News Column

Chiwetel Ejiofor is unforgettable in compelling '12 Years a Slave'

October 24, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 24--One of the recurring names on best actor nomination lists for 2013 is bound to be Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gives an unforgettable performance in "12 Years a Slave."

In the drama based on a true story, he plays Solomon Northup, a free black musician of 1840s New York who is drugged, shackled and shipped off to the South. There he learns what it's like to live with constant indignities and horrific brutalities that should be unimaginable.

It's a role that the 36-year-old British actor of Nigerian descent approached with a sense of responsibility. Yet as difficult as it was to re-create what Northup endures, it also was a gift of sorts.

"I had expected everything to be this great challenge, and actually in the moment of it, I felt more the privilege actually of telling Solomon's story than the complications of telling the story (for me) personally," says Ejiofor (whose name is pronounced Chew-eh-tell Edge-ee-oh-for). "It felt like it was actually pushing me closer to his reality and I felt that was a good direction to be going."

"12 Years a Slave" is being described as possibly the most important movie of the year. Audiences have been leaving theaters moved and stunned, as a writer for Vulture.com said of a Telluride Film Festival screening: "It wasn't just that people broke down crying throughout -- though plenty in my audience did -- it's that during the closing credits, when I finally found it in me to stand and turn around, I looked back at faces that were shell-shocked to the core."

Ejiofor understands that response, which he has seen unfold during screenings. "I think what happened was I saw the shift in the audience that I'd experienced when I read the book and read the screenplay," he says by phone. "You go from that moment of watching something to that much more immersive experience of actually feeling it, as if you're there."

Adapted from the 1853 memoir by Northup, the movie recounts his fight to stay alive and maintain his sense of hope after being sold to a mild-mannered plantation owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) who hides from the ugliness that fuels his wealth.

Later, Northup is handed over to a monstrous tyrant (played fearlessly by Michael Fassbender) who uses religion to justify his actions when he's not terrorizing the men and women who pick his cotton. Eventually, Northup risks everything in a bid to regain his freedom after meeting a Canadian carpenter (Brad Pitt) who doesn't believe in slavery.

A busy actor whose credits include the original movie version of "Kinky Boots," the classic Christmas rom-com "Love Actually" (he was Keira Knightley's husband) and an acclaimed stage version of "Othello," Ejiofor says he had never read something so detailed about the day-to-day reality of living in servitude as "12 Years a Slave."

"I thought it was an extraordinary piece, just an amazing piece of material and an amazing character and journey. I was so moved by it. I also felt a kind of responsibility about it, the responsibility of telling that story," he says.

Moved by the story

Ejiofor went to Louisiana before shooting started to get a feel for the place and visit some plantations. During rehearsals, he notes, the actors discussed things more from a psychological point of view than an emotional one. Their task was to not shy away from the disturbing scenarios they had to play out.

"From the book and from the screenplay, what happened to those people in that time was quite clear. I think our responsibility was just to try and tell that story as truthfully as we could."

The movie was shot at Louisiana plantations in the middle of summer, where the soaring temperatures and surrounding history helped fuel the performances. As the film's British director, Steve McQueen, told the Los Angeles Times, "The fact of being on a plantation does something to you. It's like being at the scene of the crime. And yet it's also extraordinarily beautiful. It's an odd thing to be around."

Despite the painful subject matter, the mood on the set was relaxed and supportive. "A lot of people, the cast and crew, were just very keen to tell the story, were excited to tell it, were very moved by it and were just really engaged by it and wanted to come together and tell the story," Ejiofor says.

That sense of unity is typical of projects helmed by McQueen, who's had prior critical hits with 2008's "Hunger," about an IRA prison hunger strike, and 2011's "Shame," a portrait of a sex addict, both starring Fassbender.

"It's a very special place to be," says Ejiofor of McQueen's set.

With Oscar talk building for "12 Years a Slave," Ejiofor is also in the spotlight for his new cable mini-series, "Dancing on the Edge," about a jazz band in 1930s London, which debuted Saturday on the Starz network. But at the moment, he's not thinking about what's next or whether he's ready for the approaching award season spotlight.

"We'll see what happens," he says cautiously. "But I'm just thrilled about the film, so I'm excited to get it out there and have people discuss it. I'm deeply proud of it. I'm about as happy as I can be as an actor right now."

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