Chiwetel Ejiofor brings an incredible presence to 12 Years a Slave
TORONTO—Penn, Bridges, Firth, Dujardin, Day-Lewis—Ejiofor? When critics hurried into theatres for screenings of 12 Years a Slave at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, the excitement was off the wall. The Steve McQueen–directed and Brad Pitt–coproduced entry based on the true story of Solomon Northup’s struggle against slavery garnered loads of buzz during its debut at the Telluride Film Festival, setting it up as one of the most hotly anticipated films at TIFF.
In Toronto, 12 Years delivered, reaping universal acclaim. And though the film (which opens October 18) boasts a cast that would make Ocean’s Eleven blush (Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano—heck, even 10-year-old Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis has five minutes of screen time), the film belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor. As Northup, Ejiofor is in almost every scene of the 133-minute epic.
Known for roles in films like American Gangster and Love Actually, Ejiofor said his main challenge with 12 Years was understanding the period, something he achieved by going on a similar journey to those who came to America as slaves in the 1700s.
“I happened to be shooting Half of a Yellow Sun in Nigeria, which is where my family is from,” Ejiofor said during a hotel news conference. “There were the slave museums, which we saw on, literally, my last day before flying out to Louisiana [to film 12 Years]. I was in the slave museum in Calabar and that is the same journey, the one from Calabar to Louisiana, exactly the same journey that was travelled a couple hundred years ago. So I was immediately connected to the situation. We landed in New Orleans in the plantations and I was able to travel around, not only to the plantations that we shot in but some other ones as well, just to get a sense of the overall history of what was going on there, the different stories, the different narratives.”
As far as McQueen goes, he never had any doubt about Ejiofor’s ability to stand out in a star-studded ensemble cast. “Chiwetel was really the only person who could have played Solomon Northup,” said the director, also in attendance. “We needed someone who had sort of a genteel appeal, someone who had sort of a deep humanity and was a gentleman, and that’s why I wanted Chiwetel and that was it.”
If all the hype is to be believed, Ejiofor will be nominated for an Academy Award on January 16, 2014. So what would a nomination (or a possible win) mean for the actor? “I think that making this film has been an extraordinary journey,” Ejiofor answered politely, offering concrete evidence of the gentlemanly quality that caught McQueen’s attention. “Making this film with the people involved has been amazing. So I’m delighted. Anything else is gravy. To get here at this point with a film of this nature and to have made the film we wanted to make is already a remarkable thing.”