Stephen Frears’ new movie, the London-set “Dirty Pretty Things,” has one of the most startling lines in recent memory. In the scene, a Nigerian doctor turned cab driver/hotel clerk, with a Turkish chambermaid and a black prostitute in tow, delivers contraband to a trafficker.
The trafficker, accustomed to someone else carrying out the transfer, says suspiciously, “I haven’t seen you before.” To which the doctor replies, “We are the people you do not see. We drive your cabs, clean your hotel rooms, and” -- he concludes with a crude colloquialism for oral sex.
Adding to the shock -- and humor -- of this line is the gravity with which it is delivered. It was as if Kofi Annan or Nelson Mandela had said it. Instead it was British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor.
“It was one of the key lines of what this film is about,” says Ejiofor. “And part of the film is about the invisible nature of an underclass of society, which is fundamental to the way it runs. It needs this subclass that will work in menial tasks for very little money because they have dubious status in the country. And that sort of slips into crime, things that are illegal, prostitution and so on. This whole sub-society develops on those principles and then is politely ignored by mainstream society.”
Ejiofor, who has an easy, unforced charm and is known as Chewy, is quick to point out that the film is first and foremost a thriller. His character, Okwe, has fled Nigeria for mysterious reasons. He chews the leaves of a plant to keep awake, plays chess with his one confidant, a Chinese mortuary attendant, Guo Yi (Benedict Won), and keeps his things at an apartment he shares with a chambermaid from his hotel, Senay (Audrey Tautou). This fragile existence becomes unraveled quickly when a bond develops between him and Senay that threatens her status in Britain. He also discovers a shocking scheme at the hotel, which is presided over by a malevolent Spanish manager, Sneaky (Sergei Lopez). Rounding out Okwe’s world of outcasts is the hotel’s hooker, Juliette (Sophie Okonedo), and Croatian doorman, Ivan (Zlatko Buric).
All of this is held together effortlessly by Ejiofor. His understated performance makes his character heroic without being insufferably noble or idealistic. Curiously, it also adds about 10 years to his age, which is 26.
“He was so mature about it,” Frears says, referring to Ejiofor’s demeanor on the set while the rest of the non-English-speaking cast struggled with the language. “His willingness to take it all on and to shoulder the burden. He quickly became somebody we completely relied on. That’s a tremendous achievement for someone his age.”
Ejiofor seems tailor-made for the part. Or the part seems tailor-made for him. As Frears puts it, “The fact that the film was truthful meant that there were suddenly actors who could play it.”
“A lot of the stuff that I was looking at was stuff that I was familiar with observationally about London,” Ejiofor says. “I’d talked to taxi drivers for years who were from West Africa, East Africa. In terms of research, it was one of those pieces that you found out you’d been researching for decades, it’s just been such a part of your life.”
It was closer to home than that.
Ejiofor’s parents fled the civil war in Nigeria during the 1960s and eventually settled in London, where his father became a doctor and his mother a pharmacist. Though they were welcomed by the British government as refugees, they still suffered what Ejiofor calls “the shock of being devalued when you were previously valued. I think it’s a shock that will be with them until the day they die. The impact of being judged and devalued because of skin color was thoroughly unknown [to them] because nobody teaches you that when you’re in school in Nigeria. What you receive from the West is images of this lovely place with people who are always happy and trying to do their best for the world. When you get here and some guy has had a brick thrown through his window and you can’t get a job, suddenly you realize it’s this whole other world that you better start to understand.”
As first generation, Ejiofor understands it only too well. He made his way through the English public school system on scholarships, moved on to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and eventually appeared on the London stage, where he won outstanding newcomer at the London Evening Standard Awards in 2000 and a best supporting actor nomination at the 2001 Olivier Awards. His film resume is brief, though it does include a small role in Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad.”
When Frears was casting “Dirty Pretty Things,” he dismissed the idea of looking for an African American for the role of Okwe, because, as he puts it, “If I were making a film in America, I have to have American actors because they fill in the gaps that I don’t understand. I just assumed that a British African actor would know far more than I knew. Having a British African actor in it meant that I simply believed what I was looking at.”
And although this turned out to be the case with Ejiofor -- Frears says he wasn’t aware of Ejiofor’s family history when he cast him -- it was touch and go when it came to pairing him with Tautou, best known as the lovelorn waitress in “Amelie.” Frears says they went well together in his head, but he made the mistake of putting them together physically in a run-through, “a sneak preview,” as he calls it.
“It was catastrophic,” he says without disclosing what went wrong. “It was rather inept of me. It was manipulative, and it rebounded on me.”
The film treats as unremarkable their interracial romance (much as the gay relationship in Frears’ 1985 “My Beautiful Laundrette” is depicted matter-of-factly). As Frears says, “That’s the least of their problems. Race simply never arose. It never wanted to get into the film. This is about this huge economic migration that’s going on across Europe that arrived in England about 10 years ago.”
“They have to find their way against degrees of hostility, as my parents did,” Ejiofor says of these economic refugees, many of them from former Iron Curtain countries. “The only difference is that everybody going through this is white. The strange thing about this film for me is that if Senay’s character was from West Africa, I would relate to [the hostility] in exactly the way my parents did [as a race issue]. Because of the change in the world, race is much less relevant. It becomes an issue of what subclasses are, what people are exploited, and how poverty is an exploited commodity to the wealthy.”
Ejiofor, who is currently shooting a film in Montreal called “Slow Burn,” with Ray Liotta and L.L. Cool J, is much more interested -- for now -- in shooting on another continent, Africa, where he has friends and relatives.
Hollywood still is very far away. “I haven’t quite got a measure of it,” he says of L.A. “I’m not sure anybody ever does.”