Chukwudi Iwuji strives for perfection as an actor. The older he gets, the more he learns to make peace with himself; perfection is never going to be achieved because it’s completely subjective.
Iwuji is wise, well-spoken and gracious in his demeanour as we sit down in Toronto to talk about his latest entry. He makes his MCU debut as the High Evolutionary in James Gunn’s final film in the franchise, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. The film premiered in theatres on May 5th.
The Nigerian-born British actor is known for his roles on Peacemaker, Underground Railroad, and Designated Survivor. However, his Marvel debut — his biggest role to date — made him a household name. For him, it was a stimulating role that helped inform his instincts as an actor.
The 48-year-old always wanted to be an actor — while studying economics at Yale University, he joined the university’s drama society. He loves working on a wide variety of roles that don’t have a through-line. Iwuji gets excited at roles that, when first offered, surprise him.
We spoke to the actor about his MCU role, learning about the journey of perfection, what drives him, his acting process, and how films speak to him.
Congratulations on the show. I heard that you and James never wanted to make the High Evolutionary sympathetic like other Marvel villains.
We were going to make him grounded; making him grounded was like making sure that we stuck to our guns, if you excuse the pun. This guy is a cruel narcissist, he’s a sociopath, but he’s incredibly intelligent and he has a vision — to create the perfect society at whatever costs. That’s a very dangerous vision, so we were gonna stick to our guns and not try to make him sympathetic. If the audience saw something in the performance or in his message that they kind of get, or if they saw something when they discovered a vulnerability, then that’s great, that’s up to them. We were never gonna play for it, we were never gonna seek it out. It was important that we presented this guy in all his danger and single-mindedness.
James always saw you as the High Evolutionary. He said he saw something in you. Did you see that same something in yourself when you got this role?
I am most drawn to roles where someone says, ‘I want you to play this’ and my first instinct is, ‘Really?’ I don’t know — and I’m never going to ask — what James saw in me during Peacemaker that made him think I should be the High Evolutionary. I’m glad he did, I loved it, but I don’t know what it was. As soon as someone offers you a role, and you decide that you want to do it, you immediately see how you’re going to. For me, I immediately saw how I wanted to do it, then I saw what I could bring to the High Evolutionary.
Is that your process with every role that you get? The villain in this strives for perfection, so do you strive for perfection as an actor?
Yeah, sadly. I’m getting better at it. The older you get the more you realize that that life is literally too short. I don’t think I’m ever gonna stop striving for perfection, but I’m getting better at forgiving myself when I don’t get it.
The High Evolutionary is an example of the futility of perfection. Perfection is entirely subjective; there is no objective perfection. His idea of perfection, and his means to get it, is completely flawed and tragic and wrong. So I guess yes, I can work backwards and say ‘Well, it’s clear perfection is a stupid thing. Why do I keep looking for it as an individual, as Chukwudi?’
So then if you go for different kinds of roles, do you have a process you stick to as an actor?
I really wish I had a really sexy, interesting process (laughs). Like, I go to the Bronx Zoo, and I study animals and I live on the street for a while to know what turmoil is… (laughs). No, I read the script and the clues are in the script. Usually, if the writing is good — and certainly in this case, it was — then the imagination goes to work.
I’ve been basically forming that since I was born. I see things that I steal or borrow, from performances and from real people. It’s all being stored. There’s this thing that happens when you actively study the script, craft, which is developing your body and your vocal range. You develop all that so that when you meet the material, your body is ready to take it in and bang out something that surprises you, something called character.
I don’t have to be the High Evolutionary; I can create it and I’m happy creating it. I created it and got paid to do it. I allowed my imagination to be rich, and I allowed myself to sweat or relax as much as I needed for my imagination to come to life.
And I heard you had the classical opera playlist for this role?
Yeah, I put it together and I threw it at [James Gunn] and he loved it! One of the proudest things in my life is that I gave a piece of music to the great James Gunn, the king of playlists, that he actually used in his movie. Yeah, that’s one of my great achievements.
He’s very specific about his songs, so that is good to hear. James chooses the music from the very start, incorporates it in the script, and then plays it on set while filming. How instrumental has that been for you as an actor?
It’s so brilliant, I can’t tell you how much it helps. I can’t speak for every actor, but I think most of us loved it. There was a particular scene, quite an emotional scene with Rocket, and we shot this big scene and the music came on. And it wasn’t just me it affected, it affected the crew. I remember afterwards in the break, the crew was like, ‘What was that piece of music? What was that?’
When we see films, you can’t disassociate a score from a scene. If you take the music out of the scene, the score out of the scene, you take any Morricone score out of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly where they’re standing there, [you] have only half the film, right? So to have that playing when you’re doing the scene was the biggest thing you know, it was amazing. I loved it and it propelled me forward.
I have to ask, how do you deal with internet trolls who choose to talk about you or any actor of colour as a “diversity pick?”
I’m not on Twitter, but I’m aware of these things. I focus on the faces of the people I saw in Comic Con in Hall H 7000 people when I made that entrance first, the generational excitement from father to son, father to daughter, grandfather to father, they’ve all come up in the comics and in front of them is the embodiment of the thing they read and they were excited. I focus on that and knowing that’s the majority.
When a troll comes out, that becomes news, but that is such a tiny minority of what’s really out there. The premiere was just last Thursday and I just felt such love and warmth from these people. That’s the majority. And that’s how I felt because I don’t engage. I don’t want to give more time to that than is necessary.
You’re a theatre actor: you love Shakespeare and Hamlet is your favourite. In that respect, is there a role in a film that you would like to do?
I mean, the thing about Hamlet and whatever is that those roles have existed for 400 years and you can pick them. In film, you don’t know what anyone is writing, but I hope someone’s writing something that really excites me.
I don’t really like to talk about things, but [I’d like] to play James Baldwin. For years people have been stopping me on the street. Just yesterday, we were in Atlanta and someone working in the hotel said, ‘You remind me of a historical figure in America.’ I go, ‘Is it James Baldwin?’ So people have been telling me that for years.
The first time I worked with Common, that was the first thing he said to me. When I did Underground Railroad with Barry Jenkins after we did our first rehearsal, he goes, ‘Has anyone told you you should play James Baldwin?’ So basically, if I were to pluck something out that I’m looking forward to doing soon, it’s to play him and just vanquish this ghost.
You graduated from Yale, you’ve done theatre, how does doing film satisfy you as an artist?
I feel that all those stages in my life — from deciding to study economics and going to university and doing film — they’re all part of my building blocks in my life. I’m sitting in front of you because of all those things. So I am clearly getting satisfaction because my life continues to move on and new surprises keep coming, and I’m having fun doing them. So I guess, I’m living the life that I’m supposed to be living.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is now playing in theatres.