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No, ‘Secret in Their Eyes’ star Chiwetel Ejiofor is not slowing down

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Ray Kasten, a rising FBI agent who is assigned to an anti-terrorism task force in L.A. in "Secret in Their Eyes."

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Ray Kasten, a rising FBI agent who is assigned to an anti-terrorism task force in L.A. in “Secret in Their Eyes.”

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Chiwetel Ejiofor still has schedules in his computer for all the publicity he did for the 2013 best picture-winning film “12 Years a Slave,” which earned him an Oscar nomination for his role as free man turned slave Solomon Northup.

The shooting of the film was difficult and often painful, but the campaign to win an Oscar was tough in its own way.

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“Looking back on it, it makes your hair stand up,” he said, laughing, during a recent interview in Santa Monica for his latest film, “Secret in Their Eyes,” which opened Friday. “It was full on. It’s daunting even to glance at.”

But he remains overjoyed at the way the harrowing drama about the inhumanity of slavery was received by critics and audiences.

“Obviously, it’s great to talk about a film one is so deeply proud of. What I also enjoyed is that it crossed every group of people. There is no specific demographic response to the film. I can find myself in conversation [in places like] Budapest talking to a Hungarian about his experience watching it.”

Though Ejiofor, 38, had a flourishing career before “12 Years a Slave,” winning strong notices in such films as 2002’s “Dirty Pretty Things” and 2006’s “Children of Men,” the British actor said “Slave” has “opened up a lot of opportunities.”

In fact, he hasn’t stopped working, appearing in the film “Z for Zachariah” and earning raves this year in the allegory “Everyman,” Carol Ann Duffy’s interpretation of the 15th century morality play — “it is the cornerstone of literature” — at the National Theatre in London. Ejiofor splits his time between that city and Los Angeles.

It was full on. It’s daunting even to glance at.

— Chiwetel Ejiofor, on shooting “Secret in Their Eyes”

He has a crime thriller, “Triple 9,” set for release in February and is filming the superhero movie “Doctor Strange,” with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. Ejiofor plays the villain Baron Mordo.

“Secret in Their Eyes,” which also stars Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts, is loosely based on the acclaimed 2009 Argentine thriller which won the foreign-language film Oscar. Weaving back and forth in time from Los Angeles in 2002 and 2015, the thriller explores the ramifications of obsession.

Ejiofor plays Ray Kasten, a rising FBI agent who is assigned to an anti-terrorism task force in L.A. His partner is the dedicated district attorney investigator Jess (Roberts). Kidman plays ambitious Deputy Dist. Atty. Claire, assigned to the task force. There’s a strong attraction between Ray and Claire, though she’s engaged.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“There is an impossibility in their romantic involvement,” he noted. “It was very interesting to play all of that with Nicole. She is specific and nuanced.”

The trio’s lives are forever upended when Jess’ daughter is murdered and her killer is set free because he is a protected federal witness. Ray, though he’s no longer in the FBI, is trying to get a new lead on the killer’s location. When he arrives in L.A., Jess is just the shell of who she once was and Claire, who is now district attorney, is in a loveless marriage.

Ray is in bad shape himself. “It has beaten him,” said Ejiofor of Ray’s obsession in bringing the killer to justice. “I always thought of it as a kind of a sound — a sound that he can’t rid of. It’s driving him crazy and he feels that getting justice will get rid of the sound.”

Writer-director Billy Ray noted that he was picturing the actor Ricardo Darin, who starred in the original version, when writing the adaptation but “when I heard there was interest from Chiwetel I stopped looking.”

The two met for lunch in Los Angeles. “I was intrigued by it,” recalled the actor. “We both centered on being interested in how to tell a story of the two time periods and what that means to Ray and the psychological and physical manifestation of that.”

Because Ray wrote the script, said the actor, “he was able to imbue his characters with very sophisticated psychologies. I think he was able to write these two very complicated relationships with these two very different women. That is sort of gold dust to an actor.”

Ray was struck with Ejiofor’s extraordinary personal energy during the production, as well as his “brain that never shuts down. You could see him in between takes. He would be playing some game on a computer and dragging someone over to play chess against him.”

And Ejiofor, said Ray, “approaches the material in the same way. Probably 10 times on the movie, Chiwetel would come up to me and say, ‘You know that scene we are shooting in three days? I think it would play a little better if I add a moment here to the scene.’ And he would be right.”

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