TORONTO 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 McQueens harrowing drama 12 Years a Slave.
Between that background, John Ridleys screenplay and Northups 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 Ejiofors 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. Youre 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 McQueens wife, historian Bianca Stigter, found Northups 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 Solomons story, that was it, McQueen says. Its 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.
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 McQueens Hunger and Shame star Michael Fassbender as Solomons ruthless later master Edwin Epps. The directors most vital casting decision was who would play Northup, and as he read the mans 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 Spielbergs 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 Lees She Hate Me and Inside Man, Woody Allens Melinda and Melinda, Kinky Boots (in drag), Children of Men, David Mamets 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.
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 Northups 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 Solomons skin.
You slip down the rabbit hole, Ejiofor says. I suddenly thought thats probably how he viewed it, as more of a kind of surreal science fiction. You feel like youre in one battle at the beginning, but actually youre in a completely different battle. You think youre in a battle for your freedom, but youre 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 Northups time.
You go on those plantations and there are oaks that are over 300 years old and have witnessed slavery, says Ejiofors co-star Lupita Nyongo, 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.
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. Its all around you, but theres something about that, whereas picking cotton, theres no catharsis.
Theres the boiling heat, 108 degrees on our first day of shooting, and youre fiddling with these buds and theyre pricking your fingers and youre trying to get this thing and the only point of change is the crack of a whip or somebody passing out.
Northups 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, thats when I realized, OK, this guys 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 wasnt 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.
Thats why its such a privilege to play Solomon Northup. Its amazing to play a man like that.