A Word With: From ‘The Lion King’ to Angelina Jolie, Chiwetel Ejiofor Has a Lot to Talk About

A Word With

From ‘The Lion King’ to Angelina Jolie, Chiwetel Ejiofor Has a Lot to Talk About

Chiwetel Ejiofor found a movie project that he loved deeply.CreditCreditRobert Rieger for The New York Times

By Kathryn Shattuck

For the last decade — as he snared an Oscar nomination for Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” swaggered through the National Theater 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 theaters 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.”

“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?

Moving Windmills, he’s setting up an innovation center 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 actualize 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?

“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 Cuarón’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.

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