It wasn’t really the end of the world, it was only New Zealand. Still, living somewhere in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, filming Z For Zachariah, a movie about life after a nuclear end of days, Chiwetel Ejiofor couldn’t help but consider how he himself would handle such circumstances. “That’s probably the worst thing imaginable,” the British-born actor says now. “The post-apocalyptic world is completely terrifying; I wouldn’t last five minutes.”
Considering the schedule Ejiofor keeps, you think he’d be grateful for the peace and quiet. In recent months, he’s been back and forth from Los Angeles to London—where he’s been starring in eight shows a week of Everyman at the National Theatre—he released Zachariah, and now he’s sitting in Manhattan over a plate of poached eggs and corned beef hash with only minutes to spare before he’s whisked off to a photo shoot. In the coming months, Ejiofor will play a NASA bigwig in Ridley Scott’s latest all-star, intergalactic romp, The Martian, as well as an FBI agent opposite Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts in the Billy Ray-penned thriller Secret in Their Eyes. While the characters couldn’t be more different, the similarity among them that the 38 year old says he spots is a tendency toward obsession. It’s a quality Ejiofor can relate to.
“Outside of work, there isn’t much room for myself,” he says. “My passion is acting; it feels like it was what I was born to do.”
That much is on display in The Martian. Ejiofor commands the screen as the sharply dressed Venkat Kapoor, a space expert who’s tasked with helping to bring Damon’s character—an astronaut left behind on the Red Planet—back home. As a genius who finds himself flummoxed, Ejiofor gives a substantial, emotional performance and helps ground the outer-space adventure with some Earth-bound gravitas. And while he’s part of an impressive cast that includes Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels and Donald Glover, among others, it turns out that working alongside such a respected group doesn’t always involve actually working alongside them.
“I haven’t seen Matt Damon for years,” he says with a laugh, noting that the film’s space scenes were shot in Jordan while those taking place on Earth were filmed in Hungary. “We had a lot of fun, but I didn’t see the space people at all.”
Of course one of the biggest draws for Ejiofor was working alongside someone entirely off-camera, director Ridley Scott. “This was a great story and an extraordinary director; this was a no brainer,” he says. “There are probably more complicated decision-making processes that I’ve been through with scripts, but this was just a real privilege and I was thrilled to get on board.”
Thoughtful consideration has been apparent in plenty of Ejiofor’s most prominent roles over the years. He’s worked steadily since the early aughts, when he first made waves in films like Amistad and Dirty Pretty Things, though his star has been exceptionally ascendant in recent years thanks to parts like his Oscar-nominated, BAFTA-winning role in 12 Years A Slave and his Golden Globe-nominated turn in the BBC drama Dancing on the Edge. To hear his colleagues tell it, Ejiofor’s not only a prolific actor but also one who’s apparently a pleasure to be around.
“The thing about Chiwetel,” says Zachariah director Craig Zobel, “is that he elevates everything he does. He wasn’t just an actor, he felt like a partner in making this movie.”
Zobel’s quick to add that their bond wasn’t broken when the cameras turned off. “You never see it in the movie, but we happened to be right by a beach,” the director explains. “So pretty much every weekend, someone would organize a crazy costume party and all of us got roaringly drunk. Somewhere there are pictures of all of us in togas, but everybody was having a good time making the movie, and I feel like you can see that.”
And while Ejiofor insists his own brand of fun is a bit lower key—he admits to a recent birthday spent at Wimbledon but otherwise claims home-renovation as his most cherished pastime—there’s no denying the spark he shows when he talks about his craft.
“Doing this play at the moment in London at the National Theatre, someone was asking me if ever got bored by it,” he says. “That was such a funny thing to me because there are 1,200 new people every day coming to see the story. It’s really very exciting.”
And while that excitement should continue through Ejiofor’s hot streak of current projects and through his still-secret role in Marvel’s 2016 big-screen adaptation of Doctor Strange, Ejiofor insists he doesn’t have any great blueprint of how his career will continue to unfold.
“There is no overall plan,” he says. “The idea is to do good work and to try and be as good in that work as I can be. I’ll just see where that takes me.”
At this particular moment, it’s up and out the door, rushing off to his next engagement.