Chiwetel Walks On The Wild Side
Chiwetel Ejiofor did not slip easily into his crossdressing role in Kinky Boots, but by the time he hit Soho night spots he felt just like one of the other transvestites.
By Sandy Stobo
Sandy Stobo: Kinky Boots looks fantastic. Tell us about the film and what we can expect.
Chiwetel Ejiofor: Well, it's a very warm and big-hearted comedy with some drama aspects to it, not a broad comic flavour but a gentle, easy, nice kind of humour. It's the story of a guy who owns a shoe factory in Northampton, played by Joel Edgerton. The factory is going under and so he's trying to get into a niche market but can't quite work out what to do in order to save the factory and the jobs and the workers. Totally by chance, he meets a transvestite in Soho who's having problems with her boots and launches this idea, this crazy idea, of targeting a niche market with proper, built-to-last women's shoes, for men. He takes this idea back up to Northampton - it's all inspired by a true story - and together, they create the Kinky Boot factory.
Stobo: How was it interpreting a real story?
Ejiofor: Well, it was just great and warming to know that the story existed and looking at some of the characters involved. There were people that came down who were part of the factory and it was a very fun experience. I think the fact that it's all inspired by a true story just goes to show the quirkiness and humour that is part of England and the UK.
Stobo: Was it a life-changing job? The dresses, the make up...what was that experience like?
Ejiofor: It was intriguing reading the script and knowing that Lola had to go to this place that I hadn't been to myself, but I was completely unprepared for the actual realities involved. But you do end up changing as you get into these roles. I started off very blokey and a bit gruff and people were asking me questions about what kind of dresses I wanted and where I wanted to go with the nails. I'd be very closed off about it and be like "well yeah, if you think the blue's good, then the blue's good" and "you want the red nails - that's fine, I think that's great..." Of course, by the end of the process - just let me loose! I was, "no not that one! That one with that one. Come on Trev, work with me!" So it was great to really get involved with the character. It was a lot of fun.
Stobo: It is a heart-warming story and at its centre are misconceptions about stereotypes. Do you think Kinky Boots is a story about unearthing these stereotypes in middle England?
Ejiofor: I think there are a lot of stereotypes that fly around and one of the things in this film that I was keen on was that Lola wasn't in anyway like a stereotype, or two-dimensional, but a real three-dimensional person that you care about and you want to succeed and so on. I think that's a very great strength of the film and I think people have an enormous capacity to get along if they remove any pressure to dislike each other, or to somehow find offence in one another. I think that the story of Lola and this idea of going into middle England and so on was fascinating. I think the reaction is very interesting but the points aren't made in the film in a heavy-handed way. I think people generally understand those things anyway and I think people should come to the film for an enjoyable couple of hours. Those things are implied in a part of the film but generally, they're just there, as they're just there in life I guess.
Stobo: What research did you do for the role? How real did it get?
Ejiofor: Well, I went down to the clubs and that for me was the first port of call, to really meet all the people and the characters involved. That was great, I loved it! I really loved that side of it, going into Soho and hanging out in transvestite clubs. It was a really fun crowd with some really great people. It did strike me as a shame, the ostracisation of this group of people, in a very weird and unfair way. My experiences were fantastic and they are great clubs. It was completely not what I expected actually and then it was really just a question of coming to terms with Lola and really looking into the practical things. Rehearsing all the numbers, getting all the numbers together and meeting all the other transvestites in the club and rehearsing with them and so on. The putting it together as well as trying to understand Lola herself and as Lola's born name is Simon, there was also the Lola and Simon dynamic.
Stobo: We have these conceptions of the places Northampton and Soho, which are where the film is set. I think London is one of those places that people graduate to for reasons of freedom and being what you want to be. Was that something you found out from the characters in the film?
Ejiofor: Lola had moved to London to feel slightly freer and express that side and I think that was definitely part of a number of peoples' experiences in Soho. But, in my journey with Lola, I picked up when Lola is very settled, so there's not that feeling of migration at this stage of the game. But definitely it's very much a part of the background of that character and for a number of the characters in Soho that they are from other places but find that Soho is that bit more accepting and so on.
Stobo: So just when you've got your head around sticking the dress on and becoming comfortable with that, then they make you sing. How was that, because you sounded fantastic in some of those numbers? Is it something you are going to reprise?
Ejiofor: I don't know, maybe! I was very lucky to be able to work with some of the people here. Phil Bateman and then Guy Chambers put all the musical numbers together and it was great to get involved. I was extraordinarily pleased with how it came out.
Stobo: A great British cast with an Australian lead. Tell us about that. You've got people like Nick Frost in there who people know from Shaun Of The Dead and Spaced and so many faces that you recognise.
Ejiofor: It was a great cast that was brought together for the film and I think it's all people who just really loved the project and loved the script. Joel is fantastic! It was great that they were able to get Joel in who worked so extraordinarily hard to make sure that his Northampton accent was pitch perfect. I think he did a great job and he was just the perfect demeanour as this young Albert Finney type, who is just perfect for the part.
Stobo: Now British comedy has had its ups and downs the last few years. There have been some enormous successes and some stonking failures. You've got a pretty good team backing this up. Calendar Girls was a huge international hit, was that something you looked at when taking on the project?
Ejiofor: The fact that there are really talented people who are pushing the film and who are around the film is no surprise when you have a script of that quality. So, those sorts of things come into place I guess.
Stobo: And finally, are you sorted for fancy dress now for the rest of your life?
Ejiofor: I think I am, I think it's going to be very easy!