Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o and Alfre Woodard – Looking Back on 12 Years a Slave
by Jay S. Jacobs
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.
Director Steve 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?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: My 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.
Michael Fassbender: 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.
Alfre Woodard: For me 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.
Lupita Nyong’o: 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?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: 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.
Michael Fassbender: 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.