Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave,' directed by Steve McQueen.
Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave,' directed by Steve McQueen.

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?

12 Years A Slave

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."

For example?

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.