Chiwetel Ejiofor is phoning in from Montreal. Sounds like a Tom Waits lyric, but it's true: The fresh, gifted actor with the tricky handle is too busy at present to wing around promoting his fine showcase film with megastar Audrey Tautou, the darkly comic, offbeat thriller-romance Dirty Pretty Things. Fortunately, Ma Bell suffices, and the man pronounced not unlike an exotic telephone company himself -- "Chew-it-tel Edge-E-O-4" -- warms audibly in thoughtful, African-British tones while recounting his experience as lead character Okwe.
"Okwe needed to be very internalized," Ejiofor reveals, affectionately, of his role. "The thriller was kind of twofold, about the situation with the human heart" -- it's nasty; just see it -- "but also about revealing that character piece by piece."
In the film, the mysterious refugee Okwe is Nigerian, not unlike Ejiofor's heritage (though he was born in England), and this afforded the actor some efficacy in mastering the dialect and cultural tics of this stranger in his own land. (When equally impressive Sophie Okonedo, who plays gold-hearted hooker Juliette, asks him if he's ever seen a lion, he politely replies in the affirmative, pausing just a beat before adding, "on TV.") Quizzed about how he and director Stephen Frears shaped the complex, introspective Okwe, Ejiofor -- like Frears -- immediately credits screenwriter Steve Knight (of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and the forthcoming Tony Scott-Nicole Kidman collaboration Emma's War) with establishing the characters and their sticky London milieu.
Such humility. Yet Okwe is one of the year's standout performances, so how did Ejiofor and Frears bring it forth? He adds praise for all his co-stars and explains simply that most of the movie's scenes consist of "just two people, in an arena, basically ... in difficult, complicated situations trying to survive." Indeed, the plight of the displaced, disoriented, and hunted immigrant is popular -- almost ubiquitous -- in cinema, but rarely is it presented so successfully on such a humble, human scale.
Ejiofor is the man for the job, sprung eight years ago at age nineteen from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art to play Ensign James Covey in Steven Spielberg's take on the Amistad revolt. Thereafter, the man known to his friends as "Chewy" blazed across the London stage in the celebrated mental health drama Blue/Orange, as well as making his mark in British television and film, garnering acclaim, awards, and respect from far-flung parties. Actor as cultural diplomat -- who'd have thought?
While Ejiofor concedes that the vastness of Spielberg's productions dwarfs the relatively intimate DPT, he's quick to rave up Frears: "His storytelling is impeccable, his ability to tell a very complex story in a very straightforward way and always leave room for incredible surprises in detail. I think many scripts that he's worked on, in different hands, would be very different films, and would not benefit from being part of his perspective." (Sounds like a dis, but he means it well.)
This is especially true of Frears' latest, which, like recent successes Last Resort (directed by Frears' friend Paul Pavlikovsky) and Jasmin Dizdar's Beautiful People, concerns itself with the loves and losses of immigrants caught up in the whirl of British naturalization -- or perilous denial thereof. Okwe's friendly rapport with an illegally employed Turkish national, Senay (Audrey Tautou), leads them both into intrigue at once real-world plausible and deftly iconic -- apparently following major surgery on the initial script's lumbering second half. In keeping with Frears' track record from My Beautiful Laundrette and Prick Up Your Ears to the overrated The Grifters (which he firmly denies co-directing with actor-director Sy Richardson) and the underrated The Snapper, the dirty funk of life is emphasized -- the blood, physical discomfort, and a bit of gore -- even though the film itself is tight, fluid, seemingly effortless in its design.
"You're not supposed to let the audience know how hard you've worked," grins Frears, who's back stateside to discuss the project, armed with a world-weary countenance and copious nervous energy yet amusingly coy about discussing his creative process. "I think the film is what matters, not how much effort you've put into it or what hell you went into in getting there." He laughs good-naturedly, giving due credit to his crews and designers, without whom he admits his movies would be significantly more arduous to produce. "The film is just telling a story, and somehow letting people know that you've sweated blood to get it seems to be irrelevant. It's a very old-fashioned, gentlemanly attitude. It's a very English attitude."
Speaking of which, the man who burned Annette Bening's birthday suit into the retinas of neo-noir fans proved the very model of an old-fashioned English gentleman -- say, perhaps, Benny Hill? -- during a recent preview screening of DPT, which he commenced by announcing: "Some of you may have come because you thought you're going to see Audrey Tautou naked. My advice to you is to leave now!"
Writing here as someone who observes a lot of actresses and is frequently unmoved regardless of their dishabille (clothed or otherwise, the basic formula is: throw tantrum onscreen; grab Oscar; gush; repeat), I must report to interested parties that Audrey Tautou is literally stunning in person. Like some space traveler deigning to visit meager little Earth, she graces the evolving art of cinema from higher forms as yet undiscovered. She shimmers, a Gallic supernova in mortal form, a delightfully sculpted manifestation of the Goddess incarnate. This extends beyond aesthetics to a trenchant, preternaturally transformative aura which also defies words. All women are beautiful, but Mlle. Tautou is outrageously beautiful. Never before have I so regretted referring to someone as "that goggle-eyed bug." And now back to our feature.
Yes, Audrey Tautou has just entered the room. Yes, she is the star of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's international bull's-eye, Amélie. And yes, although she's proud of it and pleased by its success, she's understandably a little tired of discussing it, given that she does in fact cultivate personal and professional lives beyond that fairy tale. With the iconic pageboy 'do replaced by a sweetly unruly coiffure, she is attentive and energetic, communicating exclusively en français via her superb translator Penny Dyer, yet clearly grasping English and jovially receiving the interviewer's smatterings of high school French.
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