Chukwudi Iwuji: A Top Actor James Gunn Has Worked With in “Guardians of the Galaxy”


Growing up in Nigeria and Ethiopia, Chukwudi Iwuji spent much of his time imagining he could fly.

As the second youngest of five siblings, he would spend hours reenacting scenes from American shows and films he had seen on TV, playing every part himself. He was captivated by shows like “Charlie’s Angels,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” “The Godfather” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial ” from the 1970s and ’80s, which he watched via broadcast reruns and bootleg VHS tapes.

After watching “Star Wars” for the first time, he would stare at a plastic cup, trying to make it move with his mind. And after watching “Superman,” he believed he could leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Iwuji’s acting career has taken him from the Royal Shakespeare Company in London to Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad” series for Amazon over the course of two decades.

He has received recognition and accolades for his work, particularly on stage, but he has yet to achieve the movie career he has always dreamed of. Now, at 48 years old, he has been given a chance to soar with a leading role as the main villain, the High Evolutionary, in Marvel Studios’ “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.”

The High Evolutionary is a “mad scientist” responsible for transforming Rocket, played by Bradley Cooper, from an ordinary raccoon into a foulmouthed genius carrying a lifetime of pain and trauma.

This is the type of wicked Marvel supervillain role that has attracted some of the most celebrated stars in the industry, including Kurt Russell, Cate Blanchett, Michael Keaton, and Annette Bening.

Read more: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’ Starts Summer at Box Office

Writer-director James Gunn, who worked with Iwuji on “Peacemaker,” became enamored with Iwuji’s acting abilities after only a few weeks of working with him on the recent HBO Max series based on his 2021 DC feature “The Suicide Squad.”

Despite the systemic barriers for African actors seeking work in the West, Iwuji’s undeniable talent, a stroke of good luck, and unwavering determination led him to join the ranks of celebrated actors in Hollywood. Now that he has arrived at this pivotal moment in his career, he hopes to bring some of the West back to Nigeria.

Chukwudi Iwuji: A Top Actor James Gunn Has Worked With in "Guardians of the Galaxy"
Chukwudi Iwuji as The High Evolutionary in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo by Jessica Miglio. © 2023 MARVEL.

When Iwuji was 10 years old, his parents got jobs as economists with the United Nations, prompting their family to move from Lagos, Nigeria to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. However, TV options in Ethiopia were limited, especially for Iwuji, who was interested in Western media.

They would only start at 6 p.m., and they usually showed Russian propaganda movies. To make up for it, the family would watch pirated VHS cassettes at night, which is how Iwuji came across the 1964 feature adaptation of the British historical drama “Becket,” starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. Although the story was far removed from his life, Iwuji was mesmerized by it.

His exposure to Western media helped him adjust when he flew to the United Kingdom to attend boarding school in Surrey two years later. “Long before I arrived in England, I felt I knew the West. I knew England. I knew America,” Iwuji says. He found excitement in the idea of travel and going somewhere new, and he was the one who missed Nigeria the least.

It wasn’t until Iwuji was well into his undergraduate studies at Yale University that he began to consider acting as a profession. On a whim, he auditioned for a play, Ntozake Shange’s “From Okra to Greens,” and to his surprise, he landed a role.

Even while pursuing his economics degree, Iwuji continued to act as much as he could in his spare time. Everything fell into place for him when, during his junior year, he came across an audition notice for “Becket” and snagged the title role after a successful audition.

After his opening night performance, the head of undergraduate drama offered him a full scholarship to a graduate acting conservatory, which confirmed to Iwuji that he wanted to be an actor.

Iwuji’s good luck continued when he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company after his first audition in 2001. He headlined shows like “Henry VI” in theaters across the United Kingdom and the United States within five years.

Read more Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’ Spacesuits Have ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ Vibes in New Set Image

However, Iwuji still felt constrained despite his success. “I couldn’t lie to myself that the extent of my ambition was just to keep working,” he says. “I knew why I got into acting in the first place, and it was to do movies.”

Unfortunately, film auditions were rare, and the few that were available were being offered to Iwuji’s Black contemporaries in the United Kingdom, such as David Oyelowo, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Adrian Lester.

The tension between Iwuji’s aspirations and his opportunities was palpable, but he chose not to dwell on it. He acknowledged that he was lucky to be playing starring roles in high-end theater, but he also knew that he would have to leave England if he wanted a shot at a decent film role as a Black actor, as the only opportunities of interest for someone like him were coming out of America.

Chukwudi Iwuji: A Top Actor James Gunn Has Worked With in "Guardians of the Galaxy"

Jennifer Holland, Chukwudi Iwuji, Steve Agee, John Cena, and Danielle Brooks are all part of the cast of the HBO Max series “Peacemaker.” In 2012, Iwuji moved to New York City, but it took several years before he began landing film and TV roles, which were mostly one- to two-scene parts with little impact.

When his agent sent him an audition for the role of Clemson Murn on “Peacemaker,” Iwuji almost turned it down. He thought they should hire a more established Black actor for the part.

However, during quarantine, he decided to give it a shot and submitted a self-tape with his wife. His performance as an alien with empathy and integrity who takes over the body of a sociopathic mercenary impressed director James Gunn, who has a reputation for turning underrated actors into stars. Gunn later offered Iwuji the main villain role in “Guardians of the Galaxy 3.”

It took six weeks to arrange a screen test for the Marvel movie, but Iwuji ultimately landed the role. He was the only actor present during the screen test, and he admits that he was secretly hoping he would get the role without having to audition.

Chukwudi Iwuji: A Top Actor James Gunn Has Worked With in "Guardians of the Galaxy"

In a recent interview, Miriam Shor, Chukwudi Iwuji, and Nico Santos discussed their roles in the upcoming film “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.” Iwuji spoke about his character, the High Evolutionary, and described him as a combination of Dr. Moreau, Dr. Frankenstein, a James Bond villain, and Thanos, with a Shakespearean tragic flaw.

Despite his newfound fame, Iwuji has not forgotten his roots in Nigeria. In 2016, he founded Chudor House Prods. with his siblings, with the goal of bringing Western-style filmmaking to the Nigerian film industry, known as Nollywood. Iwuji believes that Nigeria has the resources to produce high-quality films, and wants to broaden Western expectations of African filmmaking beyond the stereotypical portrayals of African warriors or criminals.

Shor and Santos did not reveal much about their roles in the film, but expressed excitement to be a part of the Marvel universe. Santos joked that he was “obsessed with Marvel” and had already started preparing for his role by going to the gym.

Overall, the trio expressed gratitude for the opportunity to be a part of such a massive franchise, and looked forward to seeing the finished product on the big screen.


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