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12 YEARS A SLAVE

Chiwetel Ejiofor: Becoming Solomon Northup
12 YEARS A SLAVE belongs to Solomon Northup, whose journey is harrowing, but who never becomes a tragic figure. On the contrary, he comes to forge an identity that cannot be erased or undone, even by the most contemptible human behavior. Chiwetel Ejiofor took on the daunting challenges of the role with total commitment and submersed himself into the sheer power of Northup's resolute determination.

While Ejiofor has been known for a wide range of characters --- from his breakout as a British immigrant in DIRTY PRETTY THINGS and a future revolutionary in CHILDREN OF MEN to a drag queen in KINKY BOOTS and a CIA agent in SALT -- he had never carried an epic film on his shoulders in the way he would have to for 12 YEARS A SLAVE. But as soon Ejiofor's name came up, Steve McQueen was certain he had all that it would take.

"From the get go, I knew it was Chiwetel. There simply was no other choice," says the director. "I've been watching him for a long time and I knew he was going to be able to reach the kind of performance we needed. He has the nobility to hold the camera and to hold the whole film together. There is so much integrity and decorum to him as a person and an actor -- and that's what he brings to Solomon."

Even with all his belief in the actor, Ejiofor surprised McQueen with how far he took the character, how truly alive he made Northup seem in the here and now. "Chiwetel went in so deep it was amazing to see," McQueen says. "It took a lot of courage and a lot of strength."

Ejiofor says he felt the character's beating heart from the minute he started reading about him. That became his inspiration and he never let go of it as he began to work his way into the depths of Solomon's mind as he finds himself in one unimaginable circumstance after another.

"When I first read the script and then the book, I found it devastating," Ejiofor recalls. "It was heartbreaking to look behind the curtain of that period in history. I'd never read or seen anything like it in my life. Of course I knew about slavery but mostly in a general context. This story really does put you in Solomon's mindset, so that you start to understand what he is going through and what he is witnessing. I really began to feel what this kind of emotional journey would mean to someone. After that, it was impossible to lose it. It penetrated me to the point that I still feel it. It's quite a thing."

He goes on: "It's a story about how hard it is to break a man's spirit, about what tremendous reserves a man has. Solomon witnessed one of the harshest structures in the history of the world, and survived with his mind intact. For me, it was an extraordinary experience to be part of telling this story and one of the most challenging roles of my career."

Much as Ejiofor was compelled at the outset, he admits he was awed enough by the enormity of the part that he gave careful thought to the task ahead. "I knew it was going to be physically, emotionally and psychologically difficult," he recalls. "I told Steve I needed to think about it. But the impact the story had on me was unshakable. If I was honest with myself I knew that there was no way that I wasn't going to be involved with it."

As soon as he took the role, Ejiofor began his transformation. He started with research that took him into the American South as it existed in Solomon's times. "The book was my template," he explains. "But going to Louisiana and seeing the real plantations where everything has been preserved, from the main house to the slave huts, and where all of these events really occurred, I got a further sense of things. I was able to talk with people about stories from that time and got a sense of all these ghosts sort of being conjured up."

While grappling with those ghosts, Ejiofor also began to explore Northup's life as a well- educated, New York musician who never could have imagined himself as a slave, despite slavery's continued prevalence in the United States. "Music was his way of feeling connected to the community and he was considered talented and special," Ejiofor notes. "At the beginning of the story, he's a charming man very much in his ascendency. He is respected in his community, but I feel that perhaps he had developed a kind of distance from the reality of what was happening in other places in America. And that's part of what he is confronted by when he ends up in Louisiana, where he has to come to terms with all he has ignored and tried to avoid."

The instant uprooting of his life and identity -- which comes in one single night when he is drugged and deprived of his former identity -- leaves Northup in a state of reeling shock. Ejiofor was able to tap directly into Northup's disorientation and his delusions that this mistake will quickly be righted.

"I think he really didn't have any concept that being kidnapped was possible, that there was even the kind of infrastructure to support that. I mean it was reported in the news," notes Ejiofor, "but it's likely he thought 'that could never happen to me.' So as he begins his journey, I think he still believes he's going to get out of this. Even when he's on a boat to New Orleans, he thinks there will be a way out."

But Northup finds no immediate way out. He is sold like merchandise, becoming the "property" of three different plantation owners who treat him in very different ways. First he encounters William Ford, who, while still a participant in the slavery system, approaches Solomon with a mix of fascination and respect. Yet Ford transfers him to the plantation of Edward Epps, a man famed for "breaking slaves," who has dehumanized them to the point that he can relate to them only as a cross between property and tormenters in the anguished recesses of his mind. When Epps loans his slaves to Judge Turner for a season, Northup has yet another experience.

Yet, no matter whom his purported master might be, Northup is constantly reminded he is not free. For Ejiofor this cut to the heart of what makes Solomon such a riveting character. "I think the one thing that all the slave owners share in common is that they all see there is something in Solomon that must be destroyed," he notes, "something dangerous. It's nothing he explicitly says or does -- it's an attitude that he cannot bury."

That attitude is also what he grasps onto when things get dire, and gives him enough steel to keep surviving. "He holds onto a belief that slavery is so out of tilt with the moral world, it's impossible it could continue forever," comments Ejiofor.

Working with McQueen to get to every minute nuance of Northup -- from his fear of appearing educated (at a time when a literate slave was seen as a grave threat to the orthodoxy) to his complicated bonds with his owners to his attempts to escape -- was both invigorating and demanding.

"Steve is direct, precise and he requires everything you can possibly give at every moment," says Ejiofor. "He doesn't take shortcuts. He's a filmmaker who engages with the most complicated things -- and hones right in on the work you're doing. It allows you to be naturalistic and very specific."

From the seeds of Ejiofor and McQueen's collaboration, something remarkable bloomed in the performance that everyone in the production recognized as both bold and unique.

"I admire so much what Chiwetel did," says Jeremy Kleiner. "It's a very lonely part but he took that on and created a psychological space for the audience where he is able to take you inside Solomon's emotional life and inner world."

"Solomon is an incredibly demanding role," co-star Paul Dano comments. "And I remember from the first day of shooting just looking at Chiwetel and thinking, 'wow, man you're really doing it.'"

Adds Sarah Paulson, "Watching Chiwetel was to me a kind of master class of subtlety and nuance. He takes this character through twelve years of changes, and he had to keep the whole map of his journey in his head to know at which moments Solomon was truly at the end of his rope and which moments he was hanging on to those shreds of hope that things were going to right themselves. The thing about Chiwetel, which I thought was very in line with his character, is that he never really let the hardship of having to play this part show. But I think everybody could feel it and there was an enormous amount of respect and reverence for that."

Ejiofor himself says that what served as his North Star throughout all the scenes that took him to the brink was simply the gravity of telling this man's story in this moment in time. "The story is so impactful and so real," he says. "The emotional journey was an extraordinary challenge, but it's the kind of challenge where everything else kind of falls away and the character becomes an obsession."

That obsession gave way to insight. "I've thought a lot about this film in the context of how it applies to our contemporary world," Ejiofor explains, "and I think there is something about Solomon that stretches across time and place, that touches something very deep inside us all. It's that sense of our own personal belief in our freedoms and our connections to our families and the people who surround us. That's the real power of Solomon's story. It is beautifully rich and deep and tragic and redemptive -- but it's a very human story."

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