News / Arts & Entertainment

In '12 Years a Slave,' All Eyes on Chiwetel Ejiofor

Cast member Chiwetel Ejiofor poses at a special screening of "12 Years a Slave" at the Directors Guild of America, Los Angeles, Oct. 14, 2013.
Cast member Chiwetel Ejiofor poses at a special screening of "12 Years a Slave" at the Directors Guild of America, Los Angeles, Oct. 14, 2013.
Reuters
One of the most memorable scenes in the film “12 Years a Slave” is a long close-up of actor Chiwetel Ejiofor's eyes, wide with amazement as his character regains his freedom after enduring the brutal bonds of slavery on Louisiana plantations.
 
It is a defining moment for the British actor of Nigerian origin in the biggest film role of his career, one that many critics believe will yield him a best actor Oscar nomination. It is also a role that he wasn't quite sure he was up for.
 
“12 Years a Slave” has been heralded as an emotional and realistic journey through slavery in pre-Civil War America and won the top award at the Toronto Film Festival — often a harbinger of the film awards season. The film by British director Steve McQueen and backed by Fox Searchlight Pictures opens in U.S. theaters on Friday.
 
“You wait all your life for great scripts, you are reading everything, hassling people, your agent, you are trying to get a great part,” Ejiofor told Reuters.
 
“Then this script comes through the door, and you read it and it is a great script and a great part and you think 'Can I do this? Am I ready to do this? Is it for me?”'
 
The 36-year-old Ejiofor also felt a big responsibility in portraying the real-life story of Solomon Northup, told through his 1853 memoir. Northup was a free black man and musician in New York who is tricked and sold into slavery in 1841 and sent to Louisiana plantations for 12 years.
 
Ejiofor got his first big break in film in 1996 from Steven Spielberg, who cast him in the slave ship tale “Amistad.” The versatile actor has since split his time between film, television and the stage in Britain, where he has won awards for performances like his title role in “Othello.”
 
Once Ejiofor said yes to McQueen, he went into preparation mode, learning to play the violin and immersing himself in Louisiana plantation culture.
 
“The plantations are beautiful, amazing places. And Louisiana is extraordinary, it's alive, and the bayou and the swamps and the plantations and the trees,” he said.
 
“And within all that,” he added, “there is this other world — this deep darkness in the way we're treating each other. The place was very informative. It helped me understand the world that he was going into.”
 
'All about his eyes'
 
Ejiofor's challenge, however, was to portray a man who could not fathom the cruel depths of that world and couldn't believe the twist of fate that took him away from his comfortable life and family up north, where Solomon was a respected man in the community.
 
He said he had to see the film like a “fairy tale” — one in which he had to ignore all his knowledge of the slave trade and its repercussions. He himself is Igbo, a West African ethnic group that was a major source of slaves to the American South.
 
It was like “Alice in Wonderland,” Ejiofor said. “You go down the rabbit hole and you are in this other world.”
 
Solomon learns to keep quiet about his education and his condition as a former free man, lest he be seen as a threat to masters. He watches with disbelief the separation of mothers and children in the selling of slaves. And for years he tries to protect a young slave from the whippings, rape and psychological torture at the hands of their evil master, played by Michael Fassbender, who is tortured himself by his love for the girl.
 
That's where Ejiofor's eyes came into play.
 
“We talked a lot about silent movie stars, we talked about Valentino and Buster Keaton and the face because he has to communicate a lot without any words,” said McQueen. “Basically it was all about his eyes.”
 
And in those eyes, McQueen said, “the audience is seeing a mirror.”
 
In the midst of the awards buzz around “12 Years a Slave,” Ejiofor and McQueen say they are just happy that the film came to fruition and that people have taken a strong interest in it.
 
“To tell someone the story is one of the most deeply enriching experiences that I have ever had as a performer or an actor. And I don't really want to distract from that,” Ejiofor said.
 
“People should watch the film with their own eyes and see if it correlates to their experience or doesn't.”

You May Like

Video Obama to Send 3,000 Troops to Liberia in Ebola Fight

At Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, President says US will take leadership role for a global response to deadly Ebola virus that is ravaging West Africa More

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

Muslims in Kunming say that they condemn the violence, it is not a reflection of the true beliefs of their faith More

Humanitarian Aid, Equipment Blocked in Cameroon

Move is seen as a developing supply crisis in West Africa More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Spacei
X
September 17, 2014 4:20 AM
The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Border Crossings

Graham Nash has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice – once for his work with The Hollies and once as part of Crosby, Stills & Nash. The legendary folk-rocker joins "Border Crossings" host Larry London to talk about his latest project, “CSN 2012,” which captured on video recent live performances by Crosby, Stills & Nash.