15 Minutes with Chukwudi Iwuji

The thespian and screen star talks to LAMag about playing the villain in Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy 3.”

British-Nigerian actor Chukwudi Iwuji started his career as a classically trained thespian, playing the likes of Hamlet and Henry VI on stage in the UK and US. His career changed drastically when director James Gunn took a leap of faith to cast him not only in DC’s Peacemaker but also as the villain High Evolutionary in Guardians of the Galaxy 3, opening May 5.

Congratulations on this role, it’s a massive moment in your career

It was whilst we were filming Peacemaker and it was the day of filming the famous opening dance sequence, we had just done a few takes and [director] James Gunn came up to me and said, “Do you have a second? I just want to have a word about something.” I joked and said “Is this where you tell me that you meant to hire Chiwetel Ejiofor and not Chukwudi Iwuji?” He said no but that he’d like me to play High Evolutionary in Guardians of the Galaxy 3. I was speechless! 

And just like that!

And then it was this excruciating period of about six weeks between that conversation and setting up a screen test and getting the material done and then another excruciating four days after the screen test while they edited it and got it all ready and packaged and sent off to [Marvel president] Kevin Feige before that fateful Tuesday morning when James called to say “we are in action!”

This faith from James Gunn must feel really special.

I guess it’s not really my job to figure out what it is about me that James trusts but I have been constantly ruminating on the level of gratitude I have that, in such a subjective world, what I do appeals to him. Because let’s face it, he is a giant and he could have picked up the phone and called anyone to play the High Evolutionary. He took a real gamble with me, hopefully not artistically or talent wise, but a gamble in the profile of the role in who he could have. There are shortcuts he could have taken to guarantee bums on seats and he went for me so I will be eternally grateful to him for that.

The opportunities that come from a Marvel movie must be mind-blowing.

I hope that goes straight from your lips to God’s ears mate, we will see. Yes, I’ve been told that’s what it is. When you’re an actor and you’ve come through the [Royal Shakespearean Company] and the National [Theatre] and you’ve listened to your agent haggle for an extra 50 quid a week for your repertory season, it’s really hard to let go of that sense of a jobbing actor. But as someone who hates auditions, I’m very much looking forward to a period where they are disappearing further back in the rearview mirror.

Some of the best comic book villains in movie history have come from a theatre background like Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin or Sir Ian McKellen as Magneto. Did you bring your own theatrical background to this role?

Yes, you can’t not do that. We are all products of where we’ve come from, right? But on a very practical level, a big chunk of playing the villain is exposition and a big part of Shakespeare is exposition. We have been groomed and taught how to make exposition sound really interesting [laughs.]

I also think that we’re not frightened of embracing the concept of character. The thing about theatre is that when you create a character, you’re not trying to say that this is me when I go home, you are saying that I have created this character when I step on stage and when I’m done, I leave him alone. Character comes into embracing and loving costume fitting because I get to wear that cape or loving when someone says, “Can you go bigger and uglier?” Because we work with big masks all the time. 

Then the other practical thing is when someone’s asking you, as you play Henry V in Bognor Regis to a Sunday matinee, to actually see in that audience the whole army spread out in front of you in Agincourt and to visualise that. When someone tells you on a green screen that you’re seeing some cosmic battleship coming to you we are groomed in imagining and imbuing.

Is that transition hard or does it become natural?

Oh no, the transition from theatre to film for me was retrospectively painful! It wasn’t easy for me, I really had to learn that the transition wasn’t just about speaking more quietly and doing less because what happened when you did those things is that you came off like a mannequin, or slightly stupid. On-screen is about channeling that energy and learning how to use all that stuff you use on stage.

It took a lot of adjustment. I took a couple of classes and just worked on it because I’ve always watched films and I’ve always loved what they did but I always practiced it in theatre. So it took a while to understand what it is they’re doing and how I channel that myself. 

This role represents the upwards trajectory of your career. What do you think was the learning curve to get to this point?

My career, at this point, can be divided into two portions: Before James Gunn and after James Gunn. Meeting James and having someone like him that could have anyone to play these roles and he’s saying, “No I want you to do it. You’re not box office and it’s not like I’ve seen you play a role like this before but here’s a script because I’m confident you’re gonna get it.” That confidence I put on par with the confidence of playing Hamlet because someone as big as they come believes in you. You need those pivotal moments as an actor because it’s a world of rejection even at the best of times.

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