Chiwetel Ejiofor on responsibility and the necessity of violence in '12 Years a Slave'
Chiwetel Ejiofor's recent BAFTA win for Best Actor was a sweet victory for the 36-year-old actor, and not just because it came on home turf. Eight years previously, the Londoner scored (and lost) his first BAFTA nod in the Rising Star category. Last Sunday's win, atop a slew of recent honors for his imposing turn as freeman-turned-slave Solomon Northup in "12 Years a Slave" -- including, of course, his first Oscar nomination -- underlined the fact that his star has now risen. Long a promising standout in films as diverse as "Dirty Pretty Things," "Kinky Boots" and "Redbelt," the stage-trained star has now asserted himself as a leading man of formidable presence and intelligence.
Ejiofor caught up with us by phone from New Zealand -- where he's currently shooting Craig Zobel's sci-fi project "Z for Zachariah" alongside Chris Pine and Margot Robbie -- to discuss his approach to Steve McQueen's film, its personal impact on him and his briefly-held reservations about taking on the role.
HitFix: This is a film that elicits visceral emotional reactions from viewers. Even after having lived with it for so long, was it a jolt when you first saw the finished product?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: Normally, if you're lucky, the idea of a film you have in your head is more or less what you get back when you see it after the editing and the whole post-production process. This was very different, however, since the final product was so far past anything I had even imagined: the style of it, the cinematography, the feel of it, the depth of passion. Every component of it just comes together in such an overwhelming way. So when I first saw it, I became entirely caught up in the story, as if I was hearing it for the first time, as if I wasn't even a part of it.
The script is written with a great love for language. There's an elevation and formality to it that's quite unusual in contemporary film. As a classically trained actor, did you find that?
I really responded to the language in the script. There's a poetry and a humility to the way Solomon writes, and the way John Ridley has interpreted it, that has a sort of classical refrain and restraint. That really moved and engaged me. It definitely reminded me of a more classical text.
How familiar were you, if at all, with Solomon Northup's story beforehand?
Well, I came on board about a year before we started shooting. Steve had sent me the script the previous summer, so I had lived with it for a while. I had never heard of Solomon Northup or his book; I didn't even know anything about the idea of kidnapping people from the north and selling them into slavery. Once I was familiar with the book, of course, it seemed so much less surprising, like something everyone should know about. One thing that's been particularly amazing about this process has been bringing the book back into the public consciousness. It's such a vital historical record; it'd be tragic if it were lost or forgotten.
When doing a historical and biographical project of this nature, how extensive is your research process? Do you consume everything you can, or can that stifle intuition?
You do as much research as you can for any project. Obviously if you're doing a historical drama, so much of it is just there: Solomon wrote directly about his experience, but also about his process. So much is available to you there that isn't available in other contexts. As an actor, that's a beautiful gift; it makes you want to play the part just to understand it. But obviously you also want to know about the time, the geography, the references. I used the book as a template, but could also bring to it my own knowledge of the slave trade, acquired over years. I've always been a believer in research. It's great to have an instinctual human reaction to a character, too, of course, but it has to be countered with knowledge and understanding.
How heavy is the burden of responsibility when taking on a project like this? Do you feel you're playing more than a character, or try to put that out of your mind?
Initially I felt that responsibility very sharply, and it actually gave me pause before doing the project. The idea of making a film – a film that I had certainly never seen before – about the slave experience was a huge responsibility. It's a project that requires a wider understanding of the geopolitical nature of the slave trade, of historical and modern-day racism. That was a lot of pressure. But I came to realize that I was thinking with the wrong side of my head. My responsibility in the film was to Solomon Northup himself, to play him as accurately as I could based on the information I had, and not to worry about the wider implications. So that simplified it for me, and allowed me to approach it in an open way.
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