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'12 Years a Slave' Star Chiwetel Ejiofor On Working With Steve McQueen and the International Appeal of the Drama

Indiewire By Noah Taylor | Indiewire September 9, 2013 at 3:54PM

“12 Years a Slave” tells the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free man who was forced to live a life of servitude from 1841 to 1853 after being abducted and sold into slavery. Northrup wrote a memoir about these experiences that served as the primary source material for the film, directed by Steve McQueen (“Hunger," “Shame”). Indiewire's Anne Thompson had a chance to talk to Chiwetel Ejiofor, the actor tasked with embodying Nothrup’s emotional journey, at the TIFF Filmmakers' Lounge over the weekend. For the full list of upcoming chats go HERE.
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12 Years A Slave

“12 Years a Slave” tells the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free man who was forced to live a life of servitude from 1841 to 1853 after being abducted and sold into slavery. Northrup wrote a memoir about these experiences that served as the primary source material for the film, directed by Steve McQueen (“Hunger," “Shame”).  Indiewire and Thompson On Hollywood's Anne Thompson had a chance to talk to Chiwetel Ejiofor, the actor tasked with embodying Nothrup’s emotional journey, at the TIFF Filmmakers' Lounge over the weekend. For the full list of upcoming chats go HERE.

“12 Years a Slave” is has been hailed as a major cinematic accomplishment since first premiering in Telluride (go HERE for Indiewire's glowing review). It will see a limited release October 18th, but with the buzz that already building, this one is soon to be on everyone’s radar. Below are the highlights from our conversation:

On the adapting the autobiography to film:

“I think it has been done very successfully because it still keeps and maintains the essential essence of the story in the autobiography without adapting it to cinema in a way that changes something about its essential quality. It’s an extraordinarily poetic and visual autobiography, it really allows you to be there and be inside the experience. It’s a very precious historical document I think and real way of accessing the past in a way that I think is unique. It’s almost like Solomon Northrup’s gift to the modern world, if we are going to enter a dialogue about human respect and human dignity and what it means.”

Understanding Solomon’s psychology:

One of the most difficult scenes to shoot was one where Solomon is strung up all day in the sun, with only the tips of his toes supporting his weight. For Ejiofor, this scene became crucial in his understanding of the character.

“That scene is a moment of change in the autobiography; it’s a moment of change in the film. It was an important scene for me in terms of getting into Solomon’s psychology. One of the things I’ve always wondered having read the script, and I’d read it a few times and the book and I was still trying to work out the specifics of Solomon in the sense of how did survive this with his psychology intact? How can you get through something like this and then still be able write a book about it? A first person narrative about some of the things that happened to him just seemed unbelievable. There was something so extraordinary in the book that he says about that experience and to me it was the key into some part of his psychology, he says 'I would have given more years of servitude if they had only moved me into the shade.' And I thought that’s an extraordinary thing to put on paper years later. This is a man who is going to survive the situation no matter what. This is a person whose soul is not going to be broken by this.”

How Fassbender taught him to dance with McQueen:

This is the first McQueen film where Michael Fassbender doesn’t play the lead; he does however take a supporting role as the cruel slave owner Edwin Epps. Ejiofor talks about how this helped him find his own rhythm with the director.

“It’s a dance; you have to learn how to dance with one another. It’s not just an immediate thing and it’s definitely not a given, you might never find a way to dance with somebody. I think we had a bit of luck that Michael was on at the beginning of the movie. Steve has done these two incredible films with this guy and then he has another person come in and he wants to capture the same energy but it’s a different person who has different characteristics, so how do you immediately give over your trust to this new guy? It’s complicated; we had to find out about each other, what our expectations were of each other and the kind of people we were.  Having Michael there for the first few weeks turned out to be this incredibly interesting conduit and through watching them, I learned their language. Like a child does, through watching the way that they communicated and the way that they spoke about it, I learned the way of filmmaking and actor/ director relations that he’s interested in.”

Working with an international cast and crew to tell an American story:

It took collaboration of talent from all over the world to bring this story to the screen. While some may view it as quintessentially American, Ejiofor sees the subject as being universal.

“The history of slavery and the complication of slavery is that it is an international concept. It is something that effected people who were our people. For example there were people from the west of Nigeria who were taken by the hundreds of thousands and brought to Louisiana. I’m Igbo, my family is Igbo. So it is a story that I’m connected to. Steve McQueen is from the West Indies, the slave trade in the West Indies was huge, it was vast, it was vicious, it was brutal. We are connected in the diaspora through this experience. We’re not separated by it, we are connected through it. To tell a story about human respect should take an international cast and crew.”

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