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Salt – Chiwetel Ejiofor on the spy game

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Salt - Chiwetel Ejiofor
Agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) © Columbia Pictures

A consummate stage performer, Chiwetel Ejiofor first moved into motion pictures in 1996, when he did Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. Since then he has been featured in a slew of successful movies including Dirty Pretty Money, American Gangster, Kinky Boots, Inside Man and Children of Men.

He’s currently starring as counter-intelligence agent William Peabody in the thriller Salt. His job is to track down and capture agent Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie), who is on the run after being accused of being a Russian spy.

What do you think about being involved in the spy game?  Do you think it’s something as an actor you can relate to because they spend so much of their time pretending to be other people?

Salt - Chiwetel Ejiofor and Liev Schreiber
Agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) © Columbia Pictures

It’s interesting, one of the dynamics in the film I think for me is Peabody’s so consistent, he’s not in the field, he’s bureaucratic in a way. And that was one of the things that I was excited by in this part. He is somebody who actually is not a chameleon, he’s not changing.

That was one of the things that I was really excited by and I wanted to also experiment with the kind of idea that instead of these characters who are involved in the spy world having this kind of removed persona, that in fact there is something quite bureaucratic and every day about these guys.

What did you learn from speaking with the CIA consultants?

When I spoke with people in the CIA what I was interested in really was this departmental relationships and the bureaucracy of the CIA. And I found a very interesting and all encompassing way of approaching the character.

In the film we don’t really learn a lot about Peabody. Did you try to create a back story for yourself to help you shape your character?

Yeah, I was very interested in what happened before any of this happens. I concluded that whatever his personal home life, it gives way to the moment that he walks through the doors at the CIA. Somehow the battles that are going on for him there are the most significant things that are happening to him.

So in way I was able to create gently some background noise in terms of a life that he might be having, but the real concentrated effort was on what happens at work. It felt to me that it gave the character a lot of grounding.

Essentially (there are) very few characters in this story, but because they are carrying so much, it feels much more expansive. They carry these very deep tensions that are ever present to the film, so there’s always an underlying subtext to whatever they’re doing.

What was it like to work with Angelina?

Salt - Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Angelina Jolie
Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), Agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) © Columbia Pictures

It was terrific. I’ve long been an admirer of hers as an actress and so I was excited to work with her. She was great fun to be around.

There were times when we were shooting and we’d do exterior scenes and there was a lot of stuff happening around her, a lot of Paparazzi, a lot of people trying to get photographs, and yet to watch her film, and to watch her in this film, you would never even for a millisecond be aware that just beyond the camera is all this crazy activity.

It was very instructive as how to be focused and how to be able to shut out a lot of the noise in order to do the job and to work within the context of the (story).

Your co-star, Liev Schreiber, said he was a little intimidated by her when he first met her – did you feel that at all?

No, I was very happy to meet her but I don’t feel like it was a big moment or anything. I was excited to meet another actress that I respect and to begin the process of doing the job.

When things are written about people and there’s a whole other life, it’s a strange thing to contextualize sometimes. And also it’s a part of my job not to prejudge an actor based on US Weekly. It would be terrible to start from that basis.

When you were a young man in England did you ever think you’d be a movie actor?

I was going to be a theatre actor. There wasn’t any doubt in my mind that that was what I was going to do. I always wanted to be a theatre actor since I was 12 or 13, and I’d been making steps to do that. I started working in theatre and I had an opportunity to come out to the States to do Amistad, which was with Spielberg, and that was a great moment, but then I went back to England and carried on doing theatre.

Although I had had this amazing experience in Hollywood, the film world hadn’t necessarily captured me in its entirety. I couldn’t quite understand L.A. at all, I was 19 and I didn’t feel like it was where I fitted, so I didn’t stay. And then I did Dirty Pretty Things, and I think at that point I fell in love with making films. So I began to pursue that as well, and I started to get cast in America.

You have a great American accent in this. Were their American actors that influenced you when you were a child?

I don’t know what my influences were, although I would say that there was a lot of American television in England when I was growing up, and a lot of American movies, so I was aware of the accent and the different sound subliminally. But when I first got to the States and started doing American movies, I needed some assistance with dialogue coaches, because the sounds are so different. But like anything, it gets a little easier as you do it.