When British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor set about interpreting the role of a London showgirl in the new film Kinky Boots, his instinct was for full-on flamboyance.
He soon changed his mind.
I got the wig, I got the boots on and I got a not-so-pleasant yellow sequined dress, Ejiofor recalled.
I marched into the rehearsal for the first choreography and I realised it was impossible to approach the character that way.
It was definitely going to be a character that grew over time.
In Kinky Boots, Ejiofor plays towering drag queen Lola, a performer with a troubled past who meets shoemaker Charlie Price (Australian actor Joel Edgerton) when he helps her escape from a gang of men in a Soho laneway.
The pair strike up a friendship which later becomes a business partnership as Price realises Lola and her fellow showgirls could be a lucrative market for his struggling shoe business.
Kinky Boots is inspired by a true story, although the character of Lola was created for the movie. The footwear of the film’s title comes into play as Price’s regional England factory starts producing women’s shoes in men’s sizes for its newfound clientele.
Questions of homophobia and identity arise when Lola pays an unexpected visit to Price’s factory -“ sparking division among its workers.
To get to the heart of the role, Ejiofor spent time with real-life performers at Soho drag venues.
That side of it didn’t really feel like research -“ I was just having a really great time, he said.
A lot of the drag queens and transvestites who work in the Soho area ended up in the film as background artists, which was great because in the shows it gave me an immediate response and critique.
Then came the physical transformation.
Ejiofor underwent a brutal full body wax, poured himself into corsets and -“ of course -“ teetered in four-and-a-half-inch heels.
I found it really difficult. I had never looked at people in high heels and considered it to be easy.
But I had no idea of how complex it actually is until I put them on.
Also I had the acrylic nails soldered onto my fingers.
For 24 hours a day I looked like an off-duty drag queen, apart from times when I looked like an on-duty drag queen when we were doing the shooting.
So immediately I felt that I was living the part in a really interesting way.
Ejiofor, star of Stephen Frears’s gritty 2002 film Dirty Pretty Things, was keen to avoid the caricature often seen in cinematic portrayals of drag.
I found the combination of the Soho aspect and the conservative Middle England aspect pretty irresistible, Ejiofor said.
It was always a film that was embracing differences between people in a respectful and intelligent way.
Behind her flashy stage presence, Lola is a seemingly discontented figure whose father has disowned her.
I just loved the fact that Lola has this double element: this wonderful sassy boldness and attitude and then at the same time was incredibly subtle and intelligent and sensitive, Ejiofor said.
I was just interested in finding a real person there who wasn’t in extraordinary, played-up distress but was just dealing with the issues that life throws up.
Kinky Boots opens today.