Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup, a freed slave, in Steve McQueen's '12 Years a Slave.' (MCT)
Toronto— In “12 Years a Slave,” Solomon Northup is drugged, beaten, berated, consistently threatened and demeaned and left for hours with his neck precariously dangling in a noose.
It’s hard stuff to watch, especially since it’s based on a true story. But Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northrup, says it had to be hard.
“I think if you’re trying to tell a story like this, you just have to tell it honestly. There are certain genres and certain periods of history that require a different approach. I feel the same way about ‘Schindler’s List’; if you’re going to tell the story, you’re just going to have to tell the story,” Ejiofor says.
“I don’t think it is bleak. It’s beautiful. It’s just not ... pretty,” Ejiofor says. “I think that’s the reality of his story and the poetic drive.”
He’s speaking in September, in a Toronto hotel room, during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival where the film was a sensation, ultimately winning the People’s Choice Award (prior winners include Oscar best pictures “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The King’s Speech.”)
Ejiofor is a London native, as is the film’s director, Steve McQueen. Did it seem odd for two Brits to bring the story of a free black man from a northern state captured and sold into slavery in pre-Civil War America?
Not at all.
“I always felt good that with the cast and the crew, an international vibe was going on,” Ejiofor says. “Because slavery was an international institution.
“So we’re all connected to this. We’re all part of this diaspora that’s always been involved with this institution,” he says. “There’s something about it that’s not nationalistic. The American slave trade is a way of looking through the prism at something wider.”
Ejiofor, 36, has been a constant presence in British theater, films and television since Steven Spielberg cast him in “Amistad” in 1996. He starred in the indie hits “Kinky Boots” and “Dirty Pretty Things,” and has worked with directors as varied as Woody Allen (“Melinda and Melinda”), Ridley Scott (“American Gangster”), Joss Whedon (“Serenity”) and Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”).
But “12 Years” is likely to raise his profile quite a bit. The Oscar buzz for the film and his performance is near-deafening, but he doesn’t seem overwhelmed.
“I have no game plan for what happens next,” he says. “This moment is really rich.”
That richness has been enhanced by the wealth of quality films — “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Fruitvale Station,” “12 Years” — about the black experience in the past year, Ejiofor says.
“Great stories should be told, and nobody should be excluded from that. If people are now slightly more open to allowing stories to be told, then we’re all doing our jobs, we’re all enriching our lives and experiences,” he says.
“I’m delighted these stories are being told, I’m glad that they’re not being blocked,” Ejiofor adds. “Let’s hope that is what’s happening — that stories about black people are no longer held back.”
Born: July 10, 1977, in Forest Gate, London
Family: Parents — father was a physician, mother a pharmacist — are of Nigerian descent, of the Igbo ethnic group
Early start: Began acting at age 13 and left the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art when he was cast in “Amistad”
Six degrees: Did back-to-back films co-starring with Clive Owen in 2006 — Spike Lee’s “Inside Man” and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men”
Awards: Won the 2008 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor for “Othello”
Honors: Appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2008