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12 Years A Slave - Chiwetel Ejiofor interview

12 Years A Slave

Interview by Rob Carnevale

CHIWETEL Ejiofor talks about some of the challenges of making 12 Years A Slave and how he went about attempting to portray and do justice to the story of Solomon Northup.

He also talks about handling some of the film’s more gruelling moments, physically and mentally, and why he also believes that the film’s themes have global resonance. He was speaking at a press conference held during the 2013 London Film Festival.

Q. Film sets are known for being practical places of work, but the film you’ve made is emotionally devastating. How much hard was it emotionally to make?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: There’s not really one answer in a way. There were sequences that were technical, there were sequences that were emotional. But in a way, the focus of the film, and for me, the focus of the film, has always been on Solomon Northop and attempting to connect as much as I could to his journey, his character. Part of that was captured in the biography. And so there were a lot of clues there to his specific characteristics.

But in some of the things that he endured I was able to then try and connect in anyway that I could to how he might have felt in any given moment – and that was a real privilege in a way. To feel the sense of any kind of connection to what he went through – we were trying to do sequences as close as we could possibly do to what he describes in the book, so that felt, in a way, quite emotional connecting to his experiences, connecting to him. It was a very different feeling.

Q. On some level it feels like a definitively American story. Obviously, it’s a human story, but it’s also an American story. How did you approach that as two Londoners?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: For me it always felt that, by definition, there was an international element to it; even American slavery there’s a slave run to America, so there’s always an international idea with this thing. And as I learned about slavery, that’s the way I learned about it. I learned about it in terms of Africa, in terms of the West Indies, in terms of Britain, in terms of America, and South America. So, I always had that in my head. I felt like it was a very American story, absolutely, but I felt that there was something correct about an international feel in a way, even though 97 per cent of the people involved in this movie are probably Americans, but there was an element of something international about it, which I felt reflected the international nature of this world event.

Q. What’s striking about Solomon is that he’s a character – he’s not a symbol or a cipher. He’s an individual. How did you go about developing that kind of characterization?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: Well, actually, it didn’t come that easily to me. When I first read the script I definitely saw the story of a man going through extraordinary circumstances. I didn’t necessarily see Solomon. It wasn’t until I read the book and then went back to the script that I realised, it was obvious in a way, but I realised that this was the story of Solomon Northup and my responsibility was to simply tell his story. I’d seen it initially as a kind of historian and feeling the responsibility of telling story about the slave experience or telling one of the few stories – certainly one of the only stories in cinema – from inside the slave’s experience.

So, that was a bit of a hurdle for me, trying to get my head around how to tell a story that wide through this one person. And then I realised of course that you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to tell the whole story of slavery somehow. You just have to tell the story of Solomon Northup. And so the book is very revealing in terms of his character. I realised that his world view, and the way the way we approached the world and the way he approached other people and the way he approached his circumstances was just remarkable actually. I’m trying to work out what his specific characteristics are, but I think they were mainly to do with this extraordinary reflex for survival and a love of life, as well as an absence of hatred that he utilizes. He’s able to continue through this system because he gets rid of everything that is not useful for his survival both physically and mentally. And it’s this extraordinary pairing down of all these elements that allows hi to survive.

Q. Were there any moments reading the book or the script that you were immedieately dreading going through with?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: For me, when I read it, I was just stunned by it. As a piece you’re going to have to just trust it. As an actor you’re going to have to just slip down the rabbit whole and see what happens. There was no other way of telling the story. It wasn’t that I wasn’t aware of Steve and his films. I knew that he would go to all the places that he would have to go to. And that’s what I wanted to tell this story. In a way, you can’t tell a story about slavery unless you tell it. And that’s it.

You have to, you know, people talk about the violence and it’s weird to me, because it’s a strange handicap if you can’t talk about violence in a film about slavery. You’re not going to do justice to any of the people involved. You’re certainly not going to do justice to Solomon Northup and what he went through. It would be like doing a movie about the Second World War and not being allowed to shoot anybody. You can’t tell those stories without the major parts of what they are. I read that, and I read into that when I read the script because there were obviously going to be those kind of struggles. But I wanted to embrace that.

Q. How did you approach the character in a way that would ensure audience remains engaged with him even as he becomes increasingly introverted?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: When I first read the screenplay and the book it was a very immersive experience for me. I just felt like I was observing when I was reading them, and then, at a certain point, I just felt like I was inside the experience. I would feel very emotionally connected and I just felt there was something about it that was very immediately immersive in a way. And I suppose we can all relate to that in a way. We can easily understand the sense of being whipped away from everything we understand and hold dear and then put in this Alice in Wonderland, slip-down-the-rabbit-hole parallel bizarre universe that he’s just walking us through. And I felt that the power of that could be conveyed in any medium. That’s why I think it’s such a strong book and such a strong screenplay. Because actually, what Solomon is relating is something people can get on board with and quite quickly understand. So, I wasn’t worried about that in a way. I don’t feel it was my job to try and carry anyone through it. That my be interrupting. I felt that if I just kept to Solomon and told his story that I trusted in the narrative and trusted in Steve – and I felt that that was the way people would connect with it.

Read our interview with Steve McQueen

Read our review of 12 Years A Slave