Chiwetel Ejiofor’s first big movie after “12 Years a Slave” isn’t a blockbuster, though he’d done plenty of those prior. (He’s in “Children of Men,” “American Gangster” and “2012,” as well as “Love Actually.”) It’s a film so small it only has three actors. “Z for Zachariah” is a post-apocalyptic film that’s really an intimate study of human relationships, with Ejiofor’s Loomis a scientist who’s become one of the only apparent survivors after some global pandemic. He happens upon Ann (Margot Robbie), and the two try to survive, even as he shoots down her advances for the greater good. Their cozy but strained relationship is further stressed when a third wheel arrives in the form of the cocksure Caleb, played by Chris Pine.
Ejiofor and director Craig Zobel, who was following up the controversial “Compliance,” spoke to Metro about avoiding genre cliches and creating a space for actors to explore fraught interactions.
This is a movie about the post-apocalypse, but it’s really more of a character study. You could even lose the business about humankind being mostly wiped out and it would work as a drama.
Craig Zobel: I saw the post-apocalypse thing as a different way into doing a desert island story — a way for other people to not be around so you could just have a microcosm to just study relationships.
It seems like the screenplay had a lot of gaps for actors to bring their thing.
Chiwetel Ejiofor: To fill in by character, yeah. I was always intrigued by the idea of two-handers and three-handers, and dealing with interpersonal relationships and politics. This offers that, because you have to produce all the dramatic tension you’d have in a bigger film, but it’s just through the nature of personalities, in an understated way. That was for me the most exciting entrypoint to it all. In order to achieve that it requires an honesty. You have to, in terms of acting, bring a perspective in which you would find yourself given these circumstances. Which is quite hard, quite painful. All the characters are going through quite a lot of suffering in their own way.
Did the fact that there are only three actors, and for most of the time only two, make it feel like boot camp?
Ejiofor: It took a bit of time. Chris and I met a couple times in London. But not much. I didn’t know Margot at all. It was possible to dive into that kind of full-on relationship without having known each other. But that’s useful, because that’s what’s happening in the story.
Zobel: It was certainly not a designed thing. It was a schedule thing. But the fact that Chiwetel and Margot hadn’t met coming into this helped us. We shot in order and Chris was on another job prior to this, so he came in a couple weeks into our shoot. The natural of the shooting paralleled the way the story worked. By the time [Pine showed up] Margot and Chiwetel were firing on all cylinders. Then a new person came in and disrupted it. [Laughs] Which was great.
A lot of the first hour traces Loomis and Ann’s discomfort with wanting to act on their hormones while knowing they have to maintain a livable situation. There’s a feeling they should fall in love because they may be the last two people on earth.
Ejiofor: She is quite open to all that, and he is much more reserved about it, initially. But he is older. There is a slightly more paternalistic nature to his approach. But he is terrified of getting into a bad relationship with the last woman on earth. [Laughs] You’d have to be very, very careful, tread lightly, because the last thing you want is stony silences and slammed doors forever. [Laughs] With all that cerebral thinking, with all those delicate approaches, it’s for nothing when Caleb arrives. It all suddenly is a terribly bad idea [that he rebuffed her]. Those dynamics are fascinating to me, and the fact that Caleb is completely front-footed — he’s not worried if he’s in a bad relationship. He would be like, “Well, if it goes bad I’ll take off.”