Chiwetel Ejiofor on why it took convincing for him to take on this Oscar-contender role.
A year before actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, born in England to a Nigerian immigrant family, began filming 12 Years a Slave, he was in Savannah, Georgia, making another movie when he signed up for a tour of the city. One stop left a deep impression on him: a 19th-century slave pen, used to hold newly arrived Africans before they were sent to auction, that had, he recalled, “a sequence of bolts on the wall.”
“I asked the guide, ‘What are those bolts in the wall?’,” Ejiofor said. “And he said, ‘That’s the extra chaining for the Ibos’. And I said, ‘I am Ibo’.” He paused, then continued: “That’s when you are aware that you were there as well. That it’s your blood, that someone with DNA close to yours was right in the middle of that situation. And that’s powerful.”
If 12 Years a Slave is in the running for best picture and a slew of other Academy Awards, it is largely because of 36-year-old Ejiofor’s powerful portrayal of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who, in 1841, was drugged and sold into slavery in Louisiana.
The film’s director, Steve McQueen, said that Ejiofor was his first choice to play Northup. “To me, Chiwetel had the manners, the class, that I needed to be portrayed,” McQueen said. But Ejiofor did not immediately accept the offer, even though he had for years been reading books about the history of the slave trade in Africa and the Americas. Instead, feeling somewhat intimidated, he now acknowledges, by what he called “the weight of the issue”, he asked for time to think things over. “You start questioning yourself,” Ejiofor said. “You worry that you are taking on something that you don’t know whether it’s in you to do this, and to do it justice.”
Once he accepted the part, Ejiofor dived into research, travelling from Calabar, the Nigerian port that was a major centre of the slave trade, across the Atlantic to rural Louisiana.
In some of Ejiofor’s most expressive moments, shot with Paul Dano who plays one of his tormentors, he does not speak at all, relying on body language to convey what Northup is feeling. “From Day 1, I focused on Chiwetel’s eyes,” McQueen said. “It was the eyes, eyes, eyes. And we spoke about how one can translate language through someone’s face. He holds you by hardly doing anything.”
Though Ejiofor visits Nigeria often, he lives in London, where he dates Canadian actress Sari Mercer. He was born in the Forest Gate section of London, where his father, a doctor, and mother, a pharmacist, had emigrated from Nigeria after the collapse of the Ibo-dominated secessionist state of Biafra. He remembers a childhood in which acting was initally one of many competing pursuits, along with music, design and computers, but gradually became a consuming interest.
“In our living room, we had five or six shelves filled with classics: Shakespeare, A Passage to India, Jane Eyre, that sort of thing,” Ejiofor’s sister, CNN correspondent Zain Asher, recalled. “Mother believed education was freedom, and she’d make us read those. Chiwetel was very much a hard worker. He would be in his bedroom reading Shakespeare aloud from morning to night. He was kind of a recluse that way.”
Though Ejiofor has sometimes been cast in race-neutral roles, as was the case in The Vortex and 2012, he has been eager to play black and especially African characters. These have ranged from his first breakthrough performance in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, in which he played an African immigrant who had been a doctor in his home country but drives a cab in London, to Aimé Césaire’s play A Season in the Congo, in which he was cast as Patrice Lumumba. “I remember early on, as I was starting to work, an actor said to me something like ‘Well, if you don’t change your name, you’ll end up playing a lot of Africans’.” he recalled. “Which was one of the most offensive things I’ve ever had said to me in my life. And I was like, ‘Well, I’m actually looking forward to playing some Africans’. I mean, my family is from Africa. I’ll be intrigued to do that.”
Ejiofor has also done television, and is fond of “the slow burn of a limited series” of five or six episodes. Somewhat overlooked as a result of the acclaim heaped on his performance in 12 Years a Slave is the fact that he has also been nominated for a Golden Globe as best actor in the miniseries category for his performance in Dancing on the Edge, in which he plays the leader of a London jazz band in the 1930s.
Ejiofor plans to continue shuttling among film, theatre and television. The main challenge now, he recognises, may be to find roles in any medium that will fulfill him as much as that of Solomon Northup did. “This was a role that accentuated all of the ideas I had about how to play a part, that allowed me to take in every aspect of what I have loved about taking on film roles for the last almost 20 years,” he said.