He is now 15 minutes late for his breakfast interview. The owner of the Beverly Hills cafe is anxiously awaiting the appearance of the actor, whose reservation was made in his name. "We're trying really hard not to freak out," she quietly confides to a journalist.
12 Years a Slave," for which he has collected top actor awards from several critics groups and nominations from SAG and the Golden Globes. His standout performance as the film's lead character, Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery, is considered a surefire bet for an Oscar nom.
"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," he notes. "No doubt the energy around me has increased remarkably lately, but it's always been from a place of loving and connecting to this film."
Though Ejiofor has been acting for two decades, gaining recognition as the lead in Stephen Frears' 2002 dark crime thriller "Dirty Pretty Things," it is his role in "12 Years a Slave" that's thrust the 36-year-old actor into the limelight. Independently financed by River Road Entertainment, New Regency and Britain's Film 4 for about $20 million, the Fox Searchlight release has garnered nearly $40 million domestically since its Oct. 18 debut, and the film's box office is sure to grow as the awards pile up.
Unlike others who might be compelled to seize the moment, the British actor doesn't feel the need to instantly capitalize on his newfound stature. "I've been working as an actor for 20 years, and I have to really connect to something before I'll sign on," he says. "I can't change that process just because there's some kind of requirement to push it. I have to find the right connection, and that can be rare, whether a million people are phoning me or the phone is silent."
Growing up in London, Ejiofor always saw himself as a stage actor only. "I'd never really considered film," he confides. "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."
In fact, one significant benefit to his newfound fame is in the pronunciation department.
"I've noticed people are growing in confidence about how to say my name," he admits with a chuckle (it's CHOO-it-tell EDGE-ee-oh-for). And more and more, he says, they're getting it right. He does not care for the nickname "Chewy," despite what you may have read. But it's only in recent years that he's started to tell people that. "It was a nickname from school I didn't really like, and it managed to follow me around. Finally I was like, 'I don't want to be a dick, but â¦ ' I try to do it with humor, if I can."
He was born Chiwetelu Umeadi Ejiofor in London's Forest Gate, to Nigerian parents; his father, Arinze, was a doctor; his mother, Obiajulu, a pharmacist. Though he was raised in London, his family kept close ties to Nigeria. It was while on a trip there when he was 11 years old that a car accident claimed the life of his father and the driver of their taxi. Though Ejiofor survived, he spent more than two months in a hospital recovering, and bears visible scars on his forehead.
He and his three siblings (the youngest of which is CNN correspondent Zain Asher) were raised by Obiajulu, who instilled a deep love of Shakespeare in Ejiofor; one of his first school plays was "Measure for Measure." He was hooked. By age 17, he had enrolled in the National Youth Theatre, and two years later earned a scholarship to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He was only a few months into his studies when he landed the role of the translator in Steven Spielberg's 1997 slavery epic "Amistad."
Though the film brought him to America, he was eager to return to London and the theater. "I did take some meetings with agents and managers, but it never struck me as very genuine," he recalls. "It all sounded a little forced and promise-heavy. So I decided it wasn't for me."
In 2000, he received glowing notices for his turn as Romeo in the Shakespearean tragedy and as a schizophrenic in "Blue/Orange." It was the latter performance that caught the eye of director Frears and casting director Leo Davis, who were looking to cast the lead role of an African doctor residing illegally in London in "Dirty Pretty Things." Davis recalls how the part was written for a 45-year-old man; Ejiofor was only 25. "I lied and said he was in his mid-30s," she admits. "We had to fight to get him. There was immense pressure from the studio to go with an actor who was more of a name." But Frears coveted Ejiofor, and held his ground.
Ironically, years later, one of the producers who opposed casting the actor wanted him for another movie. Says Davis, "In a few years, Chiwetel went from 'This guy isn't a name' to 'This guy is brilliant!'â"
Making "Dirty Pretty Things" inspired Ejiofor to reconsider a film career. "The whole experience opened up cinema in a way I hadn't recognized before," he says. "I found the depth and the nuance and the urgency of it. For the first time, I aggressively wanted to work in film."
Ejiofor met again with American agents and managers, noting that "the conversations seemed a little more grounded and part of the real world this time." He signed with John Burnham at ICM, with whom he remained until moving to CAA earlier this year. Great directors, from Woody Allen ("Melinda and Melinda") and Alfonso Cuaron ("Children of Men") to Spike Lee ("She Hate Me," "Inside Man"), came calling, and he booked supporting roles. In between, he made a memorable singing drag queen in the British comedy "Kinky Boots" and returned to the theater to play, among other gigs, the title role in "Othello" alongside Ewan McGregor.