This is the sort of role actors might dream of.
It’s a guy who knows nothing … then, gradually, knows everything. He’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” in a series (shown here) debuting at 10 p.m. Sunday (April 24) on Showtime. And he’s also a master mimic.
“One of the things that was really exciting … is just the variety of it,” said Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays him. It was a giant challenge, for a guy who could have chosen a different life.
In her comedy act, Gina Yashere (the “Bob Hearts Abishola” co-creator and co-star) used to say: “In a Nigerian family, there are only four choices of jobs – doctor, lawyer, engineer, disgrace to the family.”
She was talking about immigrant families that emphasize education and hard work. That includes her own kin – she was an engineer, before switching to comedy – and could easily include Ejiofor’s.
They “were ultimately very supportive, but it took a little bit of doing,” he told the Television Critics Association. At first, “people were quite concerned about me entering this crazy game.”
Ejiofor was 11 when he was the only survivor of a car crash that killed his father, while they were visiting Nigeria. In England, his dad was a doctor and his mother is a pharmacist; one sister is a doctor, the other (Zane Ejiofor Asher) is an Oxford grad who anchors the noon news on CNN International and has a memoir coming out next week.
This is a family built around academics and professions. So it was a detour when the son joined the National Youth Theatre as a teen-ager.
“My mom … came to see a show that I did for them quite early on,” he said. “She loved it, you know, and it just sort of turned her around.”
He thrives on theater, including Shakespeare. Yes, he’s been Othello, the prime role for Black actors. (He won an Olivier Award, the British equivalent of a Tony.) But he’s also been Romeo and Macbeth.
Ejiofor’s studies at the London Academy of Dramatic Art were cut short when, at 19, he got a supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad.” In the quarter-century since then, he’s been busy, ranging from an Oscar nomination in “12 Years a Slave” to playing Karl Mordo in the Doctor Strange movies.
Now he expands further. This is taken from a 1963 novel by Walter Tevis, whose “The Queen’s Gambit” became a streaming hit. “The Man Who Fell to Earth” was a 1976 movie that’s been praised by many people – including Ejiofor. “I couldn’t tear my eyes away from David Bowie,” he said.
And now he has the Bowie role. In the early scenes, he’s an overwhelmed newcomer – naked and guzzling a garden hose. He’s soon questioned by a bemused cop, played by talented actress Martha Plimpton.
Alex Kurtzman, who co-created the10-week series (with Jenny Lumet) and directed many of the episodes, grants that Plimpton is “in some ways, overqualified” for this small role. But the scene is crucial: “He’s both learning the language in a nanosecond and also beginning to understand how to communicate with human beings.”
He emerges with her name (“K. Faraday,” which he read on her nametag) and what she calls “a dead guy’s clothes.” Then he meets the rest of Earth.
“Every experience for him is a first,” Kurtzman said. “He’s like a child having a first piece of birthday cake or experiencing color for the first time or looking at the sky or breathing our air …. He articulates it down to its simplest and purest essence.”
At times, this seems like “Resident Alien,” the gem (from Spielberg’s company) that recently finished its second Syfy season. But that show keeps its light tone; this one moves to tougher turf.
“It has an incredibly powerful and relevant message for us today, to really examine what we are doing to our incredibly beautiful planet,” said Naomi Harris, the Oscar-nominee (“Moonlight”) who stars with Ejiofor.
She reluctantly becomes his colleague (they’re shown here). In most ways, however, he’s on his own. “It’s a deep exploration of loneliness,” Kurtzman said.
That resonates in an era when people often switch jobs … or schools … or neighborhoods … or cities … or countries. Except here, it involves a new planet.
Ejiofor remembers the emotions from early in his acting career, “feeling very kind of outside of it, initially, and feeling that sense of not being sure whether you belong.”
He was a kid from an academic, professional family, trying the world of make-believe. Now – after an Oscar nomination, an Olivier Award, five Golden Globe nominations and a dream role – he clearly belongs.