Chiwetel Ejiofor is hardly a newcomer: Over the past 15 years, he has appeared in key supporting roles of movies ranging from Spike Lee’s “Inside Man” to Woody Allen’s “Melinda and Melinda.” He starred in David Mamet’s “Redbelt” and wore drag in “Kinky Boots.” But none of those performances garnered the acclaim being heaped on to his top role in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” weeks ahead of its release. Powerfully received after screenings in Telluride and Toronto, McQueen’s tale of a kidnapped free man in the 1840’s who was sold into slavery features Ejiofor as real-life victim Solomon Northup. It’s a raw, intimate depiction that provides an empathic center to the horrors of the times. Almost immediately after its first public screening, “12 Years a Slave” generated serious discussion about Ejiofor as the Oscar frontrunner for Best Actor.
But he has also garnered acclaim for more than that: The role presents a risk for any actor, particularly one not know for such risky material. Ejiofor sat down with Indiewire in Toronto last weekend to discuss why he hesitated before accepting the role and then eventually managed to prepare himself for it.
After the first Telluride screening, McQueen said you passed on the role when he first offered it to you, but you said that you just needed more time to think about it. What were your reservations?
Well, I was caught in a tension that has two major components: First, there’s this story which has with it a huge responsibility — not only to tell the tale of Solomon Northup for him and his descendants, but also the story of the slave trade in America and specifically at this time what that means. So there was the pause of that, the pause of, “Wow, this is right there,” and the nature of the story as well. You know that it’s going be a set kind of experience. Then there was the other pause, which is slightly more complex in a way, which is the pause as a performer: You wait your whole life for opportunities to play these great parts and you’re hassling your agent, trying to read all these scripts, figuring all this stuff out. You’re doing that in order to get to the point where somebody sends you a great script and a great part and then it comes through the door and you think, “Can I do this? Am I capable of it?”
And you were afraid you weren’t capable of it?
That’s what I’m saying, yeah, that you want to know whether you are able to do it, whether you are good enough to do it.
Obviously McQueen thought you were.
Other people might think so, but you’re confronting yourself in that way, in that manner. Not that you necessarily ever expected to have that voice, and perhaps you always thought, “Anything that comes through my door, anything, I’ll dive straight on a plane through the air and I’m there.” This one was different, and it took me a moment to work out in both those parts what my feelings were about that and then I decided to try. I spoke to Steve and I said, “Well, listen, I’m going to give it a go.”
More practically, what did you do while considering the part?
Well, I went back to the book and I went back to the script, basically. And I felt that there were at least half a dozen moments when reading the script where I was like, “I can be inside this experience.”
The hanging [scene] and how that’s described in the book, and how it’s also described in the in the screenplay. I was like, “I understand this now, I am learning how to understand this now, and if I can understand it I can play it.
There’s a lot of other things to figure out: I have to learn how to play the violin, I have to get back in contact with my acting coach and my dialect coach and start trying to put all those elements together. I want to get out to the cotton fields. I want to start cutting down trees. I want to start hacking sugar cane. How do you do that?” Over the course of one evening and into the afternoon of the next day, that’s what I was looking for when I was re-reading everything.
Then I started to build my own sense of confidence. You’re like, “No, hang on, reduce the voice, put it aside and get on with it and get involved.” I suppose at that point when I spoke to Steve again the following day, there was something about it that was absolutely 100% from that moment, which is a commitment to it and a drive for it. But it was an interesting moment of pause to reflect on, if ever that comes up again — I think maybe you do need to do that as an actor and a performer. I think you do need to not just take it for granted that you’re always going to think, “Yeah, I’m in.” Sometimes your own sense of self is not quite where you thought it was.
I assume that it also depends on the material. I can’t imagine you’d think this hard about starring in a romcom.
Well, exactly. There’s a difference. It definitely required a moment for me, and I’m very glad that I took it. But looking back at it from this end, it would’ve been weird not to take it. I think this is a project that demanded that.
It sounds like you really took a method-like approach to the role, experiencing the actual work that slaves had to go through on plantations.
It turns out there’s a difference between all these things: What you think of slavery is one kind of homogenous idea, but there’s a difference between cutting down trees and cutting down sugar cane and picking cotton. A massive difference. Cutting down trees has a catharsis to it, a physical labor to it. It’s a way you can deal with your aggression in your life. Whatever is happening, you’ve got hours and hours of cutting down these trees and hacking through these things. That’s why, you know, Solomon creates these rafts and gets the gang to come in and start building something and you’re moving down the river and there’s activity there. It’s the same with sugar cane: It’s brutal collecting sugar cane, but you are fighting something.You might be fighting yourself. I’m sure a lot of the guys who experienced this were fighting something in them.
So you did it on your own before doing it on camera?
We went out to the timber places. I didn’t get to do the raft-making stuff beforehand, that was all done when we were there, but we went out to the cotton fields. Now, picking cotton is a completely different thing; picking cotton has no catharsis, no release, it’s blindingly hot. It was 108 degrees on the first day of shooting, with huge humidity. And these prickly leaves. You’re just trying to get this thing out of the thing and it’s maddening. So suddenly you’re realizing the actual plantation, of course, is a different world. It’s a different daily routine. The only thing that happens that interrupts the flow is the crack of the whip and people passing out. There’s something surreal about it, and that informs the rest of what is happening on that plantation. Understanding that, the details of it, was something that I couldn’t have comprehended from reading the script or even my knowledge of what happened in slavery. It’s just being there, being in Louisiana, and understanding the psychologies: This is what is informing it, this is part of what is informing everybody’s psychology.
That seems to get at the essence of why people are so affected by the film: It allows viewers to experience slavery in a visceral fashion. But there’s clearly not enough documentary evidence to really understand the full range of experiences this man went through. Did you have to read other texts or other history books to prepare?
The first point of reference for me was to go to the plantations, not just the ones we were shooting at but the other ones as well, finding out the histories of the ones all around that area and trying to figure out what was the overall sense of the place, what was going on. But then, Solomon’s book for that period is full of what was happening. Yes, we lose track of Solomon later on [in his life], but the period that we’re discussing in the book, it’s right there, uncovering the whole of the society, and sort of picks it apart. But there’s no substitute for getting down there. I was in one museum which talked about the slaver halls that were happening there, where they dedicate part of the plantation to this one slaver hall, which could have been massive.
They were trying to get to the munitions dump that was in New Orleans. When they got there they had about three to four hundred people to get the weapons, but the weapons had been moved, but not because of them. It was just that the information was a day out and they had been moved to somewhere else. If they had been able to get those weapons, they would’ve been able to pose a serious threat to the militias. So the slaves were rounded up, beheaded, and their heads were put on posts outside the slave huts. Finding out the context of what was happening was fascinating to me. And the specifics and the details of how people were responding to it: On that plantation the day of the beginning of that revolt, they just grabbed the son of the plantation owner and stabbed him and they nailed him to the door of the plantation and let him bleed out. That’s how it began. So understanding all that and fitting that kind of perspective into the narrative of Solomon Northup is when there’s a richness of that world — the details of that world and how it is so much like slipping down the rabbit hole into this surreal universe.
There are implications that your character sees a lot more than we witness over the course of the movie, give the span of time it covers.
Oh, of course, I mean, trying to condense that book into the space of a film is a great challenge. They did an amazing job because it’s still essentially obtained the same quality, but it’s obviously much reduced. I think the book should be taught in every school in the country, in the world. It’s a book that talks to what human respect essentially is and then the wider issues of human dignity. That is the starting point thematically.
People come out of the film in very emotional states. On the set, was that kind of emotion amplified or could you pull yourself away from that between takes, go home and sleep at night?
I think going home was better. Because otherwise you’d give it 100%, that was the calling, you want to try to give it 100% on the day so when the day wraps then you want to go out with everybody, you know, you want hang, chill, get dinner, couple of drinks somewhere, you know, talk.
Exactly. You’ll head into New Orleans a little bit. So then the following morning, bang, we’re back in. Now, between takes, that’s harder to accomplish anything like that. You are held in this kind of suspended place and you’re deeply involved in what is happening, what you’re witnessing, what you’re thinking, your character. You’re thinking about him in the context of the other things that have happened, and there’s nowhere to go.
Why do you think there haven’t been that many movies about slavery, much less good ones?
I don’t know the answer to that question, that’s the simple response, but I feel like it’s something that should have been looked at. Part of the issue that we face is because these things haven’t been looked at, you can’t really figure them out going forward unless you are prepared to evaluate and understand the past. We take it for granted sometimes that certain parts of our history are told and we take it for granted that we know all that stuff and we move forward along on that basis, but there are also massive gaps and we have to try to address them.
You mentioned there was this global dimension to the appeal of the text. Already, people have mentioned the fact that both you and Steve are British. What do you make of this perception that it took two Brits to make a seminal film about American slavery? Should that be part of the discussion?
Nothing is off the table in terms of what people want to discuss. I would say a couple things about that. I think that the first thing is that Americans made this film, Americans produced this film, Americans worked 90% of the crew, 90% of the cast. The idea that because there are a few British people — in key positions, don’t get me wrong — that it’s a British thing or whatever, is not true.
The fact that there was an international component to this film is a great advantage to it because there was an international component to the slave trade. The slave trade existed in so many regions of the world, all through South America, in America, in the West Indies, Britain was involved in it, I’m an Igbo — my family is Igbo from the South East of Nigeria, where hundreds and thousands of Igbo were taken from the South East and they were moved to Louisiana, so this is an international film. All of the diaspora is completely involved in the story. I think that it is a good thing in this film that there are different origins. You know, Steve McQueen is from the West Indies. It was basically a land war in the West Indies. There was slavery for sugar. You look at the Haitian revolution and obviously the story is about human respect, that again is an international issue. You can look at a very specific thing — it was very specifically an American story, but it has global elements.