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London born Nigerian actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and Australia’s Joel Edgerton co-star in Kinky Boots, an English comedy that clearly has legs – or at least feet. But they had to overcome physical and professional challenges to deliver their roles, as they tell Andrew L. Urban. Like waxing off the eyebrows ...

It’s not often you can draw a career line from Othello on the stage to a drag queen on screen, but Chiwetel Ejiofor can. Sitting (incongruously) in the elegant luxury of a room in Sydney’s Park Hyatt overlooking the Opera House, Ejiofor is flanked on one side by a coffee table that has been turned into a display stand for three pairs of seriously kinky boots, the kind worn by him in his latest film, in which he co-stars as the drag queen, Lola, with Australia’s Joel Edgerton playing a Northampton shoe factory boss.

Ejiofor was 18 when he was playing Othello in London (rather young for the part, but it was a student production for his acting academy) and a casting agent noticed him, asking him to audition for Amistad (1997), the Steven Spielberg film set in 1839 about the slaves on a Spanish slave ship and their attempted escape. Had it not been for this piece of timing, Ejiofor may not have found a door into films quite so soon, although with his excellent track record in theatre, it may well have happened anyway. (He won the Outstanding Newcomer at the London Evening Standard Awards in 2000, as well as a nomination for the Olivier Award in 2001.)

But the point is that his film career went from Amistad to Kinky Boots, via Dirty Pretty Things (2002) for director Stephen Frears, the film that established him internationally, as Okwe, an illegal Nigerian immigrant working a double shift as a mini-cab driver and night porter at a backstreet London hotel, who stumbles across a human organ at the hotel, part of the illicit trade in human organs.

"a couple of further high profile film roles"

It was after a couple of further high profile film roles (Love Actually, Melinda and Melinda, Red Dust, and others) that Ejiofor found himself auditioning for the role of Lola in Kinky Boots, a drag queen with a talent for design. This is where Australian actor Joel Edgerton comes in, playing Charlie Price, who inherits his family’s shoe business. It’s not doing well, so he sets about rescuing the ailing Northampton shoe factory which has been the pride and joy of the family for four generations. With a large order cancelled, Charlie begins to feel that all is lost and starts retrenching staff. On a short business trip London, a chance encounter with Soho’s flamboyant drag star, Lola gives him an idea that could prove the last chance for the factory and its employees. Kinky women’s boots made especially for men like Lola ... and designed by Lola. But is Northampton open minded enough for the likes of Lola?

It’s an English film, directed by Julian Jarrod, so it’s not entirely surprising that London born Ejiofor landed the role of Lola (“the character was never written as a skin colour, and its themology is more interesting than skin types,” Ejiofor says), but how did a nice guy like Edgerton from Sydney end up playing the straight man to Ejiofor’s sassy and flamboyant Lola? “I have to credit my Los Angeles agent,” smiles Edgerton, sitting in an adjacent hotel room, his hair cropped short, his blue eyes focused as he leans forward to talk. Beside him are three more pairs of kinky boots from the movie, including the tall, shiny white leather high heeled boots that demand attention.

It seems that Jarrod and his team had flown to Los Angeles to audition some expat Brit actors, and Edgerton’s agent (grabbing the chance while Edgerton was visiting Los Angeles) slipped him onto the list, without mentioning his Australian-ness. “I really thought it was a bit of a waste of time, driving out to Disney for the audition,” he says, “as I really couldn’t imagine they’d cast me.”

But they did. Not only did he have to come clean that he was Australian, but he had to convince them he could deliver his character in a perfect Northampton accent. “That was the biggest fright for me,” Edgerton confesses. “I got to the set for the first day of shooting and we were doing the scene in which I give a speech to the factory workers. Just five days earlier, I was finishing the making of Open Window, in the US…” (Open Window, directed by Mia Goldman and also starring Robin Tunney, Cybil Shepherd and Elliott Gould, went on to acclaim at Sundance; Edgerton hopes the “heavy drama” will be seen in Australia on the arthouse circuit.)

To his pleasant surprise, there wasn’t much to fix up in the ADR process during post production as far as his accent is concerned. Nor was there any need to dub Lola’s singing; Ejiofor delivers a throaty and satisfying set of song and dance numbers, often wearing kinky boots – boots she designs for the struggling Northampton shoe business, which finds anew lease of commercial life in the niche market of drag queens and transvestites who inhabit the demi-monde of their own around England’s nightclubs.

Ejiofor spent some time visiting them for research and was pleasantly surprised by the experience. The only thing nobody could prepare him for was the physicality of wearing high heels for prolonged periods. And the waxing. “That was scary,” he says; he had a full body wax to remove all his hair, even his eyebrows. (They’ve grown back.) I can’t help noticing Ojiofor’s large, tan cowboy boots with their wide legging. Not so much kinky as macho: “Oh, they’re my Fryes ... a gift.” But not related to the movie, is all he is willing to say on the subject.

"The role itself was not only fun, it was challenging"

The role itself was not only fun, it was challenging. “It took a lot of time to piece it together and I especially liked the dichotomy of the sassy elements, all the choreography, singing, etc, and the person she was underneath.”

But don’t offer Ejiofor another role that parallels Lola; “There was a lot to accomplish, but I’m not interested in repeating it. Doing something like this, which had to avoid caricature or broad stereotype and create a real individual, is really exciting. But only the first time.”

Edgerton, too, had a challenge, his in creating a an average bloke who was neither too redneck nor too bland. “The other hard thing was to curb my envy,” he says laughing. “I envied Chiwe for that magnificent role, but he did it so well… he had great hair and make up of course, but he inhabited the character so well.”

Lola is not part of the real story behind Kinky Boots, while Edgerton’s character is inspired by the story of the real shoe factory owner, Steve Pateman. “He was really excited by the film and he loves it, but we didn’t try to portray him. I represent him, but I don’t play Steve.”

But playing a real character, preferably one who’s alive, is something Edgerton would dearly love to do. With the attention he’s already getting for Kinky Boots, he might just get lucky.

Published March 2, 2006

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Chiwetel Ejiofor, Joel Edgerton


Kinky Boots

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