using things like "Together We Are Beautiful" or "Whatever Lola Wants" kind of helps tell the story. Certainly in terms of Lola's growing relationship or feeling towards Charlie. So those were useful in that sense to kind of put that all together.
Did putting on the Lola voice make it easier or harder to sing?
CHIWETEL: I don't know. I mean, it's sort of required...Lola just kind of required a kind of accentuation or accent or a voice or whatever, just to peak it just a little bit. But I didn't feel it was ever something that needed to be huge or massive or really sort of stand out
or jump out at you. I felt it could work just being fairly subtle in its own way.
How did you approach the character?
CHIWETEL: I just wanted to make sure that Lola was somebody that people could...that was very true to her...like, had distinction from the people in the factory, and very, very different from anybody else in the environment, but also was a very real person that everybody could sort of related to and understand and sort of realize that the differences
between them, if you like, were only sort of very surface ones, and actually, in the end, everybody had the opportunity to sort of realize that what brought them together was greater than what separated them. And I wanted that to happen, but I wanted it to happen sort of honestly, I guess, and not feel sort of forced, or not feel like you'd ever think
that these people somehow could never sort of relate to Lola because she was too outlandish or too kind of wild, or too sort of much, I suppose. So I guess that's how I looked at it.
Was Lola based on a real person?
CHIWETEL: Lola's sort of an amalgamation of a number of different people, a number of different drag queens and transvestites that came into contact with Steve Pateman, and so is drawn up from a number of different people, but hopefully, quite realistic in the sense of what that scene is actually like, and what some of the characters are like,
and certainly are reflective of the people that I met and worked with, and people who helped in the film who are very much from the sort of transvestite/drag queen world.
What has their reaction to the film been?
CHIWETEL: Oh, yeah, yeah. When we opened the film in London, everybody was out, and we just had a ball. It was a great time.
Lola makes a distinction between drag queen and transvestite. How much understanding do you have of that world now?
CHIWETEL: Yeah, I mean, there are as many different reasons as there are people. I think in this story, it was very important, to me anyway, just to make sure that it is a very...It's a very specific tale. And it has its own questions and its own answers, and it's a tale about fathers and sons, obviously, and about the nature of masculinity, and what is the distinction between transvestitism and drag queens and so on. But it's a very individual story, and there are very sort of psychological reasonings, but they are in no way a sort of generalization of everybody's reasoning behind transvestitism and cross-dressing. And I feel like I got a very good and in-depth sort of understanding of the
scene and the distinctions within the scene and so on. So in that sense, it was very interesting. But like I say, in no way is the film supposed to reflect the kind of general transgender world. It's a very specific story, I think.
Is there a different acting discipline in England that allows you to be more fearless than most actors in Hollywood?
CHIWETEL: I don't know. I mean, I guess in the end, it's a kind of a complex question because, you know...I read the script, I really enjoyed the character, and I didn't feel that I had in any way set myself up as an actor to be categorized as a single thing anyway. And I never felt that people who were coming to see films that I was in had any reason to assume that they were going to get a certain kind of product. So it never felt risky to me because there was nothing for it to be risky against. So I was very happy. I loved the character and I really enjoyed the message of the film and the story of the people, and I was a fan of Julian's work. So yeah, it was sort of a no-brainer. I was thrilled to be involved.
When you were in the full makeup and wardrobe, did you trick any cast or crew members into thinking you were really a woman?
CHIWETEL: [laughs] There was only one occasion that was a very clear occasion of being mistaken, which was actually...background artists in the sequence when Lola's on the pier walking like around the pier. And I think because of the distance, it was a little hazy that day, a little grey...some of the guys in the enclosure had just assumed (and why
wouldn't they?) that it was a woman walking along the pier. Sothey were pretty freaked out when I sort of came in, sat down, put my feet up, and ordered a cup of tea.
Does it take a certain amount of security or comfort with yourself to do this kind of role?
CHIWETEL: I don't know. I think for me, the question would be in a sense, if...what would complicate my relationship I think in a lot of ways to being an actor and so on, was if I was to read a script that I really liked and a character that I really liked and yet...and you know, with a cast and a crew and a director that I wanted to work with, and
not do it...and I think that finding an answer to why I wouldn't do it would be such a complicated sort of process that would, in some ways, really deconstruct why I wanted to be an actor in the first place. So I don't know, but that would be a kind of weird position. But in the sense of doing a project like this where I was aware that it was going to be a
stretch, and I was aware that it involved quite a lot of work and preparation...one feels kind of nervous about it, but also that's a very exhilarating and exciting part of the process. And certainly I became an actor just to kind of get involved in different worlds and different scenes and just sort of understand various different vibes and genres.
Was there something particular you learned from making this movie or playing this role?
CHIWETEL: Well, I think what's interesting for me was how quickly an actor can become very partisan, I think. Because I had the whole sort of waxed eyebrows and acrylic nails situation. And because my nails weren't removable, and obviously I couldn't put on fake eyebrows at the end of the day, and so if I was walking out on the street or to the local pub or whatever, to all intents and purposes, I looked like an off-duty drag
queen. And initially, I was very much at pains to kind of explain I was doing this movie and it wasn't really...And then, very quickly, I was like, "Why the fuck do I have to explain it?" So suddenly, things just sort of turned, and I really felt that I was really connecting with Simon and Lola because of the nature of the movie, and I was becoming
quite sort of defensive about this and about the issues related to it in a way that I hadn't expected necessarily to so quickly kind of become partisan in that regard. And I really felt that that was kind of an interesting time for me, and I think it was a really good way of understanding the character and some of the challenges of that in a city that is supposedly as kind of liberal and so on as London. So that was kind of...it was very, very interesting to see the world in that way. And also, it was a very good way of sort of re-understanding a character.
Did you have a favorite scene to shoot?
CHIWETEL: Well, I love the stuff in the clubs. In some ways, that was...I mean, there's always going to be in a script a few scenes that...they're always in the back of your mind, and you're always thinking, "Well, I've got to go and do that scene." And I think for me,
a central part of Lola was always songs, and these costumes, and whatever, and this club, and the kind of the drag show. And we'd spend a lot of time working on the different looks and so on. And so when that sort of came around, I was excited and I was nervous and everybody there, all the background people, were of that world, so I felt that...and I think that they didn't...At that time, when we first started doing the shows, people weren't sure what this was going to be in a sense. So they didn't know whether this was going to be some sort of pastiche, whether it was some sort of spoof. So people were sort of
gently cynical about the whole thing in a perfectly reasonable way. So I was thrilled that everybody, once they saw what we were doing, kind of just really got into it. And then you know, we just had a great time doing the show. So I enjoyed that.
Did you get any tips for your performance?
CHIWETEL: Well, people tried, I must say. And your own ego kicks in. [laughs] But yeah, people did sort of discuss how they would approach these songs, and I was very much, "Well, thank you very much, but I think I'll do it my way."
Was the movie shot in sequence?
CHIWETEL: Well no, we started...we were in North Hampton doing all the shoe factory stuff, before Christmas is how we built up the thing. And then we did all that London stuff after Christmas, which was a really good way of doing it for me, because there were just those distinctions and complications about Simon and Lola and whatever that needed to kind of be worked out within the setting of North Hampton and sort of getting used to all that and understanding all those sorts of things. And then sort of transplanting that to Lola's world was a really good way of doing it. But within those contexts of those two environments, we didn't shoot in sequence. But just having that distinction was very, very useful.
Can you tell us about Children of Men? The Alfonso Cuaron movie?
CHIWETEL: Yeah, it's...Well, that's it. It's Children of Men, it's Alfonso Cuaron's film. It's sort of set a short time in the future with general sort of political societal collapses as well as these issues of fertility that have created a very enraged and complex society, and it's based on the Peter James novel. Alfonso, I think, has adapted and written a terrific script, and a really good cast of people have come together to shoot the film. And I think he's an amazing director. And I think the work that we were doing on the film is just exceptional. It's one of those things that I don't think anybody's ever really seen before, and I think it's really going to be quite interesting to see when it comes out.
Something no one's seen before in a visual sense, or the story?
CHIWETEL: Well, I think in both senses, but what I really meant was in terms of a visual sense, and the nature of the way he's pulled out characterizations and so on, I think, is very unique, so it would be an intriguing time.
What is your role?
CHIWETEL: I play, along with Julianne Moore, the heads of an anti-government group that is sort of existing on the fringes of society, and we sort of try to get the allegiance of Clive Owens' character.
Did your work on Serenity and Children of Men influence one another, given the futuristic themes of both?
CHIWETEL: Yeah, not really. I mean, Serenity was different in the sense that it was a very kind of broad, operatic science fiction with all the great stuff that that has. And this is much more...it almost feels like a drama that just has a scientific, or a sci-fi touch because it's set in the future, but could easily be set in the present. So they were very
distinct in that sense, and there's not that kind of idea of loads of greenscreen and massive wires. You know, there's not that kind of operatic science fiction feel to it...to Children of Men.
Have you they talked to you about a Serenity sequel or TV follow up?
CHIWETEL: No, I don't know what that is or that situation. I'd be intrigued to see...I mean, Joss is such an amazing guy, and I'd be intrigued to see where he would sort of take that and take the story and so on, and whether it would be sequels or prequels. I'm sure he could do absolutely anything. He has such an amazing understanding, scope of
understanding of the world that he has created. There's that kind of Tolkien universal knowledge of every raindrop that falls. So I'm sure he could sort of take it anywhere that he wanted to.
Are you recognized by Serenity fans in the weirdest places?
CHIWETEL: Yeah. It's always interesting what people sort of recognize me from and where I am. So yeah. Road outside some of the science fiction stores is definitely the Serenity fan base.