A Second Shot at Othello for Actor Chukwudi Iwuji
Iwuji stars in Ruben Santiago-Hudson's free Shakespeare in the Park production at the Delacorte Theater.
Chukwudi Iwuji remembers being 10 years old in Ethiopia and falling in love with a film that no other kid would probably like: the movie version of Jean Anouilh's play Becket, starring Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole.
"Because the television was so bad," Iwuji remembers, "everyone would exchange movies. Becket landed in our home, and I was drawn to it for the performances and its power. That's not the kind of movie a 10 year old cares about."
Cut to a decade later at Yale University where Iwuji, an economics student, saw a poster for an upcoming production of…Anouilh's Becket and decided to audition. "I had Peter O'Toole in my mind," he says, "but the director ended up giving me the Richard Burton role." The rest, as they say, is history. "The head of undergrad saw it and offered me a scholarship to the conservatory in Wisconsin he was about to take over. And that began my professional acting career."
In the ensuing years, Iwuji — who was born and raised in Nigeria, moved to Ethiopia after his parents joined the United Nations, went to boarding school in England, and now resides in New York — has steadily risen through the ranks at theaters like the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Public. His classical résumé on both sides of the Atlantic is unparalleled, filled with roles including Hamlet and Edgar and Henry VI, among many others. A breakout came earlier this spring in Bruce Norris's The Low Road at the Public Theater, where he played a slave with an unlikely past. He was recently awarded an Obie for his performance.
Now, Iwuji is conquering Othello for the Public's free Shakespeare in the Park season at the Delacorte Theatre. This will be his second time playing the role.
"But it feels like the first time," he says with a laugh. "It was the last role I did as an undergrad at Yale, but I literally cannot remember anything I did. Maybe that's just my psyche protecting me from what was probably an awful, ego-driven performance as a 20-year-old."
Even decades apart, he still didn't think he'd be coming back to Othello for a long time. "When I did Henry VI at the RSC, everyone would ask if I was ready for my Othello, and I remember thinking, 'Why does it have to be Othello?' There's a whole list before that: Hamlet and Coriolanus and Macbeth. There was a side of me that was resisting it in a weird way, and then, as you get older, you go, 'I want to do this.'"
Age helps the interpretation of the role. "You need to bring life into it," Iwuji adds. "You think of the aspects that are so Othello-y: the warrior, the lover, and the man, as opposed to the kid that I was when I played it then. If you try to play those things, you see an actor trying to play those things. They have to be part of the landscape of your face, of your soul, of your heart. You hope that you can bring that in through life experience."
Iwuji didn't necessarily want to be an actor. At boarding school he was into sports, but would "always get in trouble because I would sneak out of my room to watch the Oscars." As early influences, beyond O'Toole and Burton, he cites Ian Richardson's performance as a manipulative member of parliament on the original British edition of House of Cards. For college, he was prepared to be on the Oxford-Cambridge track, but made a bet with his father to let him go to America if he got into an Ivy League university.
"I got into Yale, which was the most expensive bet my dad ever made in his life." He graduated with an economics degree, and then headed to the conservatory in Wisconsin. "It was very funny," he recalls. "I got a call [for an economics job] saying, 'Send us your résumé and you have a job.' I remember telling the HR woman, 'Thank you very much, but I think I'm going to become an actor.' And there was a long pause before she went, 'You know, sir, good for you.' And that was it."
In the ensuing years, Iwuji has built a steady career all young actors dream of having. Before The Low Road, he had spent much of the 2016-17 season in London, working with director Ivo van Hove on both Hedda Gabler and a stage adaptation of the Visconti film Obsession. "My dream was to have a transatlantic career, in New York and London and Los Angeles, and I'm doing that. But my heartbeat right now is in New York. I have a place here, I'm engaged, and the Public has adopted me."
His vision for the title character in Othello, which begins performances May 29, lines up with the director Santiago-Hudson's: "We're returning this piece to the love story," Iwuji explains. "It is the tragedy of what could have been the single greatest love story ever, until someone destroys it. It's a lush, sensual, spiritual, dangerous, genuinely tragic production that we're going after. Touch wood that we pull it off."
Iwuji is quick to add that it's a beast of a role. "And it's really kicking my ass. But you want a role to kick you in the ass," he concludes. "They don't always do that, so when you find the one that does, it's worth going for."