Chiwetel Ejiofor Chats with Trendy Africa's Samantha Ofole-Prince

Since the late nineties, Chiwetel Ejiofor has been regarded as one of the finest talents around, following his television debut in 1996 in “Deadly Voyage.” Known for his total devotion to the characters he performs on screen and stage, his portrayal of the Nigerian taxi driver ‘Okwe’ in the thriller “Dirty Pretty Things” earned him the ‘Best Actor’ Award at the British Independent Film Awards and the San Diego Film Critics Society Awards. With roles in “Slow Burn,” “Talk to Me,” and Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster,” his other film credits include “Kinky Boots” in which he played the loveable drag queen, the drama “Four Brothers” and Spike Lee’s heist film “Inside Man.” The media shy British-born actor whose parents hail from Nigeria can be seen in the Steve McQueen directed movie “12 Years a Slave” where he plays Solomon Northup, a free black man who was abducted and sold into slavery.
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueens's 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueens’s 12 Years a Slave
A true story based on Solomon Northup’s memoir published in 1853 just eight years before the start of the Civil War, it’s a role Ejiofor was reluctant to take on. “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, he began his transformation, starting 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.”
Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofora at the Toronto Film Festival
Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofora at the Toronto Film Festival
For the actor, whose Nigerian parents belong to the Igbo ethnic group, particularly poignant was a tour he took in Savannah, Georgia where he learned that the Igbo‘s were enslaved and dispersed to several colonies in the United States between the 16th and late 19th century. “Hundreds of thousands of Igbos were taken out of South East Nigeria and brought to America and South America, and I think everyone from the African diaspora is connected to these issues, so telling the story of Solomon Northup felt like a responsibility.”
Benedict Cumberbatch as William Ford and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup
Benedict Cumberbatch as William Ford and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup
For director Steve McQueen, Chiwetel was always his first choice for the role of Solomon Northup. “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.  He went in so deep it was amazing to see, and it took a lot of courage and a lot of strength.” A movie which explores a great untold chapter in American history, the heart of the film, really, is in Ejiofor’s powerful performance.
Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor
Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor
In one gripping sequence, Northup is left to hang from a lynching noose with his feet barely touching the ground. For hours as he struggles just to keep from choking, children frolic nearby. It became one of Ejiofor’s biggest trials in fully entering the role. “The scene is very impactful and really about this incredible resolve that Solomon had to survive,” says Ejiofor. “He’s teetering on the brink of death but he holds on. It was a real physical strain to re-enact this with the exact detail with which Solomon described it in the book. It was tough emotionally and physically, but there was a feeling for me of stretching back almost 200 years and connecting to him.” Winner of the People’s Choice award  at the Toronto International Film Festival, “12 Years a Slave” also stars Alfre Woodard, Michael Fassbender, Adepero Oduye, Brad Pitt and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o who plays an enslaved mistress.
For Ejiofor, the next year is set to be a busy one. The talented thespian recently finished filming in Nigeria “Half of a Yellow Sun” based on the highly acclaimed novel of the same title. Both moving and horrifying, the drama concentrates on the varying effects the Biafran War has on the lives of four people; the film also stars Thandie Newton and Joseph Mawle. He has also just been announced to star in film about a nuclear war in a small American town called “Z For Zachariah” alongside Chris Pine and Amanda Seyfried.
With a running time of 132 minutes “12 Years a Slave” releases in theaters nationwide Friday October 18.
Samantha Ofole-Prince is a journalist and movie critic who covers industry-specific news that includes television and film. She serves as the Entertainment Editor for Trendy Africa.

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