Chiwetel Ejiofor’s recent BAFTA win for Best Actor was a sweet victory for the 36-year-old actor, and not just because it came on home turf. Eight years previously, the Londoner scored (and lost) his first BAFTA nod in the Rising Star category. Last Sunday’s win, atop a slew of recent honors for his imposing turn as freeman-turned-slave Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave” — including, of course, his first Oscar nomination — underlined the fact that his star has now risen. Long a promising standout in films as diverse as “Dirty Pretty Things,” “Kinky Boots” and “Redbelt,” the stage-trained star has now asserted himself as a leading man of formidable presence and intelligence.
Ejiofor caught up with us by phone from New Zealand — where he’s currently shooting Craig Zobel’s sci-fi project “Z for Zachariah” alongside Chris Pine and Margot Robbie — to discuss his approach to Steve McQueen’s film, its personal impact on him and his briefly-held reservations about taking on the role.
HitFix: This is a film that elicits visceral emotional reactions from viewers. Even after having lived with it for so long, was it a jolt when you first saw the finished product?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: Normally, if you’re lucky, the idea of a film you have in your head is more or less what you get back when you see it after the editing and the whole post-production process. This was very different, however, since the final product was so far past anything I had even imagined: the style of it, the cinematography, the feel of it, the depth of passion. Every component of it just comes together in such an overwhelming way. So when I first saw it, I became entirely caught up in the story, as if I was hearing it for the first time, as if I wasn’t even a part of it.
The script is written with a great love for language. There’s an elevation and formality to it that’s quite unusual in contemporary film. As a classically trained actor, did you find that?
I really responded to the language in the script. There’s a poetry and a humility to the way Solomon writes, and the way John Ridley has interpreted it, that has a sort of classical refrain and restraint. That really moved and engaged me. It definitely reminded me of a more classical text.
How familiar were you, if at all, with Solomon Northup’s story beforehand?
Well, I came on board about a year before we started shooting. Steve had sent me the script the previous summer, so I had lived with it for a while. I had never heard of Solomon Northup or his book; I didn’t even know anything about the idea of kidnapping people from the north and selling them into slavery. Once I was familiar with the book, of course, it seemed so much less surprising, like something everyone should know about. One thing that’s been particularly amazing about this process has been bringing the book back into the public consciousness. It’s such a vital historical record; it’d be tragic if it were lost or forgotten.
When doing a historical and biographical project of this nature, how extensive is your research process? Do you consume everything you can, or can that stifle intuition?
You do as much research as you can for any project. Obviously if you’re doing a historical drama, so much of it is just there: Solomon wrote directly about his experience, but also about his process. So much is available to you there that isn’t available in other contexts. As an actor, that’s a beautiful gift; it makes you want to play the part just to understand it. But obviously you also want to know about the time, the geography, the references. I used the book as a template, but could also bring to it my own knowledge of the slave trade, acquired over years. I’ve always been a believer in research. It’s great to have an instinctual human reaction to a character, too, of course, but it has to be countered with knowledge and understanding.
How heavy is the burden of responsibility when taking on a project like this? Do you feel you’re playing more than a character, or try to put that out of your mind?
Initially I felt that responsibility very sharply, and it actually gave me pause before doing the project. The idea of making a film – a film that I had certainly never seen before – about the slave experience was a huge responsibility. It’s a project that requires a wider understanding of the geopolitical nature of the slave trade, of historical and modern-day racism. That was a lot of pressure. But I came to realize that I was thinking with the wrong side of my head. My responsibility in the film was to Solomon Northup himself, to play him as accurately as I could based on the information I had, and not to worry about the wider implications. So that simplified it for me, and allowed me to approach it in an open way.
You’ve mentioned that your own Nigerian heritage was a strong point of reference in your preparation for this project.
Yes, it’s huge. I was spending a lot of time in Nigeria while the film was in pre-production, filming “Half of a Yellow Sun”* in Calabar. Before leaving, I went to the slavery museum there, which commemorates the hundreds of thousands of Igbo people who were taken out of Calabar and into the slave trade. I’m Igbo myself, so that drew a very strong reaction from me, and it underlined to me that we were making a story of the Diaspora, of African and European history, too. My Nigerian heritage may not come directly into “12 Years a Slave,” but it’s a major part of my work generally.
Steve McQueen’s previous films [“Hunger” and “Shame”] were highly concerned with matters of bodily abuse, and “12 Years a Slave” very much follows suit. How heavily does his direction focus on the physical aspects of performance, and how much does he let you find those for yourself?
Steve’s an all-encompassing director. He’s always thinking about the emotional, psychological and physical aspects of a story at once. As an actor, your physical person is the canvas that you have to tell the story, and Steve is very engaged with that, but only when we actually came to do the physical work did we come to discuss its impact on Solomon’s psychology – which was where our conversation had started. Physical activity – and abuse – is so vividly described in the book. It’s so essential to both the psychology and the history, and that needed to be reflected in the film. In a way, once everything had been set up, that side of things became self-evident. It was something we didn’t need to discuss too much.
The film has sparked a great deal of conversation – both supportive and critical – about the portrayal of violence and torture on screen. Did you anticipate any controversy in that regard?
Honestly, not really. Obviously any film about slavery is going to have moments of violence, so I’m not sure why some viewers were taken aback. Would people have an issue with a film about the Second World War having violence in it? No. That’s simply the nature of what happened. So I don’t think Steve was doing anything particularly out of the blue. I think he’s actually been very selective in portraying violence; there are only about half-a-dozen instances of it in the film, far fewer than in the book. And the nature of them is appropriate; it’s not gory. That’s what Solomon Northup went through, along with so many others caught in that system. So if you fail to tell that part of the story, you may as well not tell it at all. And I think it was important that the story was told. I’ve always thought calling it “brutal” or “violent” is an unfair critique of the film. It’s many more things than that.
Last question, and it’s a bit of a cheeky one. But if it hadn’t fallen to you, is there another actor whose Solomon Northup you would like to have seen?
That’s a good question! I suppose it depends on which approach you were taking. I often questioned whether I was the person to do it, particularly when I was first starting on the film. But as I read the book, I saw where I connected with Solomon and the approach I wanted to take with him. But that could be different for another actor, who might interpret the material very differently; it’s kind of a personal journey. I suppose I’m trying to avoid naming names!
*”Half of a Yellow Sun” is the feature film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s bestseller about sisters separated and united by the Nigerian-Biafran War, in which Ejiofor plays the liberal intellectual lover of Thandie Newton’s protagonist. It premiered at Toronto last year, and will be released Stateside in July.