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'12 Years a Slave' Star Chiwetel Ejiofor Explains Why He Was Worried About Whether He Could Pull Off the Role

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 12, 2013 at 9:40AM

Powerfully received after screenings in Telluride and Toronto, Steve McQueen's tale of a kidnapped free man in the 1840's who was sold into slavery features Chiwetel 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.
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12 Years A Slave

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.

READ MORE: Steve McQueen Explains Why the World Is Ready For '12 Years a Slave'

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.

This article is related to: Interviews, Features, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave, Fox Searchlight, Toronto International Film Festival, Period Drama





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