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Chiwetel Ejiofor Says Directing ‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind’ Changed His Approach to Acting

Actor-director talks with TheWrap editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman

Last Updated: December 5, 2019 @ 11:49 AM

Chiwetel Ejiofor didn’t set out to make “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” his feature film directorial debut. Instead, the decision came about gradually as he started to visualize how the story should look. But directing the film, Ejiofor says, changed how he approaches acting.

“Directing, and moving into that I think changes me as an actor, which I’ve started to notice — that I’m evolving as an actor in a slightly different way,” Ejiofor told TheWrap editor in chief Sharon Waxman following TheWrap’s Awards Screening Series.

“The sort of microscopic nature of looking at this film making all of these choices and really examining a film and breaking a film down and creating the film does inform the way that I look at character and the way that I look at physical production now and the idea of giving an editor choices and, or limiting choices if you want, but certainly thinking about that process much more whilst acting,” he continued.

Ejiofor adapted the screenplay for “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” from the bestselling book by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer and based on Kamkwamba’s real-life story. Now streaming on Netflix, the film follows 13-year-old William Kamkwamba (played by newcomer Maxwell Simba), who is thrown out of the school he loves when his family can no longer afford tuition. After sneaking back into the school library, he finds a way, using the bones of the bicycle belonging to his father Trywell (Ejiofor), to build a windmill in order to save his Malawian village from famine.

Ejiofor, who is of Nigerian descent, said that one of the reasons he was drawn to write and then direct the film was in order to show audiences an authentic representation of African life.

“When I was reading William Kamkwamba’s book, one of the things I really felt was just that real sense of the authentic representation of village life and African village life,” Ejiofor said. “There’s not a generic Africa, so Nigerian villages are different to Malawian villages, though, there are certain similarities. But I felt that actually trying to tell the story of William Kamkwamba and represent that village life on the screen as authentically as I could was something that was quite powerful because it was something that I hadn’t really seen represented in cinema quite as accurately as I would like.”

For that reason, the “12 Years a Slave” actor said it was important to him not to just shoot the film in Malawi, but in the actual village where Kamkwamba, who after the events depicted in the film would go on to attend Dartmouth and become an engineer, built the windmill.

The film delves into the social and political life of Malawi and Kamkwamba’s village, and while the film is somewhat critical of the Malawi government, Ejiofor said they were actually OK with the film and there weren’t really any issues during production.

Though some of Ejiofor’s more prominent roles have been in films that explore some aspect of African and, or African-American life, as well as the trauma — “12  Years a Slave” and “Amistad” — and that’s important, it doesn’t dictate the kinds of stories he’ll look to direct or star in the future. Though he is glad for the opportunity to tell these stories.

“I don’t have an oeuvre, really… I feel like films can be serious and they can be meaningful, and they can also be entertaining and they can be frivolous, and they can be all sorts of things,” he said. “[I enjoyed] having the opportunity to tell a story like this, to feel that there was some way of engaging an audience and engaging an audience, hopefully, in different countries and people who didn’t have any relationship to this place, and relating a sense of what I feel about the continent generally really.”