Interview: '12 Years a Slave' Star Chiwetel Ejiofor on Solomon Northup
by Alex Billington
September 24, 2013
"I don't want to survive… I want to live." Portraying the true story of Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen's newest film 12 Years a Slave, actor Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers an extraordinarily powerful, nuanced, emotional, and brutal yet heartfelt performance, one of the finest seen on screen this year. Chiwetel is yet another British actor with a unique name that many cinephiles have come to love, thanks to a diverse career with highlights including Dirty Pretty Things, Serenity, Kinky Boots, Children of Men, American Gangster, Redbelt and 2012 recently. I first met Chiwetel back in 2008 for an interview about Redbelt, and was lucky to catch up with him again in 2013 for a chat about playing Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave. Read on.
I've screened 12 Years a Slave twice already (read my Telluride review), being moved to tears both times, most often at shots of Ejiofor's face near the end. It was a tremendous honor to sit down with Chiwetel, who certainly deserves all the acclaim this year, and chat about crafting this character. We often reference the book the real Solomon Northup wrote after his experiences, which can be read online in full for free here. Without further ado, here's my full interview with Chiwetel Ejiofor conducted in person in New York City…
More than anything, congrats.
Chiwetel Ejiofor: Thank you, thank you.
My first question: did you expect this kind of response when you were going in and making it? I know reading the script you could figure this was going to have an impact, but this kind of appreciation and response to it?
Ejiofor: Well, I mean it's kind of been incredible… I don't think you could ever do a project and expect [laughs]… Otherwise, you'd spend most of your life very disappointed to expect this kind of response to the work that you've done. Obviously, what you want is to be proud of it yourself and to feel that then, by extension, other people will like it. When I read the script I thought it was an incredible story, an amazing script. And when I read the biography, I recognized that he was an extraordinary man, Solomon Northup. And then, you know, you know that you are going to be working with Steve McQueen and he is an incredible filmmaker. And you've got this great cast of people that goes so deep… the cast. It's like Real Madrid or something. It's like some sort of crazy good football team that you… you know that, obviously, the experience of working with Michael Fassbender is going to be interesting, especially in these parts, and engaging. But then there's Paul Dano, and there's Benedict Cumberbatch, and there's Sarah Paulson, and Lupita Nyong'o, who is amazing, and there's Alfre Woodard. You're aware that all those elements are there, as well as a great [Director of Photography] in Sean Bobbitt. I mean, Joe Walker is an editor that I think is so detailed and just does remarkable stuff.
So you go in and you are very hopeful that all those elements are going to combine. You shoot. It felt good, the shooting. It was tough but it felt like we were getting that story across. And then the film is taken away and you don't know what's really happening. There's some conversations with… I had a couple of conversations with Steve where he was saying that he was really happy with it and was excited about showing me. And then months later you see the film.
I saw it in London the first time. It was so beyond my expectation. I was hoping all these elements would come together and create what I had in my mind, was a really strong and powerful film. What Steve went away and did was something really, I thought, just extraordinary and just so rich, and textured, and layered. It's the story, but it's also about this psychology. I thought he created something remarkable.
I admire the roles you take and the diversity you have in the various unique performances you've given. What was it about this one - 12 Years a Slave? Was it simply the script and Steve McQueen that made the difference in doing this?
Ejiofor: Well, my first instinct… I've known Steve for quite a while. We talked about other projects before which hadn't panned out. But it's a funny thing, because my instinct was to… I read the script and I felt the weight of the responsibility of telling Solomon Northup's story, the weight of the responsibility of telling a story that was so inside the slave experience. And I didn't know if I could do it, simply. It's that funny thing. I've explained this before, actually.
It's a weird thing when you spend your life trying to find these great scripts and great parts. You are reading scripts, you are traveling the world, you are hassling your agent. You are trying to find that script. Then you get sent this script and it's a great script and a great part, and your first instinct is, "I don't know if I can do this. Is this for me? Is this in me? Can I go to these places that I need to go to in order to make this real?" I've never tried that before and I can't… fail because the story is so important and it's a man's life and his descendants and this story of slavery which hasn't been told in this way before.
So, there was a part of me that kind of wasn't sure. And it took me about a day, about 24 hours, I think…
What made you feel more confident enough that you could do it?
Ejiofor: Well, because I went back to the script and then I went back to the book. The book, once I really started to look at the book, the book I figured… what I realized was that I had to forget everything else and think about Solomon Northup. My mistake had been that I was looking at it as a story, of an overarching story and it's this incredible tale of this man's life. But what I hadn't seen in the first couple times looking at it was the man himself. And I realized when I was looking back over the biography and I felt, "Well, if you can get the man, if you can go towards the man himself, then you can tell this story. And if you can find that you can connect with this person, then the rest of it you don't have to worry about. You just have to find this guy." And there were a couple of moments in it. You know, I was talking in a press conference about the moment when he's hanging from the tree and says in the book, "I would have given more years of servitude if they'd only move me into the shade." And I felt like, "I've got to find this guy. I'm going to have to try to find the guy who says that and what his soul is." You know, where that depth of resilience comes from.
Ejiofor: And that suddenly intrigued me. That suddenly was my key into telling the story. I called Steve and said, "Yeah, I want to try and tell this story." And then everything is off to the races. Then you are trying to learn how to play violin. Then you are off to the plantations. Then you are starting to pull in all of the elements that you need. But it was a sense of recognizing that this is, for me, it was telling the story of Solomon Northup [that] was important, not telling the story of slavery or telling the story of… you know what I mean? Those were the other parts of it that would come out, but the key to all of that is him.
Of course. In the book it mentions, and it's portrayed so perfectly in the film, the way he says: "My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine" what it all means, focusing on as you are saying, "the man".
Ejiofor: Exactly. It's this very humble, eloquent, beautiful, poetic voice that is so special to me. And I think that was really when I started to think, "Ohhh, okay. There's a uniqueness to this person deep within this experience that can really potentially tell this story, that can shout it out." From deep in the slave hut is somebody calling over 150 years to all of our experiences and all of our ideas on human respect, and all of our ideas on dignity. And I felt like that's just incredibly powerful.
Why do you think this film was made at this time? Is there something about this time where it will resonate more with audiences?
Ejiofor: I don't think so. I think the film should have been made before. But, at the same time, it's a film that I'm very glad is being made now because I'm glad to be a part of it. But I also feel that there's never a bad time to talk about human respect. So, essentially, it's always a good beat, which is why I'd love for young people to see the film and for the book to become part of young people's awareness, because I just feel like it speaks to so much that's important for kind of how we all collectively continue.
So there's that. I don't know if this specific time has any real… I don't know if the specific time forced it into being necessary. But I'm glad that it's here.
Me too. Between a number of the really talented directors you've worked with, from Steve McQueen, to David Mamet, to Ridley Scott, to Alfonso Cuaron, to even Joss Whedon, what are the greatest lessons you've learned about your performance?
Ejiofor: I think that all the talented filmmakers sort of share, I think, a sense of allowing magic to happen; of creating a stable and secure environment for performers to feel they can push to the end of their ability. That is what allows that moment… once you've done all that, once you've pushed as far, then something invariably happens that is just something else, you know, that is… that you could not capture if you either had a kind of rigid directorial position and you didn't allow people to breathe, or your style was just too kind of loose and uncaring, like letting people figure it out themselves or whatever.
It's people who commit 100% themselves and expect that kind of commitment from everybody else, people like Steve who expect, and encourage, and demand it at the same time, which is a great thing and a great person to work with in that regard. But that could be said equally for David Mamet, for Alfonso Cuaron, for Stephen Frears. These are people who absolutely give of themselves every day and require that from the people around them. And because of that they have in their films these moments where things happen and they are able to capture it. I mean, Steve McQueen calls it catching butterflies. I think that's probably true.
Yeah, I agree. Thanks again, I appreciate it.
Ejiofor: Oh, pleasure.
A big thank you to Chiwetel Ejiofor for his time, and to Fox Searchlight for arranging. I'm very honored I got to spend time with the star of one of the finest films of the year. We'll be rooting for Chiwetel at the Oscars.
Steve McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave stars Chiwetel Ejiofor (of Serenity, Kinky Boots, Children of Men, American Gangster, Salt) as Solomon Northup, a man living in New York during the mid-1800s who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the deep south. The film has an incredible ensemble cast to go along, featuring Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Beasts nominee Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Michael K. Williams and Marcus Lyle Brown. Fox Searchlight has the film set for limited release starting October 18th coming up soon. Read Alex's review + see the trailer.