A Talk With Chiwetel Ejiofor
The Problem with True Believers

In Redbelt, Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays Mike Terry, an L.A. Jiu-Jitsu instructor whose philosophical commitments run afoul of practical concerns—like paying the bills, getting along with his upwardly-mobile, materialistic wife, and getting rather starstruck by his encounter with movie star Chet Frank (played by Tim Allen).

The film is something of a career-defying move for director David Mamet, whose prior films have tended to be rather incisive looks at the darker side of human convictions and behaviors. Here, it seems that Mamet has finally found his personal hero in Mike Terry, and the perfect actor to channel him.

Courtesy of a local publicist, I recently had the opportunity to spend twenty minutes talking with Ejiofor in a suite at a downtown Seattle hotel.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry in Redbelt

It seems like you’ve made a career out of playing men of principle, men of character—whether it’s directed in positive ways, as in Redbelt, or in negative ways, as in Serenity.

Chiwetel Ejiofor: Sure.

Always, it seems like your characters really have a strong core of principles and beliefs. What is it that draws you to those parts? Clearly, not every part that’s written has that kind of characteristic to it.

CE: Yeah. It was never a sort of choice of mine. I never set out to draw those sorts of parallels. So it’s sort of the luck of the draw, in a way. Some of the characters that I have seen over the years—that I’ve been drawn to—and some of the stories that I’ve felt are rich, kind of have a certain quality to them, and I find that quality—certainly in Dirty Pretty Things or in Redbelt or in Serenity, to a degree—incredibly engaging, somehow. And all these stories have very powerful narratives and really interesting structures. So it seems that it’s something that writers are certainly interested in: how people fit into different societal structures; how someone with some sort of moral code—or, in this case, for the lack of a better word, “honor”—is able to exist within the kind of morally complex or morally tangled society. Especially the contemporary society that we are in. So I think that it’s a theme that’s in writing somehow, and one that I am interested in exploring as well; so perhaps those two things have combined, and people search me out in terms of them.

Maybe it’s something that you communicate, your own personal persona or charisma.

CE: Yeah, possibly. But it’s not like friends of mine are like, “Yeah, the thing about him is that he has this internal moral code, and honor, and decency that he exudes.”

But in the production notes for Redbelt, that’s one of the things that David Mamet, I think it was, said about you.

CE: Oh, is that right?

That somehow you project that.

CE: That’s very kind of him.

Also in the production notes, you were quoted as saying that you were attracted to the script of Redbelt when you read it because “certain terms and certain ethics and morality have kind of disappeared from literature and movie writing; and yet here it was in this script.” Can you elaborate on that a little bit more? What elements do you find missing in the stuff that you see?

CE: I suppose that it’s become unpopular to have a kind of classic hero, in the sense of having a high moral base. I guess they might feel—and they may be correct; it’s reasonable that this is the case, and I’m not saying it’s unreasonable—that it’s difficult to stomach these characters that have high morals. But I remember seeing films when I was growing up, like those with Henry Fonda—the Abraham Lincoln film—where nobody was ashamed at all of creating these characters who had these ways of, you know: this high moral ground or these kinds of ethical approaches to life. And then people would come into that, and there would be corruption, and these characters would try to find a way of righting all the wrongs. Like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Or Becket, A Man for All Seasons.

CE: Yeah, exactly. This sense of being internally complicated, or in some ways having complicated lives, but having a code for living that they stick by—and the audience gets on that side and knows that he’s always going to try to do the right thing. And over time, that’s become less kind of popular to have these kinds of characters. But these people still do exist, and without them society wouldn’t exist—even though, in the wider society, it’s become unpopular to point out people like this without trying to find fault in them, without trying to find where they’ve maybe done the wrong thing. But society runs well, for the most part, because there are people of good conscience and good self-knowledge and awareness—even if they don’t consciously have a code of ethics that they live by. They have a code of morality that they choose not to break. So in some ways it seemed to me that’s a bit of shame that it’s become unpopular, or so easy in some ways to shoot down characters like that.

Well, is that because of the popular conception of what a “true believer” becomes? It’s one of the lines in Serenity about The Operative, where Shepherd Book points out that he’s dangerous because he’s a true believer.

CE: Sure.

He’s not just a mercenary; he really believes in the cause. And the perception today is that where that leads is to abortion clinic bombings or flying planes into skyscrapers. Being a true believer, really having a code, means that you’re dangerous.

CE: Yeah. Quite possibly it’s become, for all those reasons, unpopular. And also I think it’s because anyone who would claim to have a high moral code for living or some strict moral code would be mistrusted. People would think of that either as a very naïve statement or one that would make a person very vulnerable to being described or perceived as a hypocrite. And if a person really is those things, he becomes a target of criticism because he really is on a different moral plane.

But at the same time, where would we be as a society without men of principle like Martin Luther King, Jr., or any number of other people who—

CE: Or people who are living their lives in a very straightforward daily way. That’s the point. It doesn’t have to be somebody who is recognized internationally as a symbol and beacon of peace and hope; it’s just somebody who, in their daily life, doesn’t harm people and decides that’s not the way he’s going to live.

I heard this incredible thing the other day, in a documentary, where this guy said religion is a great thing as long as it’s like knitting—something that you do on weekends, and it’s kind of fun, but it really doesn’t affect society. And I thought, you know, there’s a certain amount of sense to that; but at the same time, if the only kind of faith that you accept as reasonable is one that doesn’t mean an awful lot, you have to wonder where that kind of faith would come from. Because people don’t learn faith from people who use it a form of recreation; they learn it from the kind of people you’re talking about who live it on a day-to-day basis—like Mike Terry, who goes about living his daily life on a principled basis that affects the people around him.

CE: Sure. And the only difference is that he decides to do that consciously. He decides that he is going to live by this code of ethics; and it’s not going to be the product of an accident of being well-brought-up, or something. He’s actually going to go out and try to do the best thing for whatever hours he’s up—and then go to bed, and do the same thing tomorrow. And I admire that. And I think that it’s something that’s interesting in a film, a film that presents that kind of character and the complications that arise from being that kind of character—in that, then, how do you react to the world? How are you going to react to people who are maybe going to be more cynical than you are? And those are the sorts of questions that this film is talking about. I think that it’s an interesting discussion.

Well, it is. And it’s very interesting seeing it come from David Mamet, whose past films have tended to be about the moral gray areas between the blacks and whites.

CE: Sure.

If you look at Oleanna or House of Games or any number of his other films, they are kind of disturbing visions of morality; and yet he says, right up front with Redbelt, that he wants to do this film because he sees in Jiu-Jitsu “a vision of correct moral behavior in all circumstances.” And that was, frankly, kind of shocking to sit down and see coming out of a David Mamet film—not that I object to it all, but it just seems that it’s not in keeping with his—

CE: Yeah, in some ways it seems like kind of a departure. But I think back to some of his other films and my experience with his work, and within them they’ve had a sense of coded— Certainly, in Glengarry Glen Ross there is a kind of moral ideology about what it takes to do a certain kind of job and what it takes out of you to be a certain kind of person—and what you are required and expected to do.

But in Glengarry Glen Ross, there is no alternative presented; it’s simply pointing out the ways in which those choices can corrupt you. And yet here in Redbelt, you get the same thing presented because there are those who are practicing Jiu-Jitsu for certainly selfish if not outright corrupt ends—but then there’s Mike Terry, so you actually see both the example and the negative alternative laid out.

CE: Which is a great thing for David, in many ways—that he was able to find something, over time, that he felt was an alternative to looking at the world in a certain kind of way. And I’m sure that he found in this character somebody who finds—and in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a kind of code for— A way through the mire. I remember in Glengarry Glen Ross, the characters talk about the essential nature of fear, and how one is one supposed to live one’s life. And I think it’s been a constant question in a lot of his work: how are you supposed to live your life? And the conclusion that one of the characters in Glengarry Glen Ross comes to is that if you live your life with the conviction that you have the capacity to deal with the things that draw your concern today, then you can live your life without fear. And that does, in a sense, lend itself to Mamet’s Eliot Ness in The Untouchables.

“I have become what I beheld and I am content”—

CE: —“that I have done right.” Yes. Exactly. And then into Mike Terry, and into his sense of striving to kind of hold his own morality, and his own sense of what is right and what is wrong.

Because he, also, is on the cusp of becoming what he beholds.

CE: Yes.