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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.
3

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?

"12 Years a Slave."
Fox Searchlight "12 Years a Slave."

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.

Freedom.

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.

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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