Z for Zachariah opens this Friday in limited release and VOD, and it’s one of the best films I’ve seen all year. The film takes place in a hidden valley that’s managed to avoid the apocalypse, but it holds a tense love triangle between the film’s only three characters, played by Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine, and they all give excellent performances. As I said in my review, Craig Zobel’s drama is a wonderful meditation on human frailty and sin, and you should absolutely check it out.
Last week, I got to speak with Ejiofor, and we talked about how filming compared to his stage work, being in such a small cast, his favorite Shakespeare play, how the upcoming remake of The Secret in Their Eyes compares to the original, how he’s preparing for Doctor Strange, and more. Check out the full interview below.
CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: Well, yeah in the sense that it’s dialogue driven as well, much like theater, so in that sense, yeah. But this always felt like sort of…I think maybe because of the landscape is such a major function of the story and it sort of saves them and it’s staggering and beautiful. It sort of had that type of cinematic sweeping to it, which I loved, balanced with the more theatrical dialogue-lead investigation of these interpersonal relationships.
Did you. Chris [Pine], and Margot [Robbie] have time to rehearse to sort of get a better handle on those relationships?
EJIOFOR: Yeah. That was the sort of vital part of the process, that we kind of rehearsed together and just really walked through the steps of the story and kind of figured out all the implications of every bit of dialogue, of all the nuances of it and playing that. I think it’s also cinematic in the sense that it relies on those things as well, as well as having a lot of dialogue it does rely on looks, kind of exchanges that are silent but communicate a lot of who these characters are and what their feelings are. So sort of playing with all of those things and just trying to find the steps through the story that made it wrap up the tension and as honest as we could was vital.
Do you prefer this kind of small ensemble or do you prefer working with a larger cast like The Martian or 12 Years a Slave?
EJIOFOR: Well, I don’t suppose I have a preference in the end. I was excited to work with being, for the first half of the film, it’s just two people, it’s me and Margot, and then in the second half the three of us; and I was definitely excited about exploring that, the two-hander and then three-hander sort of idea that one can create as much dramatic tension with no car chases, just with understanding these people and how they try and relate to each other and the conflicts that arise as a result.
I saw the film at Sundance and I loved it. Something I was sort of wondering about your thoughts on is, when it comes to John, do you think the events of the film sort of reveal who he truly is or do you think he’s been transformed by the horrors he’s seen before we meet him?
EJIOFOR: I think he would always consider himself to be a good person, essentially. The gap between how he sees himself and his actions are quite wide, just as a person, as an individual. So he, I think, has always a sort of moral ambiguity to him even though he’s not somebody who would have manifested that in this way. I think if you’d asked him whether he could ever see himself being the person that he is in the movie and committing the actions that he does, he would have always claimed that it was impossible. So in that sense it’s the psychology meeting the circumstances that kind of creates this other person.
Did you and Craig [Zobel] sort of have discussions about –Because that thing that jumped out at me when I saw this film is sort of what it says about human frailty and even in this perfect state of nature what people can come up against, did you have conversations about your thoughts on the character and what was his response?
EJIOFOR: We had long conversations about it, and long conversations about him, about Loomis and that every moment in the film he’s playing with these feelings that went through him as honestly as he can, given his own personality and the fact that he is traumatized and a little unbalanced. But he is trying to be cerebral, he’s trying initially to do things in the correct fashion, in the best way. He’s trying to avoid, in a way, rushing into a relationship with this woman that might turn into a bad relationship, and obviously being in a bad relationship with the last woman on the planet is not something that you would rush into. So it’s almost as if he’s being cerebral and delicate and then, of course, the arrival of Caleb throws all those plans out the window and brings out in him a slightly more chaotic energy.
There’s also an interesting person of science/ person of faith dynamic going on between John and Ann and their sort of relationship as well.
EJIOFOR: Yeah and I think increasingly as John finds himself in the kind of minority, in terms of faith, in terms of race, he’s backed into that sort of corner and finds that he’s been completely outmaneuvered actually by Caleb, he resorts to these other kinds of insane means. So the kind of build of his psychology I though was completely fascinating.
One thing I wanted to talk to you about was my girlfriend showed me this PBS documentary Why Shakespeare and we just absolutely loved your Hamlet reading and that lead me to some other clips. I was wondering, did you have a favorite Shakespeare play and is there one that you’d like to do a film adaptation of?
EJIOFOR: I think my favorite is probably –Well, actually one of my favorites is Macbeth. I just thinks it’s so intense and so relentless as a play, I mean, brilliant. But Michael [Fassbender] is about to open his so he may have taken that, at least for a while. I’m very excited to see that when it’s coming out.
Me too, I’ve been watching the trailers and it looks insane.
EJIOFOR: Yeah, it looks crazy [Laughs]. You probably get to see it soon I’m sure.
I hope so. I mean, I wasn’t at Cannes, I’m hoping that it goes to Toronto.
EJIOFOR: Oh yeah, I think he’s going to Toronto. Maybe it’s another one of his movies, I know he’s going there.
I think he’s going there for Steve Jobs.
EJIOFOR: Oh yeah, Jobs, Yeah. I can’t keep track of him.
But you have Secret in Their Eyes coming out, and I was curious, what differentiates this version from the Argentine version, because that film is really incredible, I can’t wait to see this new one?
EJIOFOR: Yeah it’s really interesting, I think that’s sort of the Americanized version of that film. It’s one of the things that I was sort of speaking to Billy Ray about initially, like what does that offer, what else does it sort of say? Not that the original misses anything, It’s a beautiful film, brilliant film, but I thought what would the differences be, what else is there? And it is really fascinating bringing that out as an Americanized version, because of course it sort of ends up in Los Angeles sort of counters originally having that kind of really very raw and muscular sort of energy to it that was kind of very surprising for me, and having that dynamic between Julia [Roberts] and her daughter brings out a ferocious sort of chaos that’s really an interesting distinction with the Argentinian version which certainly has those elements but also has a slight more romantic quality to it, so it’ll be interesting to see.
One other thing I wanted to ask you about was that it’s been reported that you’re on board for Doctor Strange, I was curious if there were any comics that you were reading in particular to prepare for the film?
EJIOFOR: What, apart from those comics?
Like any sort of character arcs, like anything in particular that Marvel directed you to?
EJIOFOR: I’ve been definitely reading the comics themselves which I’ve been finding fascinating but I don’t want to get too much into it. All of it will be revealed [Laughs].
I know, I have to ask that question and it’s frustrating for everyone [Laughs].
Going back to Z for Zachariah, another thing I wanted to ask you about the film was if there was anything that surprised you from getting to work in this small cast that differentiated from other films, something that came about that you weren’t expecting but was a pleasant surprise in filming?
EJIOFOR: What’s great with working with Margot and Chris is that on a film of this size where it’s all about the interpersonal relationships, everybody kind of has to be representing emotional ideas and I just think that both of them are actually actor who don’t necessarily get to show their complete range of emotional intelligence sometimes, just on those kind of larger movies. So it was really great working with them on this and something kind of intimate and small and then being really able to exercise the great nuance performances that they do and they have, and they’re in the film. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise but it was really great for them to be excited as well of showing that side of their ability.
You guys got to rehearse on set but did you also get to try out different things and sort of discuss and take the time to balance things out?
EJIOFOR: Oh yeah, we really did. We sort of had to and everything had to feel truthful, everything had to feel just completely honest and that’s quite raw and difficult to get some of those places, but I think it’s sort of completely necessary for this film, just to be as open to whatever the behavioral aspects of yourself are certainly what the behavioral aspects of the character would be. And that was just an ever evolving, changing thing as you realize through one scene something else about the character and that has to sort of play into another beat and so on, and so wrangling all of those things was fascinating.
One of the things I really appreciated about the film was that it didn’t spoon-feed the audience, it definitely lets you read into looks and lets you read between the lines of the film rather than having the character enunciate things.
EJIOFOR: Yeah, definitely. And I think that you want the audience to feel like their observing people, almost like a fly on the wall and not being told what anybody is thinking or told what everybody’s feeling, but just through action, through action and through dialogue, not exposition, just understanding people as we are in the world, as we do in the world. I think it was very brave of Craig to make a film in that way that just doesn’t have any kind of conventional, sequential moments, but just kind of detailed observations of people and what they say to each other or what they don’t say and what that means, and we come to the conclusion as an audience every step of the way of what they are really communicating and how ultimately devastating those things could be.