Chiwetel Ejiofor On '12 Years A Slave': 'If You Can't Face It, You Can't Face It'

The Year's Most Buzzed-About Performance
Chiwetel Ejiofor arrives at the 41st NAACP Image Awards on Friday, Feb. 26, 2010, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)
Chiwetel Ejiofor arrives at the 41st NAACP Image Awards on Friday, Feb. 26, 2010, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)

TORONTO -- Chiwetel Ejiofor may not be an American, but he still feels linked to the events depicted in "12 Years a Slave."

"I always thought of slavery not necessarily as an American issue, because it involved a lot of people, a lot of countries," says the 36-year-old actor, who was raised in Britain by parents born in Nigeria. "I went to the Calabar Museum in southeast Nigeria, basically the slavery museum there, and hundreds of thousands of Igbos -- I'm Igbo -- were taken over to New Orleans."

In the film, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last month and went on to pick up substantial Oscar buzz at the Toronto International Film Festival, Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man from Saratoga, N.Y., who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. The real-life Northup went on to publish a book about his experiences, which formed the basis for director Steve McQueen's adaptation, set to open in limited release on Oct. 18.

"I wanted to tell that story as specifically as I could, and to see if I could get the audience to even fractionally feel that they had connected to what [Northup] went through," Ejiofor told HuffPost Entertainment during a sit-down interview in Toronto. "[Northup's] book is so specific, but does in the end talk about human respect, and the application of that can be in any part of one's life, from your boss to your girlfriend to whatever."

Ejiofor, whom U.S. audiences will recognize from his roles in "Children of Men," "Salt" and "American Gangster," found the Louisiana locations where "12 Years a Slave" was shot both haunting and inspiring. "There's the heat, there's the insects, there's the swamps, there's sort of the beauty of the place, which is also slightly surreal, you know," he said. "And the fact that in the height of summer, everyone's moving a little bit slower. There's a fairy-tale quality to the whole thing, where you're into this other, slightly skewed world with all these skewed worldviews and you're not quite sure how to traverse it."

Spending time on actual plantations helped Ejiofor understand how various kinds of work may have affected those who labored there. "I'm looking at the difference between cutting timber, cutting down trees, hacking sugar cane and picking cotton, and how these different things have a different impact on you," he said. "There's a catharsis in hacking down trees, it turns out, and there's some sort of catharsis in sugar cane, but sitting outside picking cotton for eight hours in the burning Louisiana heat is a completely different mindset. There's no catharsis in that. You're just sort of drained of everything." That, he realized, could be one reason "things unravel for everybody" on the cotton plantation owned by Master Epps, played with demonic intensity by Michael Fassbender.

Even acting out a drama of this kind, in which one group of people systematically degrades and dehumanizes another, can put relationships to the test, but Ejiofor said McQueen's exacting approach actually facilitated after-hours bonding among the cast and crew.

"What Steve encourages is that you put in 100 percent there and then. The question is always, 'Is that everything? Is there anything else?' And that's for every member of the crew, every member of the cast, which is encouraging and demanding at the same time. And I feel like because of that, when the day is wrapped and the word 'cut' is uttered on the last take of the day, that's what that means," he said with a laugh. "Now we're into something else, which is our own experience of bonding together, of checking out New Orleans, hanging out, until we reconvene for the first shot of the next day. I think we were able to build friendships and build a strong bond because we knew that we were all in the same position."

Still, Ejiofor is well aware that what is on the screen can be difficult to take, even though there isn't much in the way of gore or blood. "It's actually much more about the psychology of what was happening to people and what they were doing to each other," Ejiofor said. Asked about reports that a few audience members had walked out of the premiere, he said, "If you can't face it, you can't face it, and that's fine. But to tell the story of Solomon is to tell the story of Solomon, and that's the responsibility of the filmmakers and actors to do that as well as they can."

Northup, Ejiofor said, "is kind of trapped in his own empathy, you know? If he'd reached the point of inertia, then at least he'd be numb to it. But because he's still activated and still witnessing and still feeling, you worry for his sanity."

Before they had even seen "12 Years a Slave," Oscar-watchers were predicting that Ejiofor would earn a Best Actor nomination for his performance, and the buzz has only intensified since more recent festival screenings. But Ejiofor is wary of framing the film in the context of awards before the vast majority of moviegoers have even had a chance to see it.

"Obviously, you want a good reaction to the film. But at the same time, I don't want people to come into the film bringing all of that stuff in. I want people to make up their own minds about it," Ejiofor said. "I think it's sort of a shame for the experience for people to hear too much -- the buzz, the hype, the whatever you want to call it."

With or without recognition from the academy, though, it's likely that "12 Years a Slave" will catapult Ejiofor to leading-man status in Hollywood. For his next project, he said, he wants to reprise the role of Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba in a film adaptation of the play "A Season in the Congo." "We're hoping to go out with ['Anna Karenina' director] Joe Wright and film some of that in Kinshasha in the next couple of months," Ejiofor said.

Still, for a certain stripe of movie fan, Ejiofor may always be best remembered as Peter, Keira Knightley's charming groom in "Love Actually." Asked if people still recognize him from Richard Curtis' much-televised ensemble comedy, first released in November 2003, Ejiofor laughed and said, "They do, yes. Especially around Christmas time. It comes back. It flows back."

Julia Roberts

2013 Toronto International Film Festival

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