With director John Hillcoat’s (Lawless) Triple 9 opening this weekend, I recently sat down with Chiwetel Ejiofor for an extended interview. During our wide ranging conversation he talked about working with the all-star cast, memorable moments from filming, collaborating with Hillcoat, filming in Atlanta, which of his previous films people want to talk about when they meet him, Emmanuel Lubezki’s amazing work on The Revenant and Children of Men, what it’s been like making Doctor Strange and why he wanted to be part of the Marvel universe, and a lot more.
If you haven’t seen any of the trailers, Triple 9, scripted by Matt Cook, follows an interconnected web of thieves and corrupt officers who plan to murder a cop in order to draw attention away from the heist they’ll be pulling on the other side of town. The film features an all-star cast made up of Paul, Aaron Paul, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet, Anthony Mackie, Gal Gadot, Teresa Palmer, and Norman Reedus.
CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: It’s been good. The last time I spoke to you we were talking about a film that that I actually happen to absolutely love, The Martian, and then I started working on a project that I am really enjoying called Doctor Strange which you may have heard of, and then I am opening this movie that I equally think is terrific. [Laughs] So it’s an exciting time.
Also, I spoke to you at Sundance last year for Z for Zachariah which is also a great movie.
EJIOFOR: Oh yeah, I think Craig is an exceptional filmmaker.
I just want to make sure we are pimping that movie out for the people that have not seen it yet.
EJIOFOR: Check out Z for Zachariah! Z for Zachariah is awesome.
It has great leads, great performances, great world…great movie. So I wanted to put that out there. So with this project, Triple 9 — It’s a murderer’s row of talent in this movie, such huge actors, was that the main thing that drew you in or was it the moment you hear about John Hillcoat?
EJIOFOR: Well it was John, really. I spoke to John about this project years ago — like six, seven years ago initially, and I was like, he is one of my favorite filmmakers and this is one of my favorite genres. Heists are fun! That is a fun time in a movie. And the detail and the auteurship but within the context of a very popular movie that John brings to his films. I kind of saw The Proposition in North London, in Islington, several years ago and was totally struck by how much I wanted to work with the director who made it. You know what I mean? I came out with that movie like, “I want to work with this guy. What’s his name? John Hillcoat? That was an awesome movie.” So I have always been aware of him and just the real detail he puts into the narrative energy is brilliant. So that was my first thought when John Hillcoat was like, “I would like to send you a script.” I thought this was going to be an exciting part.
He manages to get great performances out of everyone in all of his films, what is he like working on set? What did you find working with him, because he does seem to do so good with so many different people?
EJIOFOR: I think his process is an ever evolving depth of narrative and he allows the performances to happen. Which is, in a way, not to say much but does mean a lot in terms of — if you have the experience of working with him and you see the film you’re like, every single decision the character’s made, that the actor has made about their character, every single detail is in the movie, it is captured. He is an incredibly attentive filmmaker; to performance, to what somebody is doing and enhancing that experience. Which is why both in the script and by casting it the way that he did, all of those characters — there are like eight lead characters in the movie — all of them are so distinctive, because he allows that to happen and he captures that very specifically. I love working with somebody like that.
You filmed in Atlanta, and Norman has been in Atlanta for a long time and I heard you guys went out, shooting pool together all as a group. What is it like to roll out in a city like Atlanta with this murderer’s row of talent going to play pool, or going to see a movie or dinner. It has to be one of these where everyone’s head is on a swivel.
EJIOFOR: Yeah, it was kind of like that [laughs]. It’s a fun gang of people to hang out with and to see a city react in that way to a group of people is fun. Because everybody has a favorite thing, and they’re like, “Oh it’s you from..Oh Shit! You’re the man!” [Laughs] Which is also what I love about the film, is that you get to see people that are your dudes, man.
Absolutely. I might have asked you this last time and if I did I apologize but you definitely won the actors lottery in terms of getting to do what you do right now jumping from genre to genre, project to project. When did it hit you that oh shit I’ve made it.
EJIOFOR: Well I have always been very fortunate in my working life in terms of the, I say that like I’ve not been fortunate at all in my private life [laughs]. I have been very fortunate in my life.
Sure you have worked consistently. I mean like high profile projects like The Martian or booking Doctor Strange.
EJIOFOR: I don’t ever feel like I’ve had a moment where I am like, “There it is; perfect and holy in all ways.” You know, one is still pushing for the highest achievement you can get artistically, which is the perfect kind of — where all the boxes are ticked and the audience has an experience that is unique and you feel completely satisfied by what you have presented. You know what I mean? You have the total…it’s elusive, but that’s part of the journey. But I am also aware that I have been incredibly fortunate in my life to work with the people that I have worked with and pursue the projects that I have been able to do. There are so many films that I have done that I really, as a film person, as a film fan, that I like. And that is a nice place to think of a career in.
You’re standing in line somewhere, people come up to you, what is it that they usually want to talk about. For me it would be Children of Men.
EJIOFOR: Children of Men is one thing. They want to talk about Chivo – Emmanuel [Lubezki]– and they want to talk about the car scene [laughs].”How did that happen?” Even cinematographers come up to me on other movies and ask me, “Uh, by the way, what did Chivo do in that?” There is actually a YouTube clip now of how we shot that. So, there’s that. Around Valentine’s Day, this is Valentine’s weekend, people want to talk about Love Actually. When I’m in New York, people want to talk about New York movies. It’s very specific. People are like “love American Gangster” [Laughs]. I didn’t realize it would be quite like that .“Inside Man!” So yeah people kind of have their different faves.
Yeah I could talk about Children of Men all day. Chivo is a god.
EJIOFOR: He’s amazing. I mean, The Revenant. I mean what next? I don’t know where we go [Laughs].
The thing about Children of Men is he was doing it when technology was at its infancy and now with Revenant he is shooting with these tiny little cameras, he was telling me, and putting cameras in places you never could before.
EJIOFOR: Is that what happened?
Yeah, with technology he has refined his craft.
EJIOFOR: Oh I see, there were shots in The Revenant that I was like, “What? How is that…?”
Yeah because he was literally holding the camera, he was using a smaller camera and putting it literally next to someone’s nostril, doing shots that you couldn’t do before.
EJIOFOR: Oh I see, yeah, there were a couple of shots in The Revenant that I was like…I just had to sit back and be like, “What were the mechanics of making that shot happen? I don’t even understand.” I am not the most knowledgeable about these things in the first place, but I know enough to know that I don’t know how to do that [laughs].
The action set pieces in The Revenant – I think Mad Max: Fury Road is a work of genius but there is some of the action in Revenant is on par. The arrow sequence, it’s just crazy.
EJIOFOR: I did watch a great online interview with somebody and they were like, “I watched The Revenant like four times and I am just trying to work out how they did this scene with Leonardo DiCaprio and the bear, and I have worked it out. Leonardo DiCaprio got mauled by a bear.” [Laughs].
I had heard that they weren’t going to release any of the behind the scenes footage for that scene because it was such a mystery how they did it. I’ve seen a few behind the scenes because obviously they are trying to win awards and you gotta sell it to the VFX people, so I’ve seen how they done it, but it’s true it is still amazing. But that’s probably more real.
EJIOFOR: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly.
It’s crazy. Real quick, what was it about Doctor Strange that pulled you in? What is it about Marvel that made you want to get involved?
EJIOFOR: Well, I guess I have always been a big fan of Marvel films and I was just excited by the way they have been sort of pushing the envelope. I guess when I watched Guardians of The Galaxy I was like, “This is really exceptional, what is happening here.” So I met with Kevin [Feige] and basically said, “Listen, I’m excited to get involved so let me know what is going on.” And then Doctor Strange was what we started to talk about. Getting into that universe and getting into that kind of concept was so thrilling, and even then having these conversations of what was going to happen with it and what they were going to visually attempt was incredible to me.
That’s the thing, and I have had this conversation with others, I think the comic book movie genre is the biggest thing on the planet right now. I mean just look at what Deadpool did, which is crazy, but you look at Winter Soldier and it’s a 70s political thriller. You look at Guardians of The Galaxy – the fact that you have a talking raccoon and a tree and it works brilliantly, is crazy. And Feige has talked about how Doctor Strange is going to push into a whole different way or whole other realm, if you will. Is that what drew you in? You know what I mean?
EJIOFOR: I totally know what you mean, and I think all those things were what were exciting to me. I just think that they were, like I say, in a sense pushing the envelope and getting product out there…Not sort of resting on any kind of laurels, thinking what’s next. How do we re-engage the audience? How do we up the ante? How do we do that effectively? And also Doctor Strange is a fascinating part of the whole gamut. It’s a beautifully weird and brilliant sequence of comics and smart and philosophical in the same way. It has all of those elements, so I thought it was pretty cool.
One of the things that I found that visiting Marvel sets, is that the sets are massive, beautiful, and just gorgeous — these huge practical sets. What was that like for you first day on set in terms of walking into this new world?
EJIOFOR: Well I just thought that the design was extraordinary, and the sort of realization of everything. I hope that that is the experience that the audience has with the film, just sort of recognizing that the attempt is to create something unique and spectacular.
One of the things about Marvel is that they make people sign these multi picture deals. For you, was that intimidating or was that, or was it more like, “I want to be apart of this universe they are doing something special here.
EJIOFOR: Well that question, I can’t answer. That may give things away.
I would be shocked if you are gotten rid of in the first movie. It would be surprising to me.
EJIOFOR: We’ll have to wait and see.
What are you doing next?
EJIOFOR: That is what we are still shooting. So we are deep into that.
Well at least you are shooting in London.
I guess that is one of the positive aspects of that shoot.
EJIOFOR: Yeah, I am really enjoying it. All of that.