Actor and storyteller Chukwudi Iwuji’s career has seen him leave an indelible mark of greatness on both the British stage and Hollywood, and he’s nowhere near finished!
After starring in the role of Alexander ‘Zander’ Hale in the riveting BBC legal drama The Split for the last four years, the Nigerian-British actor has become a household face on television sets across the country.
We sat down with Chukwudi to have an intimate conversation about; the considerations he makes before taking on every role, what it’s like to work with this generation’s greatest directors; and his journey from Shakespeare to Marvel’s upcoming space epic Guardians of The Galaxy 3!
Please introduce yourself…
My Name is Chukwudi Iwuji, and I play Zander Hale
Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now?
A developing story.
You often talk about how honoured you are that directors believe in you to carry out their vision (Barry Jenkins, James Gunn, Ava DuVernay, etc). What is your first memory of someone truly believing in your potential?
I remember a letter my dad wrote me in my senior year of college at Yale. I suspect my mum was a co-author. I had just sent a letter to them telling them that despite doing Economics as a major I had just been offered a scholarship to Drama School, and acting was the path I wanted to follow. I waited with great trepidation for a couple of weeks for their response (this was in the days of airmail letters and before email was a thing). The response, when it came was profound. He (they) wrote- and I paraphrase – ‘our job was to give you all the opportunities possible. We’ve done our bit, now go live your life that will make you happy. We love you, and we believe in you, whatever you choose to do.‘ I don’t know how I would have made it through drama school and the early years without them.
Your work as a stage actor has rightly won you many admirers, particularly your roles in Shakespearean plays (Henry VI at RSC, Othello, and Hamlet at The Public). When and why did you first form a connection with Shakespeare’s work?
I remember as a kid in Lagos, Nigeria seeing these recordings of the RSC performing Shakespeare’s plays on TV. I particularly remember Twelfth Night. I’m not sure if that sowed any seeds, but I know that when I got to boarding school in England, I just loved Shakespeare. I had a couple of passionate English teachers who brought the bard alive for me. Gerald Killingworth was one such person, and of course, Ms Brewis. I remember her pushing tables back and to the side and having us use the space as we spoke those beautiful lines. I did Anthony and Cleopatra in her class and to this day, I think she was the biggest single influence on me as a classical actor because she helped me realise not only was it deeply rich, but it was accessible, fun and I was actually pretty good at speaking it.
A lot of times people can be fixated on the challenging nature of being a creative and what it takes out of you. Instead, I’d like to ask you which one of your roles did you find to be the most nourishing and enriching to your own outlook of the world?
First of all, it can take a lot out of you, and it can be exhausting, but I am a bit wary of the whole ‘suffering for your art‘ narrative. You see, I’ve lived around the world from Ethiopia to Niger to New York. I’ve seen real suffering in its true form. 8 shows a week being paid $200 a week if you are lucky sucks, but that’s not suffering. My mom as a kid would have to work the farm and fetch water from a river miles away all before school. My Dad was helping raise his 7 siblings by the time he was 14, and they wouldn’t call it suffering, or even hard. What we do is a vocation, and it comes at a price, and you sort of swim underwater for a while, swimming upwards with the hope and dream to eventually break the surface and take a long glorious breath. It takes work, luck, and perseverance, but I draw the line on suffering.
One role that actually put that into perspective for me was playing Hamlet with the Public Theater in New York. Before we started the residency downtown we did a month of touring the 5 boroughs of New York, taking theatre to people that would not normally have access to it. We took the show to prisons, homeless shelters, community centres and sports halls, it was incredible to see how art can be so valuable, so vital to people. One performance was in Rikers prison. You are performing to people, many of which will never see the light of day again. I was about to start the ‘To Be or Not To Be speech‘; I played this as if I was going to end it all with an overdose of heroin. I had the needle poised to shoot up, and started ‘To be or not to be…’ I looked out at the audience, and one of the inmates, this large stoic black guy sitting in the front row with his chin in his hand, just shook his head slowly, and mouthed ‘Don’t do it‘. The play, the character, and life came together at that moment and a guy, who probably had every reason to give up, was looking at me and saying, ‘It’s worth carrying on. Don’t give up‘. Art made sense to me that day.
Your longest-running role on television to date is as Zander in The Split. How has it been to stay with a character so long and see them grow and develop?
Zander was also my first ever series regular role so a lot about him was new. It’s been great, especially as no one genuinely knew where Zander was going when the series started. Here’s a bit of trivia for you – I actually auditioned for Christie and Nathan. When they called and offered me, Zander I was like ‘Who’? The Sixty something-year-old Scandanavian dude?’ But apparently, the team wanted me to be part of the show and Abi [Morgan, Writer] being Abi, was pretty confident we could grow something with Zander. I’m really glad about how he turned out. I have loved his journey from the quirky, slightly intimidating outsider, to being very entrenched in the lives of this family, and in this final season, the journey is really brought home by bringing his personal and family history into the story. Abi has sort of developed him as she’s watched me, and I think she came up with a lovely, human, vulnerable, complicated arc. I enjoyed him a great deal.
Most people probably didn’t know that prior to acting professionally you earned a degree in Economics at the prestigious Yale University. What was it about acting that swayed you from a career path that many would believe to be more financially lucrative?
Simply put, it was the first thing I had ever attempted that I wanted to do. Everything else from sport, piano, to Economics, I did sort of because I could, not necessarily because I wanted to. Well, maybe piano is the exception, but I was never going to be playing Carnegie Hall, and my feeling is that, if I am going to do something, I might as well do something that I can at least dream to be special at. You know, one life to live and all that…
The discussion of British actors playing the role of African American historical figures is forever ongoing. Given that you have spent so much time working in the States, is this something that has ever influenced your decision-making when it comes to accepting and seeking roles?
To be honest, I haven’t really engaged that much in the discussion until recently. You see, there has historically been such a scarcity of great roles for African Americans in the Hollywood system. When Black History has been addressed, Hollywood has always felt most comfortable revisiting the slave narrative, which usually ends with the Great White Man riding in and showing his humanity. Now that there is a genuine effort to explore the other rich stories, I can understand why some African American actors might feel left out every time a Brit takes on the role.
But, I think it’s a shame not to support the fact that these stories are being told. I don’t think we should get in the way of the progress that is getting made in the industry by making geographical distinctions. This just slows down what is already a tectonically slow process. The idea that I, as a Nigerian am not qualified to tell the story of say, James Baldwin – which by the way I am attached to play – is ridiculous to me. The man was a humanist, a visionary prophet, philosopher and artist who spoke for everyone of colour, not just the 10027 zip code of Harlem.
You earlier mentioned the directors I had worked with. Barry Jenkins, Ava Duvernay, I’d add Ruben Santiago Hudson and Patricia McGregor to the list. These are all great African American directors looking to tell these stories and drive change. I very much doubt that one of the ways they chose to do that is to hire only British actors. I think it’s safe to say that they hire the best actors for the job, and if on that day it happens to be a Brit – so be it.
Congratulations on securing a role in Guardians of The Galaxy 3! You’ve described ‘practically kicking it off the hinges‘ for your career, what doors were you referring to?
I’m referring to the doors that made me move to NY 10 years ago. The doors that were only open for a small number of actors of colour while I was in London; The doors that only felt safe hiring the same 4 or 5 actors, and not always for the most interesting roles. James Gunn basically did something that I don’t know would have happened if I didn’t move to New York and build a profile here. He has said, ‘I trust your talent, come play this role. You deserve a shot at this.’ You know that credit card commercial – I don’t know if it’s Mastercard or Amex – that shows a series of expenses, then ends with something like ‘Seeing the smile on your loved one’s face…priceless?‘ Well, for an artist who is willing to ‘kick it off the hinges” it’s priceless.
What would you say is your biggest accomplishment today (on or off-screen)?
The people that I have somehow been deemed worthy enough to have in my life.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU…
A book you have to have in your collection? The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
A song / album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? Pale Blue Eyes by Velvet Underground
A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? Columbo reruns
The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance or concert)? Opera of Marriage of Figaro – I might have seen stuff before, but this made an impact. I didn’t know there could be so much beauty and power in music – especially in another language. I make a point of trying to see or listen to opera as much as I can because I believe that if I can evoke with the spoken word even a fraction of what one of those arias does to me viscerally, I would be achieving something.
What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? Ukraine. Ukraine. Ukraine!!!
The Split Series 3 airs Monday 4th April.