Chukwudi Iwuji – Interview
We got a chance to speak to the actor Chukwudi Iwuji who is performing at the National Theatre in Hedda Gabler as Eilert Lövborg.
How did you get involved with the play?
National Theatre casting arranged a meeting between Ivo and I in NY. I had met him a year earlier for The Crucible. That didn’t pan out, but Ivo expressed an interest in working with me should the right project/role come along. Luckily it did with a Hedda.
Who is Eilert Lövborg?
I was having dinner with Ruth Wilson, (she plays lead character Hedda in this NT production), and she made the point that Lövborg is similar to Hamlet, so it was a happy coincidence that I was performing Hamlet at the time I got the call for this role. For me Lövborg is an outsider, he is a Brontësque, romantic, visionary experiencing unfulfilled, almost tortured love. He is scared of what he is capable of in life and thus leads a life of excess where he struggles to realise his full potential in his career and in his personal life, which is why he is on a path of self-destruction. Hamlet is a similar character; they are both people who are familiar with fear. They are men who are scared of so many things including themselves. I myself am familiar with fear. When I was younger I was on the path to becoming a banker or international economist I got a place in Yale to study economics and was studying when I made a huge decision to move into drama.
It took me some time to tell my parents, I was nervous and fearful of breaking such news to typical Nigerian parents, who wanted me to take the traditional career route.
At the time I had joined the theatre group and was performing in the play Becket, coincidentally I had grown up watching the 1964 film version with Peter O’Toole, I loved Peter O’Toole, but Richard Burton was my acting hero. I knew the film well at this stage and gave it my all in the auditions and I was cast as Thomas Becket. I wanted to play Henry, but the director saw me more as a Beckett. The director of drama at the time attended one of the performances and was so impressed that he offered me a scholarship to do drama. Around the same time I got a call from McKinsey, (McKinsey & Company is a worldwide management consulting firm) offering me a position, which would have set me up for life. I was at a crossroads but I knew I had to do something I wanted to do not just something I could do and decided to go to drama school. It took me some time to tell my parents, I was nervous and fearful of breaking such news to typical Nigerian parents, who wanted me to take the traditional career route. I wrote them a letter and to this day I still have the letter my father wrote back to me. My parents surprised me; they were my biggest supporters and encouraged me to go for it. They gave me their full support.
What motivates you every day?
The characters I play. Acting for me is a vocation; it is a calling and not just a job. It’s what I do, it’s what I love. I am an actor. I am an actor even when I’m not acting; every new role invigorates me and challenges me. There is a lot of self-sacrifice involved in this art but there is also a huge pay-off when you get the audience’s reaction and your own personal sense of achievement as a working actor. I remember when I was performing Hamlet in NYC and my dad came to see the show, I thanked him and he stood up to take a bow. That was a beautiful moment where I felt fulfilled and the pain was balanced with pleasure.
Can you summarise Hedda Gabler?
Hedda Gabler is a play about dysfunction, unhappiness, and the consequence of choices in human life. The themes of the play are bigger than the narrative and have a huge impact on the characters and the audience. It is a play that handles the themes of suicide in the Nordic culture. It ask the question ‘Is there such a thing as an honourable suicide?’ In the old Nordic religion suicide was a path to Valhalla, their version of heaven, and in fact it was an honourable choice depending on the circumstance obviously or people would have been killing themselves far too often. The play raises this question to a UK audience who may not have these beliefs and encourages people to think. Audience talk about it for days and weeks after seeing the play. There is so much of the play that I cannot summarise as it is too complicated to put into words, it is emotion and expression and atmosphere. The characters are more human than us, they are raw in their experience of life. Ivo manages to hold too clear a mirror against humanity and the themes of life that many people do not always understand.
What is your favourite part or line in the play?
Acting for me is a vocation; it is a calling and not just a job. It’s what I do; it’s what I love.
Its funny somebody else asked me this recently so I have had a chance to think about it and I would say that it is when Mrs Elvsted says “All I see is darkness”. This line evokes such utter emptiness and void, there is nothing. It is like the darkness of a grave or the darkness of the womb. It could be the beginning of a journey or the end of a life. It is at that point that Lövborg spirals into darkness himself and the journey towards suicide begins. How dark must the mind be to even contemplate suicide?
What’s next for you?
This has been an amazing project and I feel so lucky to be working with such an amazing director and cast. The NT Live screening on the 9 March is my first NT live performance so will be an interesting experience for me. Ivo has already informed me that he has cast me in another role. I am going to Amsterdam to start rehearsals for the play Obsession with Jude Law, this will be on at the Barbican in April.
Info: Hedda Gabler will be broadcast live to cinemas across The UK and internationally on Thursday 9 March as part of National Theatre Live. To find your nearest cinema go to nationaltheatre.org.uk