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Chiwetel Ejiofor

'It's pronounced Choo-weh-tel Edge-i-o-for,' says the 27-year-old British actor who answers to that name when we meet in a Manhattan restaurant. 'But people who know me just call me Chewy.'

Even if the name of Chiwetel Ejiofor does not yet trip off everyone's tongue, his face is very familiar - and will soon become even more so. According to some critics and directors, he is the best British actor of his generation. 'He's brilliant,' says Woody Allen, who has cast him as one of the leads in his next film: 'He's a star.'

The hugely acclaimed protagonist of Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things and a habitué of West End stages, Ejiofor will be seen shortly in the film Love Actually, written by Richard Curtis and also, for the first time, directed by him, too. A frothy, absurd but none the less entertaining film, it interweaves several different love stories and, naturally, stars Hugh Grant. Ejiofor is the protagonist of one story, playing a bridegroom whose best friend is in love with his wife, a fact of which he remains blissfully unaware.

It is one of the less demanding roles of his career - he doesn't utter more than about 50 words during the whole film - and most scenes involve him looking lovingly at his beautiful wife (played by the ubiquitous Keira Knightley), and bemused at the surprise antics organised for his wedding. I realise as I watch him that it is the first role in which I have seen him properly smile. Indeed, it is his first comedy. 'It's as different as it gets,' he says. 'It is a lighter role but it progresses you as an actor to experience something different.'

It is also probably the last small role Ejiofor will ever have to take. He is currently in New York working on the Woody Allen film, which remains so secret that he can say nothing about his role except that he plays 'a New York guy'. We are due to meet during one of his breaks but when I turn up at the appointed restaurant, I find there is no table booked and, after half an hour, still no Ejiofor. Then, bafflingly, I glimpse him walking straight past the restaurant without so much as a sideways glance.

I dash outside to look for him - not a sign. Two minutes later, however, he strolls through the door. Unnervingly, he already looks pissed off. Lips pursed, eyebrows raised, he has a resigned and guarded look - as if daring me to ask him a question.

He sits down and knocks over a glass of water. 'Shit,' he mutters, almost imperceptibly. I laugh. And suddenly he is laughing too. As the waiter mops up the mess, his whole demeanour changes and he becomes relaxed and affable.

In jeans and a black suit jacket, Ejiofor is well built with a handsome face, at the moment adorned with a beard and moustache for the Woody Allen film. His voice is deep and rich and his accent well- spoken, a sort of upper-class actor speak that carries no hint of south London, where he grew up.

Ejiofor feels a little unnerved by his current billing as the best up-and-coming young British actor. 'It's extraordinary,' he says, shaking his head. 'I have no idea what that, in any real terms, means, although I think it's very flattering. All I do is say the lines and try to make it real, I guess.'

Indeed, he seems unaffected by his newfound fame and fortune. Everyone who meets him is impressed by his dignity and air of moral authority. As Frears says, 'He seems like such a decent man. You look at him and you believe in him completely.' Ejiofor is embarrassed by such tributes. 'They obviously haven't seen me on a Friday night.'

Ejiofor is relatively new to the whole fame gig and seems unsure about how to project himself, but, as the afternoon progresses, a sense of humour emerges. As we drive to a different venue to have his picture taken, Ejiofor jokes about Woody Allen's insistence on calling his films 'the Woody Allen Fall Project' or 'the Woody Allen Spring Project'. 'At the top of every page of my script were the initials WAFP. I had no idea what they meant at first. I don't know why he doesn't just call them movies.'

The second of four children of Nigerian parents, Ejiofor grew up in south London and attended the public school Dulwich College. 'My parents were desperate to make sure we didn't grow up in terribly difficult circumstances and weren't persecuted.' By making sure you went to good schools? 'Yeah. And also by going back to Nigeria regularly. Giving us a sense of where we were from and showing us that people who think one is better than the other are clearly wrong.'

He is referring, of course, to racial discrimination. His parents - his father was a doctor, his mother a pharmacist - had fled to London during the Biafran war as students in 1968 but at first struggled to establish themselves. 'They found it pretty difficult. It can be very hard, London.' Has he encountered discrimination? 'To degrees. But not in any way that's undealable with.'

He bears a few scars on the left side of his forehead and I ask him how he got them. 'It was a car accident when I was a kid. I was 11.' Having read that his father died in a car crash, I ask if it was the same one. 'Yeah, that's right.' Not surprisingly, he is not forthcoming on the subject, but reveals that it happened when he and his father were visiting Nigeria. He spent some time recovering in hospital and determined never to drive himself. 'It's strange because, of course, then other people drive you - it doesn't make any sense.'

I ask how the life of his family changed in the wake of the accident.

'I was just convinced I'd look after everybody,' he tells me.

It was at Dulwich College that Ejiofor became interested in acting. 'They had auditions for Measure for Measure. I wasn't doing anything and I thought I might as well check it out. I sat there for hours, watching everybody audition. I was thinking, "I could do it better than this." I was the very last person and I overplayed it - I was only 13, so that's a harsh criticism - but whatever I did it worked and they asked me to play Angelo, which was thrilling.' He enjoyed the experience so much that he decided to become an actor. 'When you put on a show, you have an incredible feeling of value - of other people that you work with and of yourself, and I think once you get a feeling of self worth you can't ever lose it.'

Ejiofor also admits that acting allows him to express himself in ways he does not tend to in real life. 'I'm a little quieter than [I am on stage]. And if you're not particularly inclined to express yourself on a day-to-day level, sometimes a certain play will allow you to do that.'

His role as Angelo was the first of a series of Shakespearean and other leads. The National Youth Theatre cast him as Julius Caesar, then Othello. Since then he has played Romeo at the Olivier and, to huge acclaim, a mental patient in Blue/Orange at the Cottesloe. His film career began at 19, when he was offered the role of Ensign Covey in Steven Spielberg's Amistad. He has had other film parts but none as big as Okwe in Stephen Frears's thriller Dirty Pretty Things (2002), where, in his performance as an illegal Nigerian immigrant doctor, Ejiofor is mesmerising - an understated study in virtue and grace.

One of the most attractive things about Ejiofor is his enjoyment of his newfound fame. Although he lives quietly with his girlfriend in Camberwell and still mixes with his old schoolfriends, he loves the glamorous parties and cannot believe his luck in working with so many famous people. The set of Love Actually was 'hilarious', he relates. 'There was a trailer park full of celebrities,' he adds with some awe. Film sets are well known for their hierarchical trailers: the bigger the star, the bigger the trailer and retinue. I ask if he tries to keep a more low-key profile. 'Not at all. I just turn up and see what they have to offer. I certainly don't turn things down because they're too grand,' he laughs.

As he seems anxious to dispel his holier-than-thou image, I ask him what is his worst trait. 'I don't know,' he says, looking genuinely perplexed. 'It's kind of interesting that I don't know. I really should. It's not that I think everything about me is great but I just don't know anything specific...' Five minutes later he has come up with something. 'I know my worst trait,' he says with obvious relief. 'I tend to forget names.' Hmmm. If he ever seriously wants to be a Hollywood bad boy, he'll have to do a lot better than that.

as seen in The Telegraph 10 Nov 2003

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