For the last decade — as he snared an Oscar nomination for Steve McQueen’s ‘12 Years a Slave’, swaggered through the National Theatre production of ‘Everyman’ and wielded magical weapons in Marvel’s ‘Doctor Strange’ — Chiwetel Ejiofor has had his mind on other things.
When he wasn’t racking up accolades in front of the camera, Ejiofor was figuring out how to step behind it and make a movie about William Kamkwamba, who at 13 saved his Malawi village from drought and famine by building a windmill. The result, ‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind’ — Ejiofor’s feature directorial debut, based on Kamkwamba’s 2009 best-selling memoir — arrives on Netflix on March 1 as well as in select theatres for a weeklong run.
“I read it when it first came out and immediately wanted to get the rights. I just had a strong instinct,” Ejiofor said. “It was talking about things that everybody was dealing with globally” — democracy, economics, the environment — “but concentrated on these people who were at the thin end at the wedge.”
“I found a project I loved so deeply that I was prepared to doggedly stick with over many years,” he added.
Born into a farming family, Kamkwamba (played by Maxwell Simba, with Ejiofor as his father, Trywell) was forced to quit high school after his parents couldn’t scrape together the tuition. Undeterred, he sneaked into classes and the library, where an American textbook called ‘Using Energy’ inspired him to use bicycle parts to build a windmill to pump water for crops — and in the process keep his village alive as corrupt politicians abandoned it. Kamkwamba was unable to return to school for five years, until his inventions captivated supporters who helped him gain entry into the African Leadership Academy, and then into Dartmouth, where he graduated in 2014. In an interview at a Lower East Side hotel, Ejiofor, 41 — who is London-based and was on a work layover between the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, where his film captured warm reviews — spoke about his passion project. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Can you pinpoint the moment when you knew you had to make this movie?
I was very struck by this idea of a 13-year-old sneaking into school, and I considered what my attitude to school was when I was 13 — and the idea of how inconceivable it would be that I’d have tried to sneak past teachers in order to get into a double math class. For William to find his way through in that kind of situation just seemed extremely hopeful to me.
You first had to write the screenplay before shooting in 2017. Did the ideas behind his story shift during those years?
A lot of these ideas became almost more pertinent over time. When I started writing it, there really wasn’t a question mark over the nature of democracy in the Western world, so it seemed like a very African issue that this [corrupt politician] comes along and he’s beating people up at rallies. By the time we finished the film, these ideas of whether there are limits to democracy were everywhere, in the States and with Brexit. There was also the financial crash, and the idea of deregulation or unregulated markets was all people were talking about. Years later it’s so much more a part of how we think about the potential disastrous consequences of some of the actions — like looking at a famine that was really about unregulated grain prices.
As an actor, do you see the scenes in your head when you’re writing?
Yeah, I mean all of it. You hear the scenes, you play out the scenes. I would be seemingly crazy, walking around playing all the parts, just invested in all of the moments of the film.
What is William doing now?
Now he works in North Carolina and in Malawi, and through his organisation Moving Windmills, he’s setting up an innovation centre in Lilongwe [the capital of Malawi] to support young people who have ideas — innovators, inventors, thinkers — and put them in contact with people who could help them actualise their ideas.
Let’s talk about some of your other upcoming films. There was quite a twist with your character, Baron Mordo, at the end of ‘Doctor Strange’. Have you officially signed on to reprise the role in the sequel?
[Laughs] “I can neither confirm nor deny” type thing.
Hmm. You also have two Disney movies coming out. You’re playing Scar, the Jeremy Irons role, in the ‘Lion King’ reboot with Beyonce and Donald Glover. Did you feel any pressure reworking such a beloved film?
It’s just very exciting. Obviously the original was so incredible and so sort of legendary. But like anything else, you have to kind of put that to one side and just try and play the part and see what happens.
Could you maybe slip into your Scar voice for a moment?
[Laughs] We’ll have to wait and hear it.
How about ‘Maleficent 2’? There’s a mysterious blank on IMDb where your character should be named, though rumour has it you’re a possible love interest for Angelina Jolie.
[Putting on a plummy British accent] I don’t know how much I can say about any of this, really. I actually came to the first ‘Maleficent’ quite late. But I was totally stunned by it and thought it was such an interesting take on the way that we view fairy tales, and how it imprints us with certain thoughts and feelings right from a young age that we carry through subconsciously. I think ‘Maleficent 2’ expands that world in a fascinating way. And I’d worked with Angelina before [in ‘Salt’] and had a great time. She’s such a remarkable actress and just a force. It was very cool.
‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind’ is no fairy tale. You strove for authenticity by having the cast speak the native Chichewa, which required lots of subtitles. Is it a coincidence that it ended up on Netflix, like Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Roma’, another heavily subtitled film?
When I started on the process with this film, there were only a few avenues that one could go, and those questions are really commercial questions because the authenticity would always butt heads with this idea of, “Does that affect the capacity for the film to reach an audience in the West?” In the meantime, Netflix arrives with a whole other way of accessing and engaging people. So being able to put the film into a limited release but at the same time allow it to reach a global audience is a kind of wonderful development for a film like this. That’s what I loved about ‘Roma’. I loved the fact that people have reference points now in a way that they just never did. They couldn’t have a conversation about something as detailed and nuanced as the specifics of Mexico in the 1970s with anybody and now they really can. They have a place to start a conversation, and that’s a big kind of cultural change and has an impact. Having a wider, more informed idea of the world is this very, very powerful possibility.
Don’t miss it!
‘The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind’ streams on Netflix from March 1.