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

Israelis Quietly Expand Enclave in Palestinian District of Jerusalem

Estimated 500 settlers, armed or protected by paramilitary police, live in Silwan among 50,000 Palestinians More

Video US, Iran Face Similar Challenges in Syrian Fight Against IS

Both Washington, Tehran back fighters battling Islamic State militants in Iraq -- but in Syria they support opposing sides in country’s civil war More

China Boosts Efforts to Help Afghan, Regional Stability

Observers say China’s increased regional involvement are due to concerns that Afghan instability and the presence of anti-China militants in Pakistani border areas could fuel Xinjiang troubles 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.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Border Crossings

Joe Taylor sits down with "Border Crossings" host Larry London to talk about his distinction as New York’s “Subway Idol,” and how he beat out thousands for that title. Joe performs several songs from his new CD, “Anything’s Possible.”