You can’t imagine how good it is for any viewer of “12 Years A Slave” to hear Chiwetel Ejiofor explode in a laugh. That’s what he did in response to my very first question when I interviewed him recently on the phone.
What I’d asked, after begging his forgiveness for doing so, was “Before you appeared on screen in your first starring role in Spielberg’s ‘Amistad’ were there any old-timers around who advised you to change your name to – oh, I don’t know, Rory Calhoun or something?”
“No,” he finally answered in all good humor. “Nobody asked me to do that. I started out as a theater actor. It was my training and it was also what I was doing at the time. … In this day and age, there’s a tradition so it never really came up.”
The reason a bit of laughter from the actor is such a welcome sound is that he’s a near-certain Oscar nominee for his intensely dramatic role as a savaged and brutalized slave in British filmmaker Steve McQueen’s much honored “12 Years a Slave,” a role in which the sufferings of slavery are portrayed in a hugely powerful way that is already a piece of American film history. The film opens in Buffalo on Friday.
This is an uncommonly rich year for likely Oscar Best Actor nominees. Others who seem more than probable are: Robert Redford, for the upcoming “All is Lost”; Tom Hanks for “Captain Phillips”; and, before the year is over, Joaquin Phoenix in “Her,” Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” and Leonardo Di Caprio in Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
It seemed Ejiofor would contend for the Oscar the minute people laid eyes on the film at world film festivals. (In Toronto, the film won the award as audience favorite, a distinction shared previously with former Best Picture Oscar winner “Slumdog Millionaire.”)
The extensive British theater training of Ejiofor – his name is pronounced Chew-ee-tell Edge-ee-oh-fore though if you pronounce his last name hurriedly as Edge-oh-fur you’ll get away with it – hasn’t stopped him from an already prominent career in our movies. See “Amistad,” Spike Lee’s “Inside Man,” “Talk to Me,” and “American Gangster.”
That isn’t the main reason that he won’t even entertain the idea that neither he nor British director Steve McQueen are interlopers in what seems the truest film ever made about American slavery.
Based on Solomon Northrup’s best-selling slave narrative first published in 1853, the story in cinematic form is about a freeborn musician leading a middle class life in Saratoga. He is hoodwinked into going on tour in a circus, kidnapped and then sold into slavery down South for 12 years before anyone from his previous life can find him.
“I suppose in terms of my family background, I feel very connected to the story because of the diaspora experience of slavery. I’m Igbo (an ethnic group in Nigeria) and hundreds of thousands of Igbos were taken out of Nigeria and brought to America and South America and the West Indies,” Ejiofor said. “I felt very connected to that. I know that Steve came from the West Indies, where there was such a brutal slave trade and he was connected to THAT experience. So I always thought of it in a slightly more international sense than anything based on one specific nationality.
“This is a very American story in a way but it also has a wider thing because slavery itself did. It speaks to the things that connect us all. And connect ALL the people of the African diaspora to the story in a clear way. That’s what slavery meant GLOBALLY to black people. I didn’t feel at all outside of that.
“But I did feel a responsibility, not being American, to get the story of Solomon Northrup as current as I could.… I’ve been very grateful to show the film to his descendants and see them be so proud of it.”
In one sense, Ejiofor had an enormous advantage coming to the film as a Brit. The shame of American movies about slavery and the South – movies that are as important to our history as “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” – is that they are horrifyingly racist when seen today. It is not a shame he partakes of.
“I don’t think I’ve ever watched it all the way through,” Ejiofor said of “Wind” because “I got so tired of it in a way. Even as a kid I wasn’t engaged in what was happening.” With more than a little understatement, he now says “I didn’t think that was really the story.”
What is the center of McQueen’s film is the harrowing and horrific struggle of Ejiofor as Northrup and Michael Fassbender as a sadistic slaveholder who brutalizes his slaves to uphold his reputation as a “slavebreaker.”
It’s difficult for present-day audience members to watch them on film without wondering if the off-set relationship of Ejiofor and Fassbender maintained an extra measure of courtliness and mutual deference in contrast to what they were forced to enact on screen when the cameras were rolling.
“The whole experience got into my head, my body and my soul,” Ejiofor admitted. “It was a kind of complete immersion, I think, when I was reading the book. I was thinking I was reading something objectively. And then at a certain point, I was just inside the experience. I think’s it’s an immense tale. You suddenly find yourself walking with Solomon … When we finished filming it took a little while to reclaim myself.”
But in the scenes with Fassbender, he said simply “We were there to tell a story. And to give 100 percent to that. … ‘Cut’ means ‘cut.’ We were able to go away and get to know each other and enjoy each other’s company. The nature of the way it was filmed is that people were coming in and out every week because of the odyssey nature of the story. There were dinners to welcome people and dinners to say goodbye … There was always a sense of social interaction and keeping that as alive and fun in New Orleans as possible but with the knowledge that 6 a.m. Monday morning (dramatic pause) we were there to tell a story.”
Because Ejiofor began on stage as a Shakespearean actor, it was hard not to ask if in all the creditable films he’s made he hasn’t missed the eloquence and the rich language possible in his stage work.
“That’s an interesting question,” he said finally. “The experience of being onstage is very direct. You’re really engaging an audience. I suppose it’s like a standup comic going out and doing a routine or something for 90 minutes on an HBO special. It’s a very direct experience. When you’re translating that into a film, a few more different aspects come into it. It’s not that you’re using a smaller part of your canon, I suppose you’re using a completely different skill set.
“A narrowing of that skill set has actually happened in the theater where you’re just kind of using your vocal and emotional ranges as well as you’re stagecraft because you’re going to have to do it every day. In film you’re trying to hit moments you’re never coming back to. You’re trying to get them as immense and complete as possible. It becomes a very different negotiation.”
Nevertheless, the difference in richness of language is why he still works in the theater.
When asked about the actors he admires, his answer was instantaneous. “It’s a cliche to say it now, I know but I remember watching ‘Raging Bull’ for the first time and being completely stunned by (Robert) De Niro in that. I remembering being in Toronto and watching ‘Hotel Rwanda’ and seeing Don Cheadle’s performance. I was lucky enough to work with him later but I was also lucky enough to see him later that night. And tell him what I thought.
“I remember seeing ‘Philadelphia’ for the first time and just being so stunned by Tom Hanks in that film – as well as by Denzel Washington. I could go on and on. The list is almost endless.”
When he appeared onstage with the great British actor Bill Nighy, said Ejiofer, “I said to Bill at the time that it was like having the best seat in the house every night – just watching him work. It was incredible. He’s a great actor.”
When making a movie, you have to wait to see the final result. When he finally saw all of “12 Years a Slave” put together in London for the first time, said Ejiofor “I was stunned by Steve’s work and the whole film.”
So has the rest of the world since that moment.