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

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 15, 2013 at 4:31PM

“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." Fox Searchlight opens "12 Years a Slave: October 18.
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'12 Years a Slave'
'12 Years a Slave'

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.

This article is related to: 12 Years a Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Toronto International Film Festival, New York Film Festival , Interviews , Interviews, Awards, Awards, Oscars, Awards Season Roundup


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