As a child, I was just never that interested in the lives of my favourite actors, like Cary Grant. I do wonder whether knowing too much about someone’s personal life interrupts an audience’s ability to suspend disbelief, to really invest in the characters. My preference would always be that people engage with the work.
As an actor, you express certain things because they need to be expressed, and then you don’t really feel a need to do it again. I want to feel something else, you know?
David Mamet was great to work with. He was everything that I thought he would be as a director. He’s incredibly articulate, an easy collaborator. Extraordinarily knowledgeable about film and writing.
Depending on what your interest in theater is, I always recommend working on plays. It’s a great way to be introduced to the field, and also a great way to be seen by agents and representation. I’m also a great advocate for studying acting at a drama school or a college.
Different people approach the universe in different ways, but they also approach their own expectations in different ways.
Dividing everybody into genders and sexuality and races and religions, and I think it’s important to have films out there, to have discussions out there which really try to get to grips with where that kind of thing can lead.
Friends at school were always quite shocked that we holidayed in Nigeria, but it was all pretty middle-class, really.
From deep in the slave hut is somebody calling over 150 years to all of our experiences and all of our ideas on human respect, and all of our ideas on dignity. And I felt like that’s just incredibly powerful.
I am struck by how, walking down the street, I’m rarely made aware of my race, but that among journalists, race is absolutely massive.
I became an actor by doing school plays and youth theaters, and then National Youth Theatre of Great Britain. And then I did study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. For me that was a good way to enter the field, to work in the theater.
I can run a good few miles. I box a little.
I can watch a film, even a film that I’ve been in, and think, ‘I’m not sure, 100 percent, what I think about it.’ I’m not sure what I think about what I’ve done in it.
I didn’t know anything about ’12 Years a Slave.’ Not the book, not Solomon Northup, which I was quite shocked by, once I’d read it, that it wasn’t a seminal text. I think it deserves to be.
I don’t tend to offer up a critique unless I have a clearly formulated alternative, because there’s nothing worse than people on a set or any kind of artistic life who critique something but who don’t have anything to offer.
I enjoy doing everything, comedy and drama. I just look for the characters really and what they offer.
I enjoyed being in California for a while. But that’s the thing about London: you can’t really shake it. I’ve always had the impression when I was in L.A. for long periods of time that simultaneously my life was happening somewhere else, and I’m missing it.
I feel that I don’t have to wait around for good scripts anymore, that I can get things moving more quickly. I can ring up directors I like and say I’m keen to work with them, which is pretty great.
I had done a couple of auditions for ‘Amistad’ and didn’t feel it was going to go any further – and then the call came about heading to Los Angeles to work with Steven Spielberg. It was surreal: exciting, challenging, overwhelming.
I have an evolving relationship with my father, and his memory, especially the older I get. I know that some of the things that interested him are things that interest me.
I like to disappear into a role. I equate the success of it with a feeling of being chemically changed. That’s the only way I can express it.
I look at scripts really for whether they can be moving or penetrate some kind of truth. You are constantly chasing that feeling as an actor when every part of a production comes together.
I love the theater community and theater life, and would love to figure out the distinctive differences between Broadway and the West End.
I loved reading when I was young. I was just completely taken by stories. And I remember taking that into English literature at school and taking that into Shakespeare and finding that opened up a whole world of self-expression to me that I didn’t have access to previously.
I started, obviously, doing theater, and I always thought that I would; in a way, I always thought that I’d be a theater actor. When I was starting out, I didn’t really plan on making films, actually.
I still have to say that I did ‘Dirty Pretty Things’ 11 years ago. That was a very sudden shift in my life and my relationship to my work, and it didn’t feel it was impossible to make a film like that.
I think I enjoy working obviously as a lead, but also you know I feel I’m also a character actor as well, so I enjoy approaching various projects in all sort of capacities. Any film I have been able to do I feel very fortunate to have been a part of.
I think that all the talented filmmakers sort of share, I think, a sense of allowing magic to happen; of creating a stable and secure environment for performers to feel they can push to the end of their ability.
I think when I was doing ‘Amistad,’ I was just too young to really understand what the process was, and beyond that, I hadn’t really got involved. It was just somehow – and I thought that the artistry was all in the theater.
I think, as a younger actor, you are more open to the experience. And to an extent, you want to go into things blind and energised as if you were 15. Keep that terror.
I wanted to be an actor ever since I got on stage for the first time, aged 13. Before that, I thought I might follow in the medical footsteps of my parents: my father was a doctor, my mother a pharmacist.
I was able to go on stage and work until it felt right or felt good. It meant that I very quickly realised that it was the job for me.
I was already devouring literature and I was the ripe old age of 15 when I decided to be an actor. I just thought plays were the most fantastic way of expressing life. I thought I’d discovered Shakespeare – ‘hey, there’s a new guy in town, don’t know if anyone’s read him.’ I was just excited about the whole thing, from day one.
I was attracted to ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ because of the story.
I was probably 14 or 15 when I was first on stage at school doing ‘Measure for Measure.’ I immediately felt it was a great way of expressing oneself at a moment when I didn’t think I could express myself, really. I suddenly had access to this range of emotions and thoughts and feelings that were there in me. I was surprised by that.
I was the classic middle child in some ways, the one who could have been a priest in an alternate universe.
I wouldn’t be the same actor if I couldn’t do theater.
I’d never really considered film. If I’d thought about film more growing up, I probably would have changed my name. I had no concept of my name in lights.
I’ve always been a believer in research. It’s great to have an instinctual human reaction to a character, too, of course, but it has to be countered with knowledge and understanding.
I’ve always liked the idea of being a father. And I’ve always romanticised it, because I lost my father when I was young. In a way, all of the complications that come with my career are about that.
I’ve just tried to keep my eyes open, tried to read everything you can, and tried to see whether I see myself within it. If I do, then I can get excited about it.
If you’re looking at people like Patrice Lumumba, you are looking at people who had a very definite plan, and events overran them.
In England, there’s no acknowledgement the invention of slavery came from Britain.
It’s a strange thing, but you get this click in your brain; the wonderful feeling that the entirety of a character is suddenly available and accessible to you.
It’s a weird thing when you spend your life trying to find these great scripts and great parts. You are reading scripts, you are traveling the world, you are hassling your agent. You are trying to find that script.
It’s hard to maintain a life when you do a play. You feel you have to pretend to go through a normal day, knowing that in the evening you’ll be doing this.
It’s hard to tell the story if you’re not involved yourself, emotionally.
London and L.A. are both places I feel I can call home. It’s a nice balance of Californian calm and that slightly more engaged, electric London vibe that I’ve always loved.
Normally, if you’re lucky, the idea of a film you have in your head is more or less what you get back when you see it after the editing and the whole post-production process.
Since I started acting, I always or often find work takes precedence with me. And that is not necessarily a great rule for life.
Solomon Northup is one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever encountered in my life; one of the most amazing stories I have ever been in any kind of contact with. To not tell that story would have been disgraceful, in my opinion.
Sometimes television can just jump from one bit of plot to the next, and the words fill in the in-between.
The history of slavery and the complication of slavery is that it is an international concept. It is something that affected people who were our people. For example, there were people from the west of Nigeria who were taken by the hundreds of thousands and brought to Louisiana. I’m Igbo; my family is Igbo. So it is a story that I’m connected to.
The idea of making a film – a film that I had certainly never seen before – about the slave experience was a huge responsibility. It’s a project that requires a wider understanding of the geopolitical nature of the slave trade, of historical and modern-day racism.
The inherited tradition is that we don’t tell stories about slavery from the perspective of the slave. It’s told through the president or the lawyer.
The Second World War simplified things like race, and people came down on very clear lines.
The truth is, it’s a totalitarian dictatorship when you’re making films. You are the boss. You can listen to other people, and it can be a benevolent dictatorship, but it’s a dictatorship nonetheless. A lot of directors go past their first experience, that’s what they’ve come away with.
There are many different ways the public can respond to actors – they can see you on TV and feel they know you and own you, and there can be something quite cornering about that.
There’s a catharsis in cutting down trees. But there’s absolutely none of that in picking cotton. It’s maddening! It’s fiddly, and it pricks your fingers, and it’s something that’s a very hard skill if you have no alacrity for it.
This is going to sound completely absurd, but I do sometimes feel like the enjoyment of an awards ceremony or the pride in the finished article hasn’t ever surpassed the joy of doing the work, of making it. The doing it is really the bit I’m there for.
We always want to live in an environment where there’s no artificial block to good work.
We take it for granted sometimes that certain parts of our history are told, and we take it for granted that we know all that stuff, and we move forward along on that basis, but there are also massive gaps, and we have to try to address them.
When I first had my eyebrows waxed, I was pretty disturbed.
You do as much research as you can for any project.