A third of the way into Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, the camera pulls back wide, stops, and lingers. There, center frame, under a tree, is a man, hanged by his neck just low enough that his toes touch the mud beneath him. Minutes pass like hours. It’s the most excruciating scene in a movie full of them, one that follows Solomon Northup, a real-life freeborn black violinist from Saratoga Springs, who in 1841 was kidnapped, shipped to Louisiana, and sold into slavery. As punishment for fighting an overseer, Northup, played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, hangs there from morning till dusk, gasping for breath and straining to maintain contact with the ground while, behind him, his fellow slaves quietly go about their work.
“That was the most interesting scene to me,” says Ejiofor over breakfast at the Crosby Street Hotel, shortly before a flight home to London. “It’s not just that nobody’s going to help him and nobody’s going to try and cut him down, it’s that nobody even considers it. They hardly turn in his direction!” To get it on film, Ejiofor hung for an entire day in the Louisiana heat—with short breaks, of course, “and a safety line, because otherwise that would be craaazy.” His mind kept returning to a line from Northup’s 1853 memoir, on which the film is based: “I would gladly have given a long year of service to have been enabled to exchange the heated oven, as it were, wherein I stood, for a seat [in the shade].” This, Ejiofor believes, was Northup’s “transformative moment,” when he gave up hope of escape and began focusing on simply surviving with his sanity intact. “It’s a moment of absolutely understanding his own resolve,” says Ejiofor. “It moves from a journey about a man who thinks he’s in a battle for his freedom to one about a man who’s in a battle for his mind.”
The role brings Ejiofor, 36, full circle: His professional career began seventeen years ago, when he dropped out of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art to play a translator for the insurgent slaves in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. McQueen says Ejiofor was his first and only choice for the role: “He has a certain kind of elegance I’ve only seen with Harry Belafonte or Sidney Poitier. He’s a gentleman; his humanity within the depths of depression shines through.” Ejiofor has helped ground sci-fi movies like 2012 and Children of Men and given well-reviewed performances on West End stages as Othello and as Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s quickly assassinated first prime minister, in this summer’s A Season in the Congo. But 12 Years a Slave is the biggest showcase he’s ever had, one that many predict could earn him an Oscar nomination and make him a household name, even if it’s one likely to be mispronounced. (It’s CHEW-eh-tell EDGE-ee-oh-four, by the way.)
Ejiofor shares more than poise with Northup, though; they have some history in common, too. Like McQueen, whose ancestors were slaves from the West Indies, Ejiofor considers himself part of the diaspora. His immigrant parents identified as Igbo, an ethnic group from southeastern Nigeria, hundreds of thousands of whom were shipped west from the port city of Calabar. “I feel very connected to slavery in a general sense,” says Ejiofor, whose first name means “God brings” in Igbo. To get to set of 12 Years near New Orleans last summer, Ejiofor actually took the same route, by plane, as Igbo slaves, from the Calabar set of Half of a Yellow Sun, another historical epic, based on the novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in which he plays a professor who becomes a refugee of Nigeria’s Biafran war in the late sixties.*
I ask Ejiofor if that shoot was as intense as 12 Years. “It was intense in a different way. I was sort of reliving my grandfather’s experience of the war,” he says. “It was a very dark time in Nigerian history, and my family was right there, and they were on the run, dodging bombs, fleeing from village to village, trying to stay alive.” Ejiofor spent much of his childhood hearing stories about the war and visiting relatives in Nigeria. He still has a scar on his forehead from a car crash there when he was 11. It killed his father, a doctor and a musician, at 39. “So, uh, yeah, there was an intensity to [Half of a Yellow Sun],” he says with a slight laugh.
He prepped for 12 Years by reading up on the history of slavery and learning the violin. He plays guitar and remembered enough from childhood piano lessons to take a role as a bandleader in Starz’s upcoming thirties-set mini-series Dancing on the Edge—“but violin is hard! God in Heaven!” he says. “The first time I picked it up, I was just struggling to make a sound. I was like, I don’t know how this is going to be possible.” Now, he says proudly, if you turned down the sound of the professional violinist on the film’s soundtrack, “you would hear something that sounds pretty similar. You’d be able to recognize the song being played by my rather scratchier version.”
On the set, he also cut timber, hacked sugarcane, and picked cotton. “There’s a catharsis in cutting down trees,” he says. “But there’s absolutely none of that in picking cotton. It’s maddening! It’s fiddly, and it pricks your fingers, and it’s something that’s a very hard skill if you have no alacrity for it”—which Northup doesn’t. As a result, he’s frequently whipped at the hands of a plantation owner played by serial McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Shame).
Making matters worse was the “burning, boiling heat.” On Ejiofor’s first day of shooting, picking cotton in direct sunlight, the temperature was a humid 108 degrees. “I found out that that was a record-breaking day, which was of great relief,” he says, “because I was like, If this is normal, I don’t know how we can shoot a film here.” “I don’t know if you’ve ever been in Louisiana in August, but it is oppressive, the heat and humidity,” says Brad Pitt, a 12 Years co-producer who has a small part as a Canadian abolitionist. “I felt for him. I would see him in between takes, and he’d be standing out in the field, and he just had to maintain this pitch of suffering and longing and waiting. I think he gives a master performance. I’ve seen it many times now, and I still get choked up. It’s crushing.”
Next up for Ejiofor is a winter shoot for the sci-fi film Z for Zachariah, in which he, Chris Pine, and Amanda Seyfried will reportedly play survivors of a radioactive event. Until then, there’s awards-season schmoozing and maybe a little sailing. He races yachts but says he won’t consider himself a true seaman until he’s made a lengthy trip alone to Hawaii. “Then I can get my eye patch.”
According to McQueen, it took Ejiofor some time in New York to shake off the emotional stresses of playing Northup, so it’s not surprising when Ejiofor says he hopes his next roles will be lighter. “As an actor, you express certain things because they need to be expressed, and then you don’t really feel a need to do it again. I want to feel something else, you know?” Maybe something like Love Actually, in which he and Keira Knightley played happy newlyweds? “Ah, the Love Actually days,” he says wistfully. “That was 2003—that’s a ten-year break! How about a nice, gentle rom-com?”
*This article originally appeared in the October 21, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.
*This article has been corrected to show that Ejiofor flew from the set of Half of a Yellow Sun to the 12 Years a Slave set, not the reverse.