Home  >  Movies & TV

Screen Shots

Taking aim at the best and worst of movies and television.

‘!2 Years’ star bases character on past, present

Posted 7:29am on Saturday, Nov. 02, 2013

Chiwetel Ejiofor was already familiar with the slave trade through his own research before he signed on to play Solomon Northup, the beleaguered hero of Steve McQueen’s harrowing drama 12 Years a Slave.

Between that background, John Ridley’s screenplay and Northup’s eponymous memoir on which the film is based, the London-born actor had all the material he needed to create his character. Then a trip to Nigeria, his parents’ homeland, to make the film Half a Yellow Sun proved invaluable, deepening Ejiofor’s insight into the history he was about to re-enact.

“I was lucky enough to be in Calabar in Nigeria,” he recalls during a conversation in Toronto on the afternoon after 12 Years a Slave screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. “My last day in Calabar was spent at the slave museum there. My family is Igbo. Hundreds of thousands of Igbos were taken out of there to Louisiana, so I then was able to travel on the journey, that exact line. I spent a day eating okra in Nigeria. I turn up in New Orleans and I have a plate of okra. You’re there.”

Northup never made that journey. He was born a free man in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He was a husband, a father, a musician and a working man in 1841 when two men hired him to play violin for their circus troupe, a ruse to lure him to Washington, D.C., where he was sold into slavery.

McQueen and Ridley were already at work on a script about a fictional character in similar circumstances when McQueen’s wife, historian Bianca Stigter, found Northup’s 1853 memoir, a book that created a sensation when it was published shortly after he regained his freedom but had since fallen into obscurity.

“When I read Solomon’s story, that was it,” McQueen says. “It’s such an extraordinary story that I thought, ‘Oh, wow, I need to make this.’ Every time I turned a page of the book, I saw images.”

Broad résumé

12 Years a Slave is a huge production with a large ensemble cast that includes Paul Giamatti as a slave trader, Benedict Cumberbatch as a relatively benevolent slave owner and McQueen’s Hunger and Shame star Michael Fassbender as Solomon’s ruthless later master Edwin Epps. The director’s most vital casting decision was who would play Northup, and as he read the man’s memoir, Ejiofor was the only actor he envisioned.

Over nearly two decades, the actor, 36, has built an impressive career. He made his screen debut in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 drama Amistad, won a British Independent Film Awards best actor prize for his role in Stephen Frears’ 2002 immigrant drama Dirty Pretty Things, and captured an Independent Spirit Best Supporting Male award in 2007 for Talk to Me.

Other film roles have included Love Actually, Spike Lee’s She Hate Me and Inside Man, Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda, Kinky Boots (in drag), Children of Men, David Mamet’s Redbelt and Salt. A busy stage actor as well, Ejiofor won the 2008 Olivier Award for best actor for his title-role performance in a Donmar Warehouse production of Othello.

“He was the man,” McQueen says. “I needed someone with a certain kind of grace, a certain kind of decorum, a certain kind of stature in the same vein as, say, Harry Belafonte or Sidney Poitier. Chiwetel, he was the man.”

Fairy-tale approach

The challenge for Ejiofor was how to approach a role that was going to be both emotionally and physically draining. Northup was a man who spent a dozen years being brutalized, dehumanized and degraded. When actor and director first met to discuss 12 Years a Slave, they talked about Northup’s experience in terms of a fairy tale. McQueen referenced Pinocchio and Alice in Wonderland. It was Alice that gave Ejiofor his key into getting under Solomon’s skin.

“You slip down the rabbit hole,” Ejiofor says. “I suddenly thought that’s probably how he viewed it, as more of a kind of surreal science fiction. You feel like you’re in one battle at the beginning, but actually you’re in a completely different battle. You think you’re in a battle for your freedom, but you’re actually in a battle for your mind.”

Adding to the verisimilitude of 12 Years a Slave were the heat of a Louisiana summer and locations that included plantations with roots that stretch back to Northup’s time.

“You go on those plantations and there are oaks that are over 300 years old and have witnessed slavery,” says Ejiofor’s co-star Lupita Nyong’o, a 2012 Yale School of Drama graduate who has a breakout role as Patsey, a slave favored by Epps but despised by his wife (Sarah Paulson). “They are the trees under which slaves took shade, and then they are also the trees that slaves hung from.”

Feeling uncomfortable

Among the things that Ejiofor did to prepare to play Northup was learn to play the violin, cut sugar cane and pick cotton. The part was physically taxing, even if the actor did not have to go through the real torture that Northup experienced.

“It was deeply uncomfortable,” he says. “I think that was part of how to get inside this man. I felt like being uncomfortable or feeling pain was very advantageous in this film for me as an actor. Feeling pain in some of the beatings — obviously not to the extent that Solomon or anyone being hit by a paddle or whip — but feeling some pain, feeling some discomfort. Feeling those moments were important because they put you into contact with the experience in a way that is very, very valuable. And they informed a wider conversation about psychology.

“There is something cathartic about the physical energy engaged in cutting down trees or even sugar cane,” he adds. “That is really hard. Sugar cane is tough. It’s all around you, but there’s something about that, whereas picking cotton, there’s no catharsis.

“There’s the boiling heat, 108 degrees on our first day of shooting, and you’re fiddling with these buds and they’re pricking your fingers and you’re trying to get this thing and the only point of change is the crack of a whip or somebody passing out.”

Northup’s words provided Ejiofor his biggest inspiration in playing the role. When he read the memoir, Ejiofor came across a passage in which Northup recalls being tortured under the hot Louisiana sun. “But I would have given more years of servitude,” he wrote, “if they only moved me a few feet into the shade.”

“At that moment, that’s when I realized, ‘OK, this guy’s working on a completely different level,’” Ejiofor says. “He is operating on a level of survival that is so unique, that is so rare, that he is bound to get through this, instinctually. That was what was surprising to me. It wasn’t an intellectual decision that ‘If I think in this way about this then I have some kind of hope of getting out of this.’ It was an instinct.

“His instinct told him, ‘Life is too precious, life is too joyous, and there is a way back around.’

“That’s why it’s such a privilege to play Solomon Northup. It’s amazing to play a man like that.”

We welcome your comments on this story, but please be civil. Do not use profanity, hate speech, threats, personal abuse, images, internet links or any device to draw undue attention. Our policy requires those wishing to post here to use their real identity.

Our commenting policy | Facebook commenting FAQ | Why Facebook?


Hey there. or join DFW.com. Your account. Log out.

Remember me

We now have a new, simpler way for you to enter and search for events, at listings.dfw.com. As always, when you submit an event to appear online, it will also be available for us in our print publication. But now you can simply enter your event and provide an email address, rather than creating a separate account and registering. Our new listings tool is still a work in progress, so we appreciate your patience as we fine-tune it. Please contact us at hsvokos@dfw.com if you have any questions or concerns.