Director Steve McQueen's film version of former slave Solomon
Northrop's autobiography 12 Years a Slave takes an
eye-opening look at one of the great shames of American history, the
prevalence of the violent slave trade in the 1700s and 1800s.
Northrop was a free man who was claimed as a slave and had to spend
over a decade in forced servitude, all the while trying to get back
to his family. In the film Northrop is played by respected
British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, finally receiving a star-making (and
undoubtedly Oscar-bound) role after years of supporting gigs in the
likes of Salt, 2012 and Firefly.
He was joined in the cast by respected actor Michael Fassbender,
working again with director McQueen after last year's Shame,
as well as superstar Brad Pitt, veteran actresses Sarah Paulson and
Alfre Woodard and the exciting first-time actress Lupita Nyong'o.
We were recently invited to a press conference in which the cast
members Ejiofor, Fassbender, Nyong'o, Paulson and Woodard discussed the hard-hitting film.
McQueen has been saying that the reason he made
12 Years a Slave
was to tell the truth about slavery. What was your truth in
coming to this project?
truth? I had a conversation with Steve. He sent me the script for
this and I was amazed by the story. By this extraordinary tale of
this man. I was surprised I didn't know the story. I figured they
must have made a very strong adaptation from the book, otherwise I
thought it would just be a ubiquitous tale, like everybody would
know it. I was surprised again when I read the autobiography that
it kept so... that this is Solomon's story. This is what happened
to him. I was struck by the responsibility of that. By the
responsibility of telling Solomon's story, of delving into this
world and the responsibility of telling a story from so deep inside
the slave experience. I spoke to Steve and I decided to attempt to
tell the story. Then rather than a responsibility, it became a
privilege. Every day I was shooting this film was a real privilege
to bring Solomon's story and the other people in the film, to bring
their story to life.
I remember Steve said to me, I think we were doing junket for
Shame or something like that, around that time, and he was like,
"The next thing I want to do is I want to make a movie about
slavery." I was like, of course, that seemed pretty obvious. Steve
always seems to tackle the elephant in the room. So that was the
first I heard of it. Several months later I got a script and I
wasn't sure what part Steve had me in mind for. I was hoping it
would be Epps. I called him up as soon as I read the script. I was
in tears. I found it such a moving story, an incredible story. I
couldn't believe that it was a true story and I hadn't ever heard
anything about it before. I called him up immediately and I said,
"Look... whatever. If this is one day, two days work on this job.
I just want to be part of it." It felt like it was a really
important story to tell. Luckily enough, he offered me Epps.
it was Steve McQueen. I was so excited in just this way when you
say: oh, my God, here is a new filmmaker with a voice and a vision
and the artistic ability when I saw Hunger. And then
Shame. I was campaigning for that, because I thought it was the
best picture of the year when it came out. The moment that I got a
call saying "Steve McQueen would like you to be in this film," and I
said yes to the agent and people. They said, "Well, no, we'll send
you a script." I said, "No, just yes right now." They said, "It's
very small." I don't care what it is, yes. Then when I got the
script and discovered Mistress Shaw, I was really excited because I
knew it was a voice and a presence that we had not seen in American
cinema. So I was on board.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be involved with a
project of this magnitude right after graduating from drama school.
It's been a gift all around, but particularly because when I was in
high school, primary school, I wasn't really good in history. I
didn't really retain information. One of the things I love about
being an actor is that you get to visit things outside of yourself,
outside of your sphere, and take them personally. So for me, it was
a real privilege to take this time in history personally. I have
learned so much through this process that I would otherwise just not
know. With this particular story, I didn't know that I didn't know
these things about slavery. I'm just glad to be a part of this,
that the knowledge will be spread and retained in a way that it
would otherwise not be done.
Chiwetel , Lupita
and Michael, you were not raised here. How did you relate to this
story of American slavery?
I suppose the
wider ideas of slavery were something that I have always been aware
of and felt connected to. I remember I was in Savannah, GA. In
Savannah there are these two tours you can go on. There is the tour
of Savannah and there's this guy who pulls up in this small transit
van and takes you on the black tour of Savannah. I went on this
tour. One of the things, because Savannah is so untouched, for
anybody who has been there, in Georgia it is sort of pristine. It's
amazing. The largest historical site, one of them, in the world.
There is this little alcove that is used now [for] people to park
their cars in it and stuff. Back in the day it was used to take the
slaves from off the boats and put them in this little place. There
were these huge cast iron gates that would slam shut on them. There
is a walkway above and it would give the people from Savannah the
first opportunity to look at who had come off the boat. To start
having a think about who they might want to buy.
In this little alcove, as I was standing there in this
miserable state, I noticed that there were these extra bolts on the
wall that hadn’t been removed and had probably been there for
hundreds of years. I said to the guy why are there these extra
bolts on the wall and he said – knowing nothing about my background
– "Oh, that’s for the Ibos." I said "That's for the Ibos?" Yeah.
I said, "You know, I’m Ibo." We had a moment. I sat down. I just
looked around this alcove. I thought: I’m very connected to this
experience. Hundreds of thousands of Ibos were taken out of
southeastern Nigeria and brought to America. Brought to Louisiana.
Brought to South America.
I think it has always been and has always been known to be
an international story anyway. Steve McQueen mentions that his
family is from the West Indies. Of course the slave trade in the
West Indies was an extraordinary event which ended up at times as a
kind of land war. I think everybody in the Diaspora, the African
Diaspora, is connected to these issues. Connected to this event.
Telling the story felt like a responsibility. The wider aspects of
the story, what it says about human respect and human dignity is
such an international idea. But, the truth is 95% of the people
working on this film – 97% or 98% – were Americans. It's an
American story that when specifically telling it has a wider
impact. But it's an American story of this particular plantation,
or these three plantations. But I feel that it was always correct
that there was an international element to it. There is an
international element to these events.
I have to say that I'm pretty proud that in Ireland I think we have
a pretty good educational system. Maybe because we were late to
have private schools in the country, so the state schools were in
pretty good shape. History was always an important subject for me.
One of my favorite subjects. History, again in Ireland, we are
very proud to teach it. Not only our own history but international
history, also. So, I was always very much aware of American history
and the slave trade. Also the South Americas. Having gone down to
Brazil and been to Salvador and seen there in the port town where
the slaves came in from Africa and were held and chained up. It
kind of reminded me of when you were telling us that story, Chiwetel.
So I was well versed in it. So when I got the script and the story
was told in such an eloquent, complex way, I was – again, as
Chiwetel said – I was just very privileged to be part of it.
The movie has
many bleak parts, but McQueen has said it is about love and the
human soul. What are your feelings on that?
I think that he said something really great. He said it was a call
for love, which he I were talking about yesterday. For me, the
impact of the end of the movie... you go into the movie knowing what
the end of the movie is, that he does regain his freedom. When he
reunites with his family you see the power that was living inside
him the whole time that he was enslaved. To be reunited with his
family, that was alive in him the whole time. It's hard for me to
speak about it, because obviously, I didn't play the part. But as a
viewer, and reading the script and the book...
You spoke of the
responsibility you felt in taking on this role. Do you feel you
have given Solomon his just due?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: There was
a moment of change for me. The first time I read the script, I
didn't necessarily see Solomon in the story, actually. I saw a
man. I saw the story as a whole thing. I thought it was an amazing
story, about this man whose freedom was taken away and he was trying
to get back to his family. These things happened to him. These
were the obstacles in his way. It was only really when I was
reading the biography that at a certain point it suddenly struck me
that this is about this man. Very specifically this is about
This is this individual who has a
very fascinating way of looking at the world, even within the
context of what is happening to him. I suddenly was struck by his
depth of soul, his unbreakable spirit. The profoundness of his
love. His lack of judgment, even. His lack of hatred, which is so
surprising in his circumstance. But again, he's somebody who starts
off in a battle for his freedom but recognizes that he is actually
in a battle for his mind. Anything that is not going to help him,
he just cuts loose. Hatred ain't going to help you, so he cuts it
loose. He's focused on staying sane, of keeping himself together,
even through all of it. Of not breaking. I feel that he was an
extraordinary person. I still reflect on his personality. The
personality of someone who is able survive something like this with
his mind intact. Then also to have the wherewithal to write about
it in such a poetic and direct and humble way is really amazing.
That was always my touchstone,
trying to get as close as possible to Solomon Northrop was the most
important thing. The only real way of trying to tell the story, in
all it's epic vastness, was to continue to try to go down that path,
which is a very rewarding path to go down. A very special person.
Like I said, really a great privilege to try to get close to that.
There was a special screening
in Sarasota Springs. How many of you got to meet the descendents of
Lupita Nyong'o: It was just