'12 Years' to Make Chiwetel Ejiofor a Household Name

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), October 18, 2013 | Go to article overview

'12 Years' to Make Chiwetel Ejiofor a Household Name


Byline: Jake Coyle Associated Press

TORONTO -- Chiwetel Ejiofor arrived, he thought, prepared for the first day of shooting "12 Days a Slave." To play Solomon Northup, a free man from upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery and who later chronicled his experience in a book, Ejiofor had studied Northup's memoir, visited plantations and learned how to, as Northup did, play the violin.

But all that work could scarcely ready him for the intense reality of performing a slave's labor in a Louisiana summer.

"Then you're there on the first day and it's 108 degrees and you're picking cotton," says Ejiofor. "How is that accomplishable? I don't know how to do this without delirium setting in. Then you realize: Now we're in it. This is what this is. It is a delirium."

Ejiofor's titanic and steadfast performance in Steve McQueen's unblinking portrait of mid-19th century slavery has already been hailed as the performance of Ejiofor's career. After Fox Searchlight releases the film Friday, Ejiofor is likely to become a fixture on the fall awards circuit, a best-actor Oscar nominee and a name pronounced with considerably more familiarity. (It's CHOO-ih-tell EDGE-ee-oh-for.)

Many have already known the 36-year-old British actor's strong, sensitive presence from Stephen Frears' "Dirty Pretty Things," Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men" or, on the London stage, as an acclaimed Othello. But "12 Years a Slave," which Ejiofor initially hesitated at taking on, is unique in its challenges.

The film brings audiences along on Northup's nightmarish journey, taken from his family in Saratoga Springs, shipped south and traded among plantations of varied ugliness. (Michael Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, an especially monstrous cotton plantation owner.) The film, perhaps more than any before, depicts the plain, inhumane realities of slavery, including long takes of a beating and when Northup was left hanging by a noose all day long, tiptoeing frantically to stay alive.

One expects such a psychological descent to scar an actor, but playing Northup had the opposite effect on Ejiofor.

"I felt enriched by being in Solomon's shoes for so long," he says. …

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