Entertainment, Film and Music

Little sister of 12 Years A Slave star reveals the childhood tragedy that spurred Oscars dream

By  | 
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor’s life was turned upside down when his father was killed
  • Arinze Ejiofor died in a car crash in his native Nigeria in 1998 – Chiwetel was the sole survivor of the accident
  • His sister Zain said she believes the death of their father inspired her actor brother to ‘make the most’ of his life and follow his Oscar dream
  • Zain will sit beside Chiwetel at the Dolby Theatre tonight for the 86th Academy Awards where he is up for the Best Actor gong
  • She said: ‘It’s such a shame our father is not alive to see how well Chiwetel has done’

It’s a photo that paints a picture of an idyllically happy family life.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, now a Hollywood star and a strong contender for the Best Actor Oscar tonight, beams broadly as he hugs his little sister on the stairs of their London home.

But just months after this snap was taken, Chiwetel’s life was hit by tragedy when his father was killed in a car crash, which almost claimed his young life, too.

His sister Zain, so happy beside him in the photograph, has now spoken of how that devastating heartache fuelled Chiwetel’s desire to be the best actor he could be –  and helped bring an intensity to his performance in 12 Years A Slave.And should he triumph at the Academy Awards, he is certain to pay an emotional tribute to his father, Arzine.

Chiwetel was just 11 in 1998 when, on a bonding trip to Arinze’s native Nigeria, the car they were travelling in was involved in a head-on collision with a lorry.

Chiwetel was the only survivor of the crash that also killed three other passengers, and Zain believes it is significant that her brother is now the same age as their father was when he died.

‘He had been very close to his father,’ Zain says. ‘And while the whole family was suffering from his death, the impact on Chiwetel was especially intense. He became very focused and threw himself into everything with an intense passion.

‘It was as if he had been given a miraculous chance to live and he was determined to make the most of it.’

Initially it was thought Chiwetel had also been killed in the accident.

‘When they dragged his body from the wreck, he was very badly injured and lucky to still be alive,’ says Zain, now a financial correspondent with CNN. ‘He’d broken several limbs and sustained a serious blow  to the head that left him in a coma for a while. Doctors told my mother to expect the worst.’

Though only five at the time, Zain vividly recalls the anguish of her mother Obi and several adult relatives as they maintained a vigil by her brother’s hospital bedside.

It would be ten weeks before the traumatised child was able to leave the hospital. And from that moment, Zain says, he seized life with a previously unseen passion.

‘By the time he was 13 he had developed this drive to be an actor,’ she says, revealing how his passion started while studying at the elite Dulwich College.

‘He started out in a school play. While other kids his age were hanging out, he would get home from school and lock himself in his room to learn his lines.

‘It was as if he (Chiwetel) had been given a miraculous chance to live and he was determined to make the most of it’
– Chiwetel Ejiofor’s sister Zain

 

‘I would go out with my friends and come home hours later only to find him still reciting Shakespeare.

‘Sometimes he even wrote the words on the walls and Mum would have to wipe them off.’

Chiwetel joined the National Youth Theatre at 17 and was accepted by the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

But he left during his first year after getting a role in Steven Spielberg’s film Amistad. ‘It all seemed to happen very quickly,’

Zain said. ‘I remember there was a lot of joy in the house when we heard. I mean, it was Spielberg!’

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