Chiwetel Ejiofor is one of the most accomplished and magnetic actors working today. Ever since his breakout lead role in 2002’s Dirty Pretty Things, the 38-year-old Brit has piled up a list of credits that includes films like Melinda and Melinda, American Gangster and his unforgettable, devastating performance as Solomon Northrup in 12 Years a Slave. He’s no stranger to sci-fi either, playing the villain in Joss Whedon’s Serenity, a revolutionary in Alfonso Cuaron’s dystopian masterpiece Children of Men and a scientist in Roland Emmerich’s 2012. He’ll be seen this October in Ridley Scott’s The Martian, and he’s also playing Baron Mordo, the one-time ally and eventual nemesis of doctor-turned-sorcerer Stephen Strange, in Marvel’s Doctor Strange, set for release in November 2016.
He’s back in genre territory this week with director Craig Zobel’s Z for Zachariah, a post-apocalyptic drama in which he plays Loomis, a scientist who been wandering the nuclear-devastated ruins of the U.S. (in a protective suit) when he stumbles upon a secret, lush valley that has been shielded from the effects of war. There he finds a farmhouse and its sole occupant, a young woman named Ann (Margot Robbie), and the two begin a hesitant friendship and partnership as they try to make a new life.
But their carefully balanced ecosystem is thrown off by the appearance of Caleb (Chris Pine), a respectful stranger who nevertheless may have a hidden agenda and could present a threat to the life that Caleb sees ahead for himself and Ann. Z for Zachariah takes all the issues that we deal with on an everyday basis – love, sex, religion, race, technology, politics – and distills them down to the microcosm of these three people, subtly examining whether anything truly changes when a society, no matter how small, is confronted with the question of its own survival. Den of Geek had a chance to sit down with Ejiofor recently in Los Angeles to discuss Z for Zachariah, Doctor Strange and more.
Den of Geek: Were you familiar with the novel (by Robert C. O’Brien) that this is based on?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: No. I didn’t really know much about the novel. It was only after I spoke to Craig. And he said that he had — I mean (the screenplay) was different, that it was thematically on the same in terms of everything that’s kind of in the novel, but it’s extended with the addition of this character (note: the character of Caleb is not in the novel) that can kind of highlight cinematically, really, the relationships and how fraught they’re becoming. So then I went and read the novel and just sort of understood what he was talking about basically. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel itself, as well. But I think it was great to kind of extend that and pull it in a slightly different direction.
What was your take on Loomis as you started to explore the character a bit?
Loomis is the kind of guy that he kind of absolutely believes that he’s consistently doing the right thing, and sort of therefore concludes that he’s a good person. But the gap between who he thinks he is and who he actually is is extremely wide. He’s obviously troubled. He obviously has some sort of post-traumatic stress from these events. And his demons tend to periodically rise either through booze or through aggression, a kind of weird sort of side to him. So I was always kind of aware that he was just a very troubled man in himself, but with this kind of cerebral intelligence and this way of figuring things out and, therefore, of survival that got him through everything.
So he’s a very complicated guy. I think the two people that he meets are actually much more front-footed, much more sort of engaged with life. And Caleb especially is able to ultimately outmaneuver Loomis, who is so in his head about everything that he doesn’t quite know how to begin a relationship because just the terror, essentially, of having a bad relationship with the last woman on the planet is just a bit too much to bear.
So as he tried to feel his way into that mind space of actually being with somebody, of caring for somebody, of relying on someone, Caleb is able to completely take the rug from under him. So I just felt like (Loomis) was a very honest guy, in a way, an honest character and very sort of real in all of his faults. And none of the faults that he really wears on his sleeve. I don’t think that you would look at him or spend time with him in the sense of the film and conclude that he’s bad natured or has a bad heart or something, or an evil person. He just has issues.
Both he and Caleb could potentially be the villain, but at the same time neither one of them is. No one really acts as you might think they do.
Yeah. And it’s so interesting, the psychology. In this circumstance it’s revealed as a kind of masculine idea. I don’t know if it is particularly. But the idea is that just by virtue of being there first, Loomis therefore concludes that he as a whole sequence of rights in this circumstance. And they are completely imaginary. Like the fact that he’s there first doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
But when Caleb turns up, Loomis feels that he has the territorial rights. And that’s very human. It’s completely nonsensical. When Caleb essentially is saying to him by his actions, “I don’t think you do have a territorial right just because you were here first,” it really does throw Loomis for a loop and seems vicious but, actually, under investigation isn’t particularly immoral or something.
But that was I suppose what we were looking into. What would be the first systems that would resurface? There would be the dynamics between men and women, the normalizing of that. And then you’d have to have eventual systems of government, systems of justice. And whoever can control that — as well as religion and so on — whoever can control those things is going to feel that they can dominate. So the play of those sorts of things was really fascinating to me.
What’s great about post-apocalyptic movies is that they often take all these big issues we deal with as a society — sex, gender relations, racial relations, religion versus science – and boil them down to a handful of people, in this case three.
I think the race issue, again, is absolutely fascinating because obviously, initially, it doesn’t matter. It makes no difference. There’s nobody else on the planet. At what point does race become a factor again? And because it’s really a factor for Loomis, because both in terms of religion and in race, he finds himself in the minority. And that is something that destabilizes him, essentially. It makes him deeply insecure about what is happening, which I thought was, again, a very interesting and honest look at those kind of systems that we exist in. I mean absolutely the system of minority is such a fascinating single kind of concept.
So he does, I think, become more insecure about the religious aspect. I think if he could, at a certain point, on a dime believe in God, I think he would. He’s an atheist through and through, not even agnostic or anything. So that’s just not an option for him. But seeing them bond over what he believes to be an imaginary concept was also just a very interesting part of understanding his kind of psychological landscape.
All three of you have done huge movies in addition to small ones like this. Is there something different, though, about the way you work off each other when it is just a cast of three and a very small crew?
Yeah. There’s something absolutely lovely and engaging about just working with people, because on something like this, it’s revealing in terms of everybody’s thought processes and emotional intelligence and how they work with other people. It’s very sort of raw, especially if it’s a two-hander. Or it’s a two-hander for the first half of the movie and then a three-hander for the second half. All of it is very open in that sense. That to me was just kind of fascinating.
Both Margot and Chris, I knew them to be terrific actors. But on larger movies it’s sometimes hard to see all of those other nuances that they offer. I think that’s what excited both of them about the project. Certainly it excited me. And working together was great fun because we could really play the sort of subtlety of everything — the glances, the looks, really sparsely going through this landscape and understanding each other. That was a very beautiful part of developing it and playing it.
They briefly flashed your image onscreen at Disney’s D23 Expo recently while showing off concept art for Doctor Strange. Have you started to do your research into Baron Mordo yet?
Yeah, yeah. I’ve been reading all about the Baron. It’s been great. It’s been good.
What kind of preparation have they asked you to take on for this?
Well, I’m not going into all of that (laughs). As well you know (laughs).
Are you looking forward to getting into the superhero genre?
I’m very, very much looking forward to working on it, yeah.
You’ve done a few things in the sci-fi genre – a space opera with Serenity, post-apocalyptic fare with 2012 and Z for Zachariah, The Martian, and now you’re moving into the comic book realm. Do you enjoy the kind of range the genre can offer?
Yeah. Sci-fi is amazing because you can literally come up with anything. You can come up with any sort of crazy sort of premise. We were having dinner while making The Martian, and we were talking about Alien and just the idea of a creature bursting out of John Hurt’s stomach. It’s kind of laughable. It’s crazy! But it obviously completely grips you and the narrative of Alien is so amazing. So sci-fi offers you the broadest range of investigating human emotion, human trauma, human feeling, human ideas. And then, again, in this instance (Z for Zachariah), stripping everything bare and seeing what comes up, what we consist of, really, when there’s nothing else and no one else. You can do that in small ways and you can do that in huge ways. That’s why I think the genre just has a limitless amount to offer.
Have you seen any of The Martian yet?
I’ve seen the film. It’s amazing. I think Ridley is extraordinary. And Matt Damon I think is absolutely fantastic in the movie. He’s a tireless actor. So yeah, I’m really excited for people to see it. It’s a beautiful film. Beautifully done. And a great book as well.
Z for Zachariah is out in theaters this Friday (August 28).