Role in ‘Slave’ challenges Chiwetel Ejiofor

Editor’s note: Originally published Nov. 1, 2013.

In the Hollywood tradition, movies glance at slavery from the peripheries of sanitized tales of white Southerners. “12 Years a Slave,” on the contrary, depicts the abominable “peculiar institution” with unblinking clarity.

A wrenching drama thick with cruelty, early awards contender “12 Years a Slave” places human faces on the oppressed. It unveils the long-suffering heart of the matter.

Set largely on Louisiana plantations during the two decades before the Civil War begins, the film opens nationwide Friday. Louisiana locations for its tight 35-day production schedule included the Felicity Plantation in Vacherie, Magnolia Plantation in Schriever, Destrehan Plantation in Destrehan, Bocage Plantation in Darrow, the Madame John’s Legacy complex of buildings in the French Quarter and the Columns Hotel in New Orleans’ Garden District.

British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays Solomon Northup, a freeborn black New Yorker who, in 1841, is betrayed in Washington, D.C., transported by boat to New Orleans and sold into slavery. Freed in 1853, Northup wrote a best-selling memoir, “Twelve Years a Slave.”

Ejiofor’s film career began with another historical drama, Steven Spielberg’s 1996 slave-ship saga, “Amistad.” The actor’s international breakthrough arrived with 2002’s London hotel-set thriller, “Dirty Pretty Things.” Roles in “American Gangster,” “2012,” “Children of Men” and “Salt” followed. He’s now based in London and Los Angeles.

The prospect of portraying Northup and his epic ordeal in the antebellum South gave Ejiofor pause.

“This is a story from deep inside the slave experience,” Ejiofor said at a New Orleans hotel a few weeks ago, hours before the film’s red carpet screening at the New Orleans Film Festival. “Right from the depth of the slave hut, this voice says what happened. The details are surprising.”

Before the production of “12 Years a Slave,” Ejiofor and the film’s Amsterdam-based British director, Steve McQueen, talked for years about working together.

“And then Steve called me and said, ‘I want you to read this script. I’d love you to play this guy, Solomon.’ ”

Ejiofor, like most people in the U.S. and U.K., had not heard of Northup or his journey from freedom to enslavement. The opportunity to finally work with McQueen, however, excited him.

“And I read the script and I was so moved and engaged by it,” the actor said. “It’s an incredible story.”

But the weight Ejiofor felt about portraying such a unique character and profound story tempered his excitement.

“The responsibility to Solomon, to his descendants,” Ejiofor said. “And I didn’t know if I could go to these places.”

Ejiofor expressed his reservations to McQueen. At the same time, he didn’t want to lose a great part.

“As an actor, you spend your life running ’round town, reading scripts, hassling agents,” Ejiofor said. “And then it happens, your moment. But you wonder: ‘Am I good enough to do this? Do I have enough?’ ”

The day or so of re-evaluation Ejiofor spent included re-reading Northup’s book.

“I suddenly realized that this is a story about one man,” he said. “I didn’t have to take on the whole universe. He became this fascinating person to chase. … I needed to be a part of this project.”

Northup’s story includes devastating scenes of cruelty and degradation.

“People ask me, ‘Was it hard to go to these places?’ The truth is it wasn’t,” Ejiofor said.

The actor’s passionate desire to tell the story and the necessity of showing what Northup experienced overruled all else. “There’s a deep privilege in taking an audience through these moments,” he said.

McQueen helped make the film’s especially grueling scenes easier by creating a comforting family atmosphere among the cast and the crew, Ejiofor said.

“Having big dinners together and being out in the Quarter and getting to know each other, that was an important juxtaposition to some of the stuff we were doing.”

Standing on the red carpet in October, Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the black mistress of Michael Fassbender’s brutal plantation owner, Edwin Epps, had more compliments for the director.

“He has an instinct for the actor’s instinct,” the Kenyan-raised and Yale-educated actress said. “He has a specific vision but he also gives you the room to do what you need to do to realize his vision.”

“We all came together as a family in New Orleans,” McQueen said at the screening. “And in that community and that family we supported each other at those times that we needed support within the hard times.”

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