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12 YEARS A SLAVE

Benedict Cumberbatch on William Ford
In contrast to Epps, Solomon Northup's first "master" is William Ford, a man of more genteel temperament, who admires Northup's intellect, yet is still a slave owner. Taking the role is Benedict Cumberbatch, seen this year in THE FIFTH ESTATE and STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. He dove into the role via historical research.

"It's been very interesting trying to understand Ford's point of view," he explains. "I discovered that Ford was one of the first to get a land grant in Louisiana. He was regarded by many as being a very bright, God-fearing, good man. He was a preacher, who saw his slaves as children of God, and he tried to conduct himself as someone who had great empathy for the human condition and cared for people."

Yet in his very first scene, Ford purchases the slave Eliza, while egregiously separating from her young daughter. "You see in that moment that no matter how much he preaches and acts with kindness, Ford was still basically supporting the system," says Cumberbatch. "To separate a woman from her child is utterly reprehensible and no Christian man could truly levy that as being excusable."

To Cumberbatch, Ford carries guilt like a heavy stone dragging on his soul, which makes for a complex friendship with Northup, one burdened by open questions of equality. "I think Ford is tortured 21by his own self-awareness. He completely understands that slavery is antithetical to his Christian morals. In the book, Solomon excuses Ford, saying he was born into this situation and therefore must be forgiven for his actions. Yet, when Ford falls into debt, the ugly truth of slave trading raises its head. I think it breaks his heart to abandon this person he respects to a man he knows is vicious and unprincipled. It tortures his soul, but he still does it."

That tortured quality is what McQueen says Cumberbatch captured in his portrait. "There is a battle within Ford between his own morality and his need to adapt to the environment that he is in," says the director. "On the one hand, he has to survive in this environment and on the other he's complicit in it. Benedict brought that duality, that sense of both being caring and being weak."

Says Ejiofor of Cumberbatch: "This was a brilliant piece of casting because Benedict has a quality of charisma, ease and charm, which is what engages Solomon about Ford. Solomon really feels he's not dealing with a monster but with what seems like a decent man -- it's a very interesting juxtaposition for Solomon to face in his first years as a slave."

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