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HBO Miniseries Takes Actor Ejiofor into the Tsunami

TONY COX, host:

Chiwetel Ejiofor has played a Nigerian doctor on the run, a New York cop and a drag queen with kinky boots. This Sunday, the British-born actor stars in “Tsunami: The Aftermath,” a two-part HBO miniseries. Ejiofor plays the role of a young father on vacation in Thailand. When the 2004 tsunami whisks his daughter out of his hands, his wife blames him for their loss.

(Soundbite of movie “Tsunami: The Aftermath”)

Mr. CHIWETEL EJIOFOR (Actor): (As Ian) We were walking back to the hotel room. I had the keys in my - I don't know what she wants me to say. Do you want me to say it's my fault? It is my fault. I let her go. It is my fault. I couldn't keep a hold of her. It will always be my fault but I didn't make this happen, Susan.

COX: NPR's Farai Chideya recently sat down with the actor at NPR West to talk about his latest project.

FARAI CHIDEYA: Chiwetel Ejiofor, thanks for coming in.

Mr. EJIOFOR: Pleasure.

CHIDEYA: What drew you to this role?

Mr. EJIOFOR: I actually had some friends who are in Sri Lanka - this project takes place in Thailand - but who were directly sort of linked with the events on Boxing Day 2004. And then when I read the script, I was just - I just thought this cast of characters were incredible. The story was amazing and it taught me a lot about what happened, and it just seemed like a very important project to get involve with.

CHIDEYA: You have this amazing ability to play people who are very different from each other. You were in a Woody Allen movie as a sophisticated intellectual, “Kinky Boots” as enterprising I guess transvestite, or I don't know how you would that that. How do you embody the roles that you play?

Mr. EJIOFOR: I just feel that if I connect to a character in some way, then I can kind of just take on some of the mentality and some of the belief structure. And, you know, that's a really enjoyable process and so, you know, the characters that I've enjoyed most are the ones that I've been able to flesh out the most, if you like.

CHIDEYA: Let me ask this now, how did your Nigerian relatives connect to Lola? Did they say oh, my gosh, that boy's done gone and lost his mind?

Mr. EJIOFOR: No, I think that people really enjoyed the movie. And it was a great conversation in the family, I think, and in my extended family about the nature of transvestitism and the nature of racial roles, and certainly racial male roles in communities and so on. And it offered up a number of different questions and opened up the possibility of having the conversation.

A lot of people have come up to me - and this is, you know, people from all sorts of different backgrounds and kind of class brackets and so on - have said that it was the first time in families that they've really been able to have those conversations and to talk about those different kind of roles and gender issues in that way without it being a kind of taboo subject. And being in the context of a kind of British comedy was for a lot of people a sort of a breath of fresh air. So I was very glad to be a part of that and to actually witness that within the context of my family and extended family.

CHIDEYA: How did you get in to this game to begin with?

Mr. EJIOFOR: I started acting at school, kind of high school, and I found that I had a - because I really love the literature that I was studying at the time, and that was my connect into wanting to do plays, thinking about plays. And then I had the great opportunity of coming over to Los Angeles when I was in my late teens to work in film for the first time, and then that sort of started the process of going into the theater in England and movies in America.

CHIDEYA: You have done Shakespeare. You played Orsino in “Twelfth Night.” And if you indulge us, we'd like to get a little taste of all the different ways that you can use your voice. And I'm speaking here specifically, I wonder if you would do - we have a line here: Oh, when mine eyes did see Olivia first, me thought she purged the air of pestilence.

And I'm wondering if you could do that in a Nigerian accent, a British accent and an American accent, just, you know - this is, if you absolutely hate this, you don't have to do it.

Mr. EJIOFOR: In terms of accent, I think that different characters in different moments kind of can bring forth really different things in a script. And you know, one of the great examples in my life of accent being used to really achieve a much - like a profound effect was when I was in school. And I had an English teacher, Mr. Ronald(ph) was his name, and he was a Scottish teacher. And he read “Knight's Tale,” Chaucer's “Knight's Tale,” in a very broad Scottish accent and it was incredibly mesmeric, basically.

So it sort of started a relationship that was kind of fascinating for me with accent. You know, if I was to look at this and say in a Nigerian accent, Orsino's line, which in my voice would be, oh, when mine eyes did see Olivia first, me thought she purged the air of pestilence.

And then in a Nigerian accent you - there'd be much more kind of - I suppose there would be vowel sounds and different pauses so - oh, when mine eyes did see Olivia first, me thought she purged the air of pestilence. And then I guess as an American, and you have to forgive me, I didn't know we were going to do this. Oh, when mine eyes did see Olivia first, me thought she purged the air of pestilence. So there'd be just…

CHIDEYA: Oh, I'm getting shivers. It seems to me as if I'm in a room with multiple people. It sort of like magic, isn't it, to be able to have all those voices live within you?

Mr. EJIOFOR: It's been something that I've always liked experimenting with. And, you know, it's something that I enjoy practicing or taking time out, and it brings different shades I think to characters and to places and people. And I think it just shaves characters in a different way if you can sound different.

CHIDEYA: Chiwetel, thanks so much.

Mr. EJIOFOR: Thank you very much.

COX: That was Chiwetel Ejiofor, the star of “Tsunami: The Aftermath.” The two-part HBO miniseries debuts Sunday. He spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.

You can visit us at NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Tony Cox. Farai Chideya will be back on Monday. This is NEWS & NOTES. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.