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Oscar Watch Q & A: Chiwetel Ejiofor Embodies Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen’s ’12 Years a Slave’

Oscar Watch Q & A: Chiwetel Ejiofor Embodies Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen's '12 Years a Slave'

12 Years a Slave” broke out at the Telluride, Toronto and New York Film Festivals, as audiences and critics immersed themselves in Steve McQueen and John Ridley’s hard-hitting film adaptation of the memoir of musician Solomon Northup, a free Bostonian who was kidnapped and sold into slavery from 1841 to 1853.  

“12 Years a Slave” and its British star Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Kinky Boots”) leaped to the top of the Oscar prediction charts, along with Alfonso Cuaron’s critical and box office hit “Gravity.” October 18, Fox Searchlight opens “12 Years a Slave.” (See the NYT feature on the film, my interviews with Ridley and producer Dede Gardner.)

Chiwetel Ejiofor sat down with me at Indiewire’s Film Talk series in Toronto.

Anne Thompson: Your film is getting an extraordinary reaction. Congratulations. How did the film come to you?

Chiwetel Ejiofor: I had a phone call from Steve and he started talking about this film he wanted to send me. We filmed about a year ago, so this was maybe a year before that. I read the script and it was an amazing story, and terrifying to start thinking about how to embody this guy and tell this story. It seemed so impossible at the time. It took me a minute to try and figure out how to approach it. The classic thing as an actor is that you wait all the time for a great script and then when it comes, you wonder if you can do that or if you’re ready to do that. It’s so converse, really.

Were you frightened? This movie immerses you in the pain of what these people experienced, and you knew as an actor, presumably, you’d have to experience some of it too.

CE: It was more that I was kind of aware of the responsibility of it. If we were going to tell a story like this, about this subject and in a way that I would feel satisfied with, then one would then need to try and communicate to an audience a real degree, which would be some percentage, it would have to be on the chart somehow of the real experience to communicate that. 100 or so years after the event, to get a sense of that was going to be very complicated. I started conversations with Steve about it and he is somebody that, I didn’t need any convincing. I just needed to think about it. So I went back to the book and back to the script, and I called him and said, “I’d love to try and see if we can do this.”

Can you talk about the difference between the book and the script?

CE: The difference essentially is that it’s edited. To try and tell the story of the book, it had to be cut down, which I think has been done to my estimation very successfully because it still keeps and retains the central essence of the story in the autobiography without adapting it to cinema in the way that changes something about its essential quality. It’s an extraordinarily poetic and visual autobiography that really allows you need to be there and be inside the experience. It’s a very precious historical document, and a real way of accessing the past in a way that is unique. It’s almost like Solomon Northup’s gift to the modern world, if we are going to enter a dialogue about human respect and human dignity, and what it means.

It seemed that it was important to Steve that this story be about someone who was a free man, who stood tall, who was confident, really successful, and then brought down. That made a difference in telling this story.

CE: Absolutely. It allows us a way to get into the story, it allows us a point of reference, it allows anybody who’s watching the story to know one of us and hopefully never will be in those circumstances. None of us have had our liberties taken away in that way. To try and tell a story about somebody who was already in the slave experience or has been born into it or alternatively, has been taken from another country and moved into it, for us, now, it’s very hard for us to find a way into that, what the psychology would be, what the mentality of people, that’s 99% of the people, the vast majority of people in the slave experience had that experience of being taken from another country. I don’t imagine it’s very hard to find a way into that for us. But, what we could do, is find a way into Solomon’s story so then we can see ourselves in it and relate to it, and that’s a prism through which we can look at the whole peculiar institution and its real, extraordinary terror.

How did you shoot the film?

CE: We shot out of sequence. Initially I was excited about the idea of shooting in sequence, and that seemed to make sense for this kind of odyssey. But because of people’s schedules, we ended up starting on the Epps plantation, and actually that ended up being an incredibly formative way of doing it, going back it then become a strangely creative process in itself. Now that we know what’s going to happen to the guy, how do we start the story? In the end I think that was a helpful way to do it, and I have never had to this day shot a film in sequence. I’ve always wanted to do that because I’ve always assumed that it’s going to be a helpful way to shoot a movie but that’s just an assumption. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true.

He starts out relating to the Benedict Cumberbatch character, trying to grab seeds of affection and feel that sense of a job well done.

CE: I don’t know if it’s a pat on the back that he’s looking for but it’s an acknowledgement of your humanity and that you are a person and that’s what, in a way, Master Ford offers. He says, “I am a slaver but I consider you to be a person.” Actually within that context, that’s a hugely valuable thing to suddenly feel you are a person again and have something to contribute to the world. Also, through that relationship, he believes that there is going to be a way eventually to get out because of the friendship that develops. Obviously that’s taken away and he also realizes that there may be no way and that’s the dawning realization. Then as that is happening he gets sent off to the Epps plantation.

How do you feel about long takes?

CE: Steve is a director who likes to go into the heart of what is hardest. In some of the sequences the easier thing to do is to cut away. It’s easier to organize as a filmmaker, it’s easier to get the performances and the different situations you want to do, and it plays into something slightly simpler to achieve, especially for some of the complicated emotional pitches that we’re going for. Steve’s not interested in any of that. He’s interested in trying to find the heart, the root cause, the emotional beat of it, so he feels, and I think quite rightly, that if the performers are firing on enough cylinders that they can achieve these pitches as cleanly and honestly as anything else. He expects a lot, which is a great thing. He’s encouraging but he expects a lot and so you feel like, “well, I’ll do that.”

The most difficult scene, perhaps one the whole movie is working toward, involves a terrible flogging. Was that the most difficult scene for you to participate in?

CE: The flogging was always a very complicated sequence for the double reason that it’s very emotional but also psychologically there’s something else that’s going on which is that Epps forces Solomon to beat Patsy. And of course that is, in a sense, as close to a psychological break because the perversion is kind of complete. There’s a sense of a resolve at that point, which I felt in the book as well actually. When I’m watching the film, the sense of resolve after that is, “I’m going to get out of here, I’m actually going to go,” which is a peculiar thing to say even to yourself within the context of being a slave for 12 years but with no real way of getting out of the situation. But I feel like there’s a difference between having a resolve that is like, “I’m going to find a way, look for an opportunity, do whatever I can.” It reminds me of a great line that [Adrien] Brody gives in “The Pianist,” where he turns around at a moment in the Warsaw Ghetto and says, “I’ve got to get out of here.” You feel that moment of change then suddenly the difference opens up to you. After he beats Patsy, it’s a different conversation he’s having with himself, he’s realizing something else and it leads him on a path out.

You start out so tall and strong and you end up stooped over and you have these lines of men standing there drooping. That was very evocative of the horror and it put us through a great deal of pain. Was it difficult to be quiet and reactive?

CE: It was complex, it was interesting. Steve and I had spoken about this in terms of a fairytale a lot when we started the process, and just that idea of somebody just slipping down the rabbit hole. It’s that kind of “Alice in Wonderland” feeling, and that kind of “Pinocchio” feeling where the two guys who lead you away. Once you’re down the rabbit hole and you’re in Louisiana, the first day of shooting was 108 degrees and I was out picking cotton and with huge humidity levels. That experience after awhile started to take on a kind of surreal quality and you started to feel as though you had slipped down the rabbit hole into this insane parallel universe that was almost science fiction, that you had gone into an alien world. At that point, for all of us as a community, those kind of moments of reflection and looking at what we’d done and what this character had gone through and in the context of the film we were doing to each other, allowed those moments to take on their own quality which is what Steve encouraged and captured.

Why do you think it took a few Brits to make this movie happen?

CE: The history of slavery and the complication of slavery is that it is an international concept. It is something that affected people who are Igbo, for example, people from the west in Nigeria were taken by the hundreds and thousands, by the millions, and brought to Louisiana. I’m Igbo, my family is Igbo. I went to some of the Igbo pits where they initially chained Igbos in Savannah Georgia, so it is a story I am connected to. Steve McQueen is from the West Indies. The slave trade in the West Indies was huge, vast and vicious, it was a massive thing. We are connected in the diaspora through this experience. We’re not separated by it. So I think it takes, to tell a story about human respect should take an international cast and crew, there were people from so many different walks of life and places and races and cultures on our cast and crew, and every step of the way I felt that was the right thing.

Tell us about your other film in Toronto.

CE: “Half a Yellow Sun” is based on a Chimamanda Adichie novel and it is this kind of beautiful, romantic tale set amidst a very troubling time in Nigeria, which was the Nigerian-Biafran War. We’ve gone through quite a lot and one of the things we went through was the war that began with the pogroms and the Igbos in the mid-1960s and ended with the separation of Biafra into a new state, new country and the declaration of war between Nigeria and Biafra. It was a civil war that killed three million people. My grandfather went through it. He worked for a mining corporation in the North.

Audience: Tell us about that scene where you’re hanging by rope, it seems like, all day and your feet are barely touching the ground.

CE: That scene was a moment of change for me in the autobiography and in the film. It was an important scene for me in terms of getting into Solomon’s psychology. One of the things I always wondered was, having read the script a few times, I was still trying to work out the specifics of Solomon and the sense of how did he survive this, how can you get through something like this and be able to write a book about it, a first person narrative about some of the things that happened to you that just seem unbelievable. And that was one of the sequences. There was something so extraordinary in the book, what he says about that experience, and to me it was the key into some part of his psychology. He says in the book, “I would have given more years of servitude if they had only moved me into the shade.”

That’s an extraordinary thing to think and then to put on paper years later. This is a man who is learning to survive this situation no matter what. This is a person whose soul is not going to be broken by this. He has a joy for life and a connection to life that is supreme and amazing, and that is what puts him in a completely different universe from the people around him who are trying to break him. When we came to shoot that scene, I was aware that this was a moment of real difference. In those beats of the book and the story and the film when we are really representing something almost as it happened, I felt the incredible weight of responsibility but also the excitement in trying to do that. So I knew that on that day Steve was going to try and get it as real as possible, so I hung there. We had a wire. It was uncomfortable, it was rough, it was all day, going up and down all day in long takes for hours at a time. For me, just to find that I could get into the soul in some small way of what he might be going through that day and how much he was keeping himself alive was incredibly moving and valuable.

Audience: How long did it take you to get in sync with Steve?

CE: It’s a dance. You’ve got to learn how to dance. It’s not just an immediate thing and it’s definitely not a given, and you may never find a way to dance with someone. We had a bit of luck that Michael [Fassbender] was on the movie for the first three weeks. Steve has done two incredible films with this guy and he has another person come in and he wants to capture some of the same energy, but it’s a different person with a different set of characteristics. So how do you immediately give over your trust to this other guy? It’s complicated, so we had to find out what are expectations were of each other and what kind of people we were. I’ve known Steve for a long time but we always talked in the context of pitches that we maybe wanted to do. We were for a long time talking about a film about Fela Kuti, which was going to come after “Hunger.” It would have been a different then, but because of the order of his filmography, it was interesting to try to dance with Steve and get that rapport, but it’s never going to be a given. Having Michael there for the first three 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 they communicated, I learned the language of filmmaking and actor/director relations that he’s interested in.

Audience: How much rehearsal time did you have?

CE: We rehearsed for a few days a couple of weeks before we started shooting and then because of the nature of the shoot, we were able to rehearse every Sunday. New people were coming in every week. Every weekend there’d be a whole new group of people turning up. One week it’d be Cumberbatch and the next week it’s [Paul] Giamatti. On a Sunday you could gather round with the people that were going to start the next phase and go through the sequences for that week which was fascinating, and it allowed me an interesting arc over this odyssey.

Audience: Was there anything emotionally that you felt was hard for you to get into based on the book? When you went home was the film still going through your brain?

CE: It was definitely something that you carry through. Every day has that tension of, “can I do this today? Can I go to this place on a Wednesday afternoon?” That’s when working with other people really helps. When you look somebody in the eye and know, “yeah, it’s on, we’re going to try and do this.” And if you have that feeling, Steve never wanted anyone to leave their work and feel like, “I could have done more, I could have gone an extra yard.” That’s a horrible feeling. What’s the point? The only feeling you want to get is, “that’s everything I could do today, that’s the limitations of me.” You’re engaged in this journey and every time we pushed it to this place, we were rewarded in a way by scenes that worked, or moments that worked, or finding something we wouldn’t have found if we didn’t push it all the way in a certain direction. It always carried with me. We tried to make sure that “cut” meant cut as well, and that the end of the day was the end of the day, we’ll pick it up tomorrow, but let’s go hang out, have dinner and relax.

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