Chiwetel Ejiofor on responsibility and the necessity of violence in '12 Years a Slave'
You've mentioned that your own Nigerian heritage was a strong point of reference in your preparation for this project.
Yes, it's huge. I was spending a lot of time in Nigeria while the film was in pre-production, filming “Half of a Yellow Sun”* in Calabar. Before leaving, I went to the slavery museum there, which commemorates the hundreds of thousands of Igbo people who were taken out of Calabar and into the slave trade. I'm Igbo myself, so that drew a very strong reaction from me, and it underlined to me that we were making a story of the Diaspora, of African and European history, too. My Nigerian heritage may not come directly into “12 Years a Slave,” but it's a major part of my work generally.
Steve McQueen's previous films ["Hunger" and "Shame"] were highly concerned with matters of bodily abuse, and "12 Years a Slave" very much follows suit. How heavily does his direction focus on the physical aspects of performance, and how much does he let you find those for yourself?
Steve's an all-encompassing director. He's always thinking about the emotional, psychological and physical aspects of a story at once. As an actor, your physical person is the canvas that you have to tell the story, and Steve is very engaged with that, but only when we actually came to do the physical work did we come to discuss its impact on Solomon's psychology – which was where our conversation had started. Physical activity – and abuse – is so vividly described in the book. It's so essential to both the psychology and the history, and that needed to be reflected in the film. In a way, once everything had been set up, that side of things became self-evident. It was something we didn't need to discuss too much.
The film has sparked a great deal of conversation – both supportive and critical – about the portrayal of violence and torture on screen. Did you anticipate any controversy in that regard?
Honestly, not really. Obviously any film about slavery is going to have moments of violence, so I'm not sure why some viewers were taken aback. Would people have an issue with a film about the Second World War having violence in it? No. That's simply the nature of what happened. So I don't think Steve was doing anything particularly out of the blue. I think he's actually been very selective in portraying violence; there are only about half-a-dozen instances of it in the film, far fewer than in the book. And the nature of them is appropriate; it's not gory. That's what Solomon Northup went through, along with so many others caught in that system. So if you fail to tell that part of the story, you may as well not tell it at all. And I think it was important that the story was told. I've always thought calling it "brutal" or "violent" is an unfair critique of the film. It's many more things than that.
Last question, and it's a bit of a cheeky one. But if it hadn't fallen to you, is there another actor whose Solomon Northup you would like to have seen?
That's a good question! I suppose it depends on which approach you were taking. I often questioned whether I was the person to do it, particularly when I was first starting on the film. But as I read the book, I saw where I connected with Solomon and the approach I wanted to take with him. But that could be different for another actor, who might interpret the material very differently; it's kind of a personal journey. I suppose I'm trying to avoid naming names!
*"Half of a Yellow Sun" is the feature film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's bestseller about sisters separated and united by the Nigerian-Biafran War, in which Ejiofor plays the liberal intellectual lover of Thandie Newton's protagonist. It premiered at Toronto last year, and will be released Stateside in July.