Chiwetel Ejiofor is phoning in from Montreal. Sounds like a Tom Waits lyric, but it's true: The fresh, gifted actor with the tricky handle is too busy at present (just finished doing The Canterbury Tales for BBC-TV, currently working on the feature Slow Burn, with LL Cool-J and Jolene Blalock) to wing around promoting his fine showcase film with megastar Audrey Tautou: the darkly comic, offbeat thriller-romance Dirty Pretty Things. Fortunately, Ma Bell suffices, and the man whose name itself is pronounced rather like that of an exotic telephone company -- "Chew-it-tel Edge-E-O-4" -- warms audibly, in thoughtful, African-British tones, while recounting his experience as lead character Okwe.
"Okwe needed to be very internalized," Ejiofor says of his role. "The thriller was kind of two-fold: about the situation with the human heart" -- it's nasty; just see it -- "but also about revealing that character, piece by piece."
In the film, the mysterious refugee Okwe is Nigerian, not unlike Ejiofor's own background (though he was born in England), and this gave the actor a leg up in mastering the dialect and cultural tics of this stranger in his own land. (When equally impressive Sophie Okonedo, who plays gold-hearted hooker Juliette, asks him whether he's ever seen a lion, he politely replies in the affirmative, pausing just a beat before adding, "on TV.") Quizzed about how he and director Stephen Frears shaped the complex, introspective Okwe, Ejiofor -- like Frears -- immediately credits screenwriter Steve Knight (of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and the forthcoming Tony Scott-Nicole Kidman collaboration, Emma's War) with establishing the characters and their sticky London milieu.
Such humility. Yet Okwe is one of the year's standout performances, so how did Ejiofor and Frears bring it forth? Ejiofor adds praise for all his co-stars and explains that most of the movie's scenes consist of "just two people, in an arena, basically . . . in difficult, complicated situations, trying to survive." Indeed, the plight of the displaced, disoriented, and hunted immigrant is popular -- almost ubiquitous -- in cinema, but rarely is it presented so successfully on such a humble, human scale.
Ejiofor's the man for the job, sprung eight years ago at age 19 from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art to play Ensign James Covey in Steven Spielberg's take on the Amistad revolt. Thereafter, the man known to his friends as "Chewy" blazed across the London stage in the celebrated mental-health drama Blue/Orange, and made his mark in British television and film as well, garnering acclaim, awards, and respect from far-flung parties. Actor as cultural diplomat -- who'd've thought?
While Ejiofor concedes that the vastness of Spielberg's productions dwarfs the relatively intimate DPT, he's quick to rave up Frears: "His storytelling is impeccable -- his ability to tell a very complex story in a very straightforward way and always leave room for incredible surprises in detail. I think many scripts that he's worked on, in different hands would be very different films and would not benefit from being part of his perspective." (Sounds like a dis, but he means it well.)
This is especially true of Frears's latest, which, like recent successes Last Resort (directed by Frears's friend Paul Pavlikovsky) and Jasmin Dizdar's Beautiful People, concerns itself with the loves and losses of immigrants caught up in the whirl of British naturalization -- or perilous denial thereof. Okwe's friendly rapport with an illegally employed Turkish national named Senay (Audrey Tautou) leads them both into intrigue that's at once real-world plausible and deftly iconic -- apparently following major surgery on the initial script's lumbering second half. In keeping with Frears's track record from My Beautiful Laundrette and Prick Up Your Ears to the overrated The Grifters (which he firmly denies co-directing with actor-director Sy Richardson) and the underrated The Snapper, the dirty funk of life is emphasized -- the physical discomfort and a bit of gore -- even though the film itself is tight, fluid, and seemingly effortless in its design.
"You're not supposed to let the audience know how hard you've worked," grins Frears, who's back Stateside to discuss the project, armed with a world-weary countenance and abundant nervous energy. "I think the film is what matters, not how much effort you've put into it or what hell you went into in getting there." He laughs good naturedly, giving due credit to his crews and designers, without whom, he admits, his movies would be significantly more arduous to produce. "The film is just telling a story, and somehow, letting people know that you've sweated blood to get it seems to be irrelevant. It's a very old-fashioned, gentlemanly attitude. It's a very English attitude."
Speaking of which, the man who burned Annette Bening's birthday suit into the retinas of neo-noir fans proved the very model of an old-fashioned English gentleman -- say perhaps, Benny Hill? -- during a recent preview screening of DPT, which he commenced by announcing: "Some of you may have come because you thought you're going to see Audrey Tautou naked. My advice to you is to leave now!"
Writing here as someone who observes a lot of actresses and is frequently unmoved, regardless of their state of dishabille (clothed or otherwise, the basic formula is: Throw tantrum onscreen; grab Oscar; gush; repeat), I must report that Audrey Tautou is stunning in person. She shimmers, a Gallic supernova in mortal form, a delightfully sculpted manifestation of the Goddess incarnate. This extends beyond aesthetics to a preternaturally transformative aura that also defies words. All women are beautiful, but Mlle. Tautou is outrageously beautiful. Never before have I so regretted referring to someone as "that goggle-eyed bug." And now, back to our feature.
Yes, Audrey Tautou has just entered the room. Yes, she is the star of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's international bulls-eye, Amélie. And yes, although she's proud of it and pleased by its success, she's understandably a little tired of discussing it, given that she does in fact cultivate personal and professional lives beyond that fairy tale. With the pageboy 'do replaced by a sweetly unruly coiffure, she is attentive and energetic, communicating exclusively en Français via her superb translator Penny Dyer, yet clearly grasping English and good-naturedly receiving the interviewer's smatterings of high school French.
"Moi, j'adore les universes étranges!" exclaims the Frenchwoman (with the Turkish grandmother, it turns out -- and Tautou's also fluent in German), regarding her experiences of working in London. While the actress swoops a stealthy glance past the dish of hard candy on the table, comes the translation: "I love strange worlds! It was really a joy for me, a wonderful experience!"
Bien sur, but in a different impersonal hotel-suite setting, Frears is asked how Tautou took to the process of filming in England, in English. "She was absolutely terrified!" he exclaims. "She was terrified of working in England and everything else!"
No points off Tautou's scorecard -- after all, that's why they call the job acting. Considering that the movie's top-drawer cast also includes the splendidly obtuse Benedict Wong as a philosophical, myth-minded mortician (he's an English-speaker, but definitely from a strange world) and blustery Russian Zlatko Buric (whose English is rudimentary at best), language barriers were smashed and borders demolished -- almost like some realistic, cheese-free version of "We Are the World."
Frears shrugs almost frantically and rolls his eyes at his casting choices, calling the entire production "mad" and "absurd," and then thanking Dyer and everyone who helped in coaching dialogue and shaping dialect, including Tautou's Turkish-English, which rises above vampiric caricature ("You know vhat kind of vork I do?") to become quite convincing the longer she and Ejiofor struggle together. Most amusingly, according to the director, the super-sharp Spanish-speaking actor Sergi Lopez, who plays DPT's ambiguous villain, viewed the film and commented (in Spanish): "That man up there on the screen -- he speaks English! I don't . . . but he does!")
Although Miramax honchos are employing their typical strategy of sleekifying a complex movie for U.S. audiences by way of glammy poster art and careful star-billing, Dirty Pretty Things is an ensemble piece that prominently features the cutest woman in cinema. What may not be apparent to Amélie's legions of fans, however, is that before her seeming overnight success, Tautou -- who turns 25 this August, bon anniversaire -- worked extensively in theatre and comedy, training in her native France before movies came calling. Prior to Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Le Fableux Destin d'Amélie Poulain (she still marvels at his technical perfectionism), she turned heads in Venus Beauté Institute and Le Battement d'Ailes du Papillon (a.k.a. Happenstance), and continues to work consistently. An avid cinema buff, she cites Taxi Driver, Pretty Woman, and the Coen brothers' films among her favorites. She is quick to point out that any Hollywood role she'd consider would have to be very interesting, "certainly a film that doesn't have a sequel," and absolutely not "stupide."
But what about playing a seemingly less charismatic character -- a victim of society in a world that wants to gut its anonymous service employees, a Turkish woman desperate to escape the shackles of tradition and blaze a new life for herself? And what about Senay becoming dependent on Okwe for her escape and survival?
Tautou thanks various Turkish immigrant women of London for allowing her to study their lifestyles, dialect, and dance. "I shouldn't worry about it," she told herself, while immersing herself in the role and creating the character's inner world, "and I'll get my bearings." Once she arrived in England, the Turkish women helped give the character vitality and truth. "I asked them to explain how, with all they were going through, they were able to dance," Tautou reveals, wide eyes widening wider. "They immediately gave me lessons."
She was shooting in France when Frears -- whom she describes as being "like a father" -- specifically sought her for the role. "My meeting with him was something that really affected me and had great significance in my life," she says. Together they tackled the script. Although Tautou recently challenged herself by portraying both a nutcase (He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not) and a confused religious fanatic (God Is Great, I'm Not), "the role of Senay in the script was too weak and needed work." She pressed Frears to alter the character, and eventually they arrived at a compromise.
"What I really liked was her humanity, her strengths -- and yet that despite those strengths, she is defenseless and can't get out of this herself."
Enter Okwe. But what about being perceived as playing second fiddle to a male hero?
"I have to tell you, it was a great relief for me," says Tautou, smiling widely and sighing. "I was very happy that I didn't have to carry the whole film by myself this time."
The interview concluded, she rises for a quick photo shoot. One almost doesn't notice when she stealthily sweeps a hand across the table to snatch a piece of candy from the dish, but it's a very important detail. It proves that the global celebrity, like the characters she chooses to play, is utterly, comfortingly human.