In The Biographical Drama ‘ROb Peace,’ Chiwetel Ejiofor Reframes A Life

This image released by Sundance Institute shows Jay Will in a scene from "Rob Peace" by Chiwetel Ejiofor, an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Gwen Capistran/Sundance Institute via AP)
This image released by Sundance Institute shows Jay Will in a scene from "Rob Peace" by Chiwetel Ejiofor, an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Gwen Capistran/Sundance Institute via AP)
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PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — Chiwetel Ejiofor had read Jeff Hobbs’ “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” years before Antoine Fuqua asked if he might consider writing and directing an adaptation.

The book, which explores the complex life of a brilliant boy who grew up in the crime ridden and blighted Orange, New Jersey, was written by Peace’s old Yale roommate. His story did not fit neatly into familiar tropes about rough beginnings, incarcerated fathers or overly simplistic ideas about success and “getting out.” This was a person who wanted to remain tied to his community, to his father, and also to succeed in his schooling and athletics (water polo) first at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark and then at Yale where he studied molecular biochemistry and biophysics.

Nine years after he graduated from university, in which he spent time teaching at his old prep school, traveled extensively, considered grad school and made money selling marijuana, Peace was killed. Some of the narratives chalked it up to the fact that he went back to where he came from. Ejiofor said Peace’s mother told them that in the aftermath of his death, television crews came and filmed the garbage on the streets instead of the community.

But Hobbs and, subsequently, Ejiofor saw something more complicated and nuanced about the flawed idea of “social mobility” and about the “confluence of race, housing, education and the criminal justice system.” And, most importantly, he felt like he hadn’t seen these ideas engaged with in film.

“I thought it was very special and very powerful,” Ejiofor told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “It was sort of coincidental that I had had this big response to the book, but I hadn’t pursued it in any way. I jumped at the opportunity.”

Fuqua, who had teamed up with Hobbs’ wife, Rebecca, to adapt the film, thought Ejiofor would be the right person after seeing his feature debut, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” about a 13-year-old boy in Malawi who gets inventive after his family can no longer afford school.

“I knew it was meant to be a film,” Antoine Fuqua wrote in an email. “It was clear that (Chiwetel’s) humanistic approach to storytelling was a perfect fit to bring Rob’s life to screen.”

“Rob Peace” is having its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday, where it hopes to find a distributor to get it out to the world.

“Movies like this need to be loved into existence, and that takes a village,” said producer Alex Kurtzman, who got close to Ejiofor while directing him in “The Man Who Fell to Earth” series. “You don’t make movies like this for money. You don’t make movies like this for any reason other than this is an important story to tell. And some reason, we are lucky enough to be able to tell it.”

To play Rob, who would have to carry the film and live in the very different worlds he traversed in his life, Ejiofor and his casting director found Jay Will, a recent Juilliard graduate.

“I never felt that it was a story about somebody who was able to play a role in different places,” Ejiofor said. “It was a story about somebody who very naturally and consistently was all of these things at once. You really had to invest and believe that about him. Jay very naturally did that because that’s part of his experience as well. He’s also just a fabulous actor and has this great charisma and real charm.”

The performance is a meaty showcase for a fresh face who had done some television, including “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and Taylor Sheridan’s “Tulsa King,” which had not yet come out.

Mary J. Blige was already on board to play his mother, Jackie, and Camila Cabello plays an on and off girlfriend Naya. Ejiofor cast himself in the role of the father, Skeet, self-aware enough to know that because it was in his wheelhouse, he’d just be directing another actor to play him as he would.

“He’s kind of a of mercurial character in a way,” Ejiofor said. “There has to be a sequence of question marks about him, but you also have to be very compelled by him. And Rob’s journey is pulled by that sort of magnetic link he has to this to his father.”

As with “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” the director-actor, father-son dynamic actually ended up helping the film, too.

Kurtzman marveled at Ejiofor’s ability to elegantly and calmly navigate three very different roles — writer, director and actor — under the high pressure environment of making a low-budget indie in just 28 days with no money for overtime.

“I never saw him crack, break, get stressed ever,” Kurtzman said. “That he was able to hold space for all of those three things at the same time and know how to put them in a box while the clock was ticking, that’s a true artist.”

Equally important to Ejiofor was to make the film look beautiful. He’d been appalled by the story of the TV crews and the garbage and sought out “Beanpole” and “The Last of Us” cinematographer Ksenia Sereda to realize this vision.

“What she’s done here is elevated this with a real elegance and beauty and a style of telling the story, which doesn’t necessarily feel like we’ve seen before within this kind of cinematic experience,” he said.

All of these facets work together to upend stereotypes and expectations. Ejiofor wants audiences to have a sense of hope in Rob’s story as well as to feel enriched by knowing him.

“By the end of the film, you’re not just left with this bleakness. It’s obviously a tragic story, but it’s much, much richer than that,” he said. “Understanding his journey, I think, is profoundly important and enriching and enlightening. It has been for me.”

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This story has been updated to correct that Peace grew up in Orange, not East Orange.