Chiwetel Ejiefor on ‘2012,’ Interracial Hook-Ups, & Angelina Jolie

2012 week continues as we celebrate the coming apocalypse with a series of interviews with its survivors. Yesterday we ran an interview with a fiending Amanda Peet, and today we get to the bottom of what a respected stage actor like Chiwetel Ejiefor is doing in a Roland Emmerich disaster movie. After wowing audiences on stages across London, Ejefor made his big screen splash in the grimy thriller Dirty Pretty Things opposite Audrey Tatou. Since then, he’s churned out reliably stellar work in films like Inside Man, Love Actually, Children of Men, and American Gangster. In 2012, Ejiofor plays Adrian Helmsley, a government geologist who is among the first to discover the Earth’s core heating up to a potentially catastrophic level. Here he is trying to explain the popularity of disaster porn, interracial relationships on film, and working with Angelina in the upcoming Salt.

What’s a serious actor like yourself doing in a Roland Emmerich film? I really am not that serious, and I want to do movies that people are entertained by and that people get into, and this is such a wild ride of a movie. I loved science fiction and I love the fact that Roland Emmerich is such an incredible visual filmmaker and is really passionate about bringing the audience a really exceptional visceral experience where all the senses are involved, except perhaps smell.

How do you compare making this film to making Tsunami: The Aftermath, a very real story about people getting killed by a giant wave? This is a wild ride, it’s a fantasy, a leap. It’s all the things that a film like this should be. Tsunami: The Aftermath was an altogether different proposition. It was a heavy and sad tale of the destruction in Asia, and there are certain conclusions that both films come to that were optimistic about humanity, about unity, about how we are when faced with the darkest things. It sort of validates some of the excesses, the values of heroism, the excesses of optimism when you do a film or talk to people who have done these things in a real environment.

What does it says about us, that we like to watch the destruction of everything and everyone? I think it’s sort of two-fold. I think we like to watch the ideas of the worst possible scenario because we fear it and we fear it for ourselves and for our loved ones. So to watch the worst possible scenario is kind of exciting, because it allays a certain fear that we have because we’re then watching, projecting ourselves into these scenarios, and watching how to deal with it. And our greatest hope is whatever life throws at us, we’ll be able to deal with it, just in the same way we deal with whatever life throws at us any given day.

There’s a love story between your character and Thandie Newton, who plays the President’s daughter. You both happen to be black. Do you think if the President and his daughter were white, that the filmmakers would have included that story line, given Hollywood’s traditional treatment of interracial relationships as taboo? I suppose, yeah. Hollywood and movies still have a way to go with interracial relationships. I don’t think it’s light years behind, but in England it’s always seemed people in interracial relationships were never as much of an issue. I guess that in Hollywood movies that appeal to wide audiences, people do try and define things in a way that would make things simple in a sense, and the audience isn’t constantly thinking about other things or being distracted by these concepts. But definitely, it seems like within the context of this movie there seems no reason why there wouldn’t be interracial romance. Because anybody who is disturbed by anything like that is probably disturbed by black actors onscreen anyhow. I definitely feel like there’s a racial simplicity that sometimes happens in movies, and I suppose the conversations about race aren’t prevalent in the film and isn’t one of the themes of the film.

Do you have a “one for me, one of them” mentality, where you like to rotate between bigger pictures like this and smaller ones that you might be more passionate about? No, I don’t. I don’t have that mentality really. I’ve heard that phrase before but I think that somebody has to have to say that to you. I don’t think you can wake up and be like, “I’m going to do one for them!” I don’t think it works like that. I get scripts and if I like it, if I want to pursue it, and I think there’s stuff in there that people will enjoy and I’ll enjoy, then I’m definitely going to do it.

I saw the trailer for Salt yesterday; can you tell me about that? It’s Phillip Noyce’s movie with Angelina Jolie, myself, and Liev Schreiber, and it is a paranoid thriller centering around the CIA, and it’s a very, very exciting movie, and I think it’s going to absolutely terrific so I can’t wait to see it.

Was the press ruthless with Angelina during filming? Totally. More so than other people, they were sort of everywhere, and there were a lot of paparazzi and stuff. But I think she handles it incredibly well. I don’t really know how she does it, but definitely she is able to do the work but also be very gracious with them, and it’s really quite interesting to watch.

What are some of your favorite restaurants in New York? Balthazar, Raoul’s, and Peasant.

Industry Insiders: Larry Poston, Room Service Provider

Larry Poston officially opened the West Village resto Hotel Griffou with business partner Johnny Swet on July 1. Poston made his name in New York restaurant circles as a manager at Pastis and the Waverly Inn, and Swet gained his hospitality know-how at Balthazar and Freemans. Most recently occupying the 9th Street space was notorious speakeasy Marylou’s, but the name of the new joint is after the original, French 1870s occupants. The modern dining rooms are themed as a salon, library, and artist’s studio with a French-inspired classic cuisine menu. Poston gives us an inside look at the new spot.

What are you focusing on now that you’re open for business? My business partner Johnny and I are really priding ourselves on great food and great service. That’s what we know. We’ve learned from Keith McNally that no matter all the fanfare and no matter what comes in, great food and great service are the only things that keep them coming back ten years down the road.

How did you first meet Keith McNally? I started waiting tables at Pastis in 2000, so I interviewed with Keith. He hired me, and I worked there for six months and then moved out to LA with dreams of being an actor. I was a pool boy at the Chateau Marmont for four months. So that was my West Coast experience. I hated LA. I came back and started waiting tables again at Pastis. They promoted me to manager on the floor, and I worked at Pastis for six years.

Most important thing you learned from McNally? Keith had been a maître d’ when he first started out. He taught me a lot as far as what to look for with people, and he would say, don’t just seat the people in front of you with the suits and the flashy money, because they always get a table. Look behind them and see the nervous couple or the little old couple or the funky-looking group that doesn’t always get a table, and seat them. That adds to the room and also keeps that eclectic mix of New York going. You don’t always want suits, you don’t always want fashion people, you don’t want all of any one thing. I would love to have Mick Jagger over here, some drag queens over there with a rock band and then some Wall Street guys. That’s what keeps it interesting. That’s New York to me.

Then you worked with another legend, Graydon Carter. It was just that time, that point of trying something new and spreading your wings and getting out there. And that’s when I met Graydon Carter over at the Waverly Inn. That was a whole other aspect of service and learning people because that’s a man who is like maître d’ to the stars. He’s the epitome of a host. It’s his room, and he knows where everyone should go. I got to know a lot of names at the Waverly Inn, obviously.

What’s the Waverly’s secret for remaining A-list over the years? You have Eric Goode and Sean McPherson who know restaurants, and they also have their own chic clientele of people who they bring to any project they’re involved in. You get that mixed with the energy of Graydon Carter and all these amazing A-listers in there for a great dining experience. You get the mix of a person who knows the people and the people who know how to run a restaurant. Once, I was telling a friend some of the names who went in the place one night, and he was like, “So, what you’re telling me is, if the Waverly was to explode right now, it would be the end of civilization.”

What’d you take from that experience to opening Hotel Griffou? How to deal with certain people. There are a million different personalities here in New York City, and then you have a certain amount of clientele that is …

High maintenance? Well, the great surprise is when the ones you expect to be high maintenance aren’t. It’s just having to deal with personalities. Higher-end personalities have higher expectations. You learn how to coddle egos in a way. I think that’s what the Waverly taught me: how to really deal with egos. That’s a good way to say it.

What came first for Hotel Griffou — the concept or the space? Johnny and I talked about doing this for awhile, and we had a concept. We had this place over in the East Village at one point, because we were thinking of modeling after some of those southern juke joints, speakeasy-type places that have great names like the Playboy Club or the Lizard Lounge. But you have to walk into a space that feels right. Johnny worked at Freemans, and I worked at the Waverly Inn, and both those places are very unique — Freemans is down that alley, and the Waverly Inn is at the bottom of a townhouse. In New York. It has to have a special vibe or a special space, then the bones were here and boom. I was never here for the Marylou’s experience, but I’d heard these amazing stories about what was here before. We’re hoping we can return it to some of its past glory.

You’re obviously alluding to that with the name. Hotel Griffou was what is was in the late 1800s. It was owned by this woman by the name of Madame Marie Griffou. It became this real mecca of ideals, artists, writers, and poets. One of the true stories is that Mae West actually did come here after her indecency trial, which is funny.

How long has this been in the works? From embryo to now — about two years. We initially started construction this past February.

What’s your favorite part of the interior? I can’t really choose. The inspiration Johnny and I talked about was an artist’s town house. There’s something about the feel of the salon, and I like the studio because of the crazy art and all the work that’s been contributed. Johnny spearheaded the design, but it was collaborative, and all the work that was contributed was by artist friends.

How much input did you have in the menu with chef Jason Michael Giordano (of Spice Market)? Johnny and I had ideas of what we wanted on the menu . We wanted those traditional dishes. Classical American cuisine is what we called it, and then we discovered that this place was owned by a French woman, and we had to throw a French nod to the cuisine. We wanted a signature dish, which is the lobster thermidor fondue.

Is that the most popular menu item? Yes, as well as the poutine, which is French fries with duck confit topped with a little buffalo mozzarella. It’s amazing. Also, the fried seafood basket, which is something from home. I love fried food, fried fish, cod, fried shrimp, fried oyster, with chips, we’re calling it Calabash, we’re not going to call it Southern, but yeah, that’s exactly what it is. It’s a mix of some rich dishes and some light dishes. We thought that the idea of a great restaurant was that you can go here three or four nights a week and always have a new experience.

True that the pork cutlet recipe was found on the menu from the 1800s here? It’s very true. We have a sautéed pork cutlet recipe that was on the original Madame Marie Griffou menu from 1892. They’re sautéed, lightly breaded with this delicious pork gravy au jus with green beans. They’re delectable.

How was your soft opening? It was great because we invited a lot of industry people that we’d worked for and trusted their opinion. We got really good feedback and notes that we can take with us to keep improving. You get a little anxiety about your peers coming, and knowing you’re going to really hear the truth — which can be unpleasant, but always necessary. The bottom line is that everyone was pleased with the look, the feel, and the vibe of the place, which is important.

Where do you go out? I like Norwood a lot, and Little Branch. As far as dining I still love Indochine and also Peasant.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure? The Real Housewives of Atlanta.

Photo: Scott Pasfield

Industry Insiders: Sarina Salvo, Casa la Femme Phénoménale

Casa la Femme’s Sarina Salvo on re-opening the sultry Middle Eastern hotspot in the West Village, why they are unique in New York, and partying with camels.

What do you do? I basically do everything at Casa la Femme. I don’t have an exact title because I’m really spread out through the whole restaurant. I’ve been with them for 12 years, so I basically can do everything from the event planning for everybody. I’m able to put through all of the parties. Anything people want. If someone decides that they want to have a camel, I would figure out how to have a camel in here, to staffing, to the flow of the restaurant. When we did downtown, I started as a manager there. Uptown when we did the boutique one, we went through the review process and I was just basically there on the floor, 100%, with the staff. In a nutshell, what do I do? I guess I represent them. I represent Casa la Femme. Other than the owners, I guess I am Casa la Femme, in a sense.

What are some restaurants or bars that you like in New York? Favorite restaurant is Peasant. Raoul’s for a good steak. I haven’t been going out since I’ve been working so much.

Who do you admire in the hospitality industry? Probably [Casa la Femme owners] Medhat Ibrahim and Anastasi Hairatidis. I wouldn’t stay with people if they didn’t inspire me and push me. Twelve years working with someone …

What is one positive trend that you see in the hospitality industry now? Now? Actual hospitality. Actually being caring with the customers. You know, with everything that’s happening with the whole economy and jobs, I think that people are actually giving what they need to give to the guests, giving them an experience, what they deserve. Now you have to convince people to go out. You have to. You work so hard for your money, and everyone used to go out anyways, and it was a given, so it was taken for granted — from everybody. Now you have to work to be able to get those.

On the other side of that, what’s one negative trend that you’ve been seeing? I mean, obviously, people losing their jobs and things like that. I know so many people in the business that are losing their jobs all throughout. I had interviews the other day, and I had like 140 people showing up. And that’s really scary. I feel bad. I had people who were general managers and managers begging to be servers. And they come from all the hottest restaurants. Anyone. You know, they have experience. So that’s a negative big time. Also, I know so many people in the Morgans Hotel group. You know, Royalton … people getting just laid off. It’s just horrible.

How will this affect Casa la Femme? Since we’re not open, I mean, I really can’t gauge it. But I would assume that we’ll see some negative things out of it. I used to get a tremendous amount of calls, just banging down the door when we’re open, everyone’s really excited, so I can’t gauge it at this point. But I’m assuming that its not going to be every single night. People are more conscious. We’ll see. I’ll approach it in a different way. I’m willing to be able to work with people, I understand that it’s going to be a budget thing and anything can be done to be able to accommodate people. That’s what I want to do. What’s one thing that people might not know about you? I guess maybe that I’m super private. Because people are so used to seeing me as chatty and floating around, but I’m definitely more reserved and quiet. Which is shocking. The total opposite from when people see me dancing on a table with a bottle of champagne.

What are some of your signature drinks going to be? We’ll have vodka-based ones, champagne-based ones. We did have a mango martini that was fresh juices and fresh mango nectar. Someone was just calling the other day about a French Kiss. That hasn’t been done in like nine years. I’m sure once we release them, they’ll be fab.

Who do you think Casa la Femme will be competing with for clientele in the West Village? No one. We won’t have to compete for anybody. We are totally unique. Any type of clientele is not going to be a problem. It’s just because we cross over into so many different types. We can have the models and that type because it’s sexy, it’s hot. We’re known for that. We’ll also have the people from the neighborhood. There’s a million Thai places, there’s a million Italian places, but there’s no Casa la Femme. If anyone has tried to do something like us, they haven’t succeeded on this level. There’s a reason that we’ve been around 15 years.

What’s the vibe at night? The music will switch up in the evening. There will be people sitting with bottles of champagne, relaxing and watching the belly-dancer. We’re going to stick to chill world music, like Hotel Costes type of loungey music. We’ll also have a Middle Eastern influence in the back. If we have a private party, we have a lot of friends, it could go into anything, like Rolling Stones late at night. It depends on what crew is in here. We have a pretty insane sound system. Anastasi is all about the music, so we’ve loaded the space up with lots of speakers and sound-proofed the place.