Well established on stage, television screens, and cinema screens, British-born Chiwetel Ejiofor studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts before landing a role in Steven Spielberg's Amistad. Since then, he has worked with Woody Allen (Melinda and Melinda), Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things), Spike Lee (Inside Man and She Hate Me), Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), Ridley Scott (American Gangster) and David Mamet (Redbelt and Phil Spector). Other films include Love Actually, Four Brothers, Serenity, Kinky Boots, Talk to Me, 2012, and Salt, and his stage credits include the leads in Romeo and Juliet and Othello, in which he appeared opposite Ewan McGregor. I spoke with Ejiofor, at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, on behalf of the radio show Celluloid Dreams (90.5 FM in San Jose, CA, and online at http://celluloiddreams.net), the interview airing on October 28, 2013.
Groucho: I think an actor always probably considers it a gift when he’s playing a real figure and there’s an autobiography to draw from. Is there anything that leaps to mind that’s not overtly stated or depicted in the film but that you consciously or unconsciously put into your performance from that book?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: I think there are a number of things actually from the book that did that—that informed me. I mean hundreds of things. I guess in a way the most important thing is the nature of Solomon himself. When I first read the story, I found I—you know, Steve sent me the script and I read it, and I thought it was an amazing story, and somehow Solomon was kind of anonymous to me—or the man at the center was sort of anonymous. But it was a story about a man going through an extraordinary circumstance in this extraordinary time. And it was only after a little bit and looking at the script again and then reading the biography that it just suddenly jumped out at me—I mean it was sort of obvious in a way but I hadn’t seen it. This is a story about a very specific person. This is the story of Solomon Northup, and his world-view informs absolutely every decision that he makes, and all his psychological decisions and the way that he’s able to navigate this extraordinary and complicated universe is remarkable and he survives it with his mind intact because of very specific qualities that he has. And I felt that to go into pursuit of what those things are was a way of trying to tell the story, and then it would sort of in a way talk about something much wider. And he is a man who has an extraordinary depth of spirit, a depth of soul and determination and survival instinct. And he—there’s a moment in the book and the film as he’s hanging from this tree in this kind of aborted attempt to lynch him, but he’s still sort of dangling by the rope with his feet just barely touching the ground. He’s on tiptoes to try and keep himself alive...and there are other people around including the overseer and some of the people who could help him but they leave him there for the length of this very long day in this sort of blistering sun, and he says in the book, “I would have given more years of servitude if they had only moved me into the shade.” And I felt, when I read that, this is a person who has this extraordinary resolve. And getting close to what that kind of psychology would be—how you would think in that way given what he’s witnessing, what he’s seeing—is gonna be something to try and pursue.
Groucho: Something of that survival instinct you’re talking about—or what enabled him to survive, rather, seems to me to be that he’s free-thinking always—or not always, but most of the time: more often than not. He’s free-thinking even when he’s not free. But there’s a sort of double-edged sword to that as well...in the way that that singles him out for abuse from the masters. And there’s a kind of denial at first of his circumstances that he needs to get past because his sense of self is so strong before being enslaved. Can you talk a little bit about how you saw his mindset and how it maybe changed over the course of his journey?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: Yes, I mean I always felt that he was somebody who wouldn’t—in a way he wasn’t somebody who would be able to—obviously he didn’t know what was going to happen to him. So he was somebody who was living his life in a certain way with a certain kind of ease, and...he’s not constantly aware of the nature of his psychology. He doesn’t know what his resolve is—how it’s going to be tested over the next few years. So it is also a surprise to him where his reflexes take him, where his instinct takes him. And one of the things that he does is—which I suppose is natural and would probably be all of our reactions—is to believe immediately after the incarceration and being sold into slavery that he is in a fight to get freedom—you know, to get his freedom back. And there’s a battle that he’s in. And that is where his psychology goes to, and that is I’m sure where all of our psychologies would go to. The point of change, I think, for Solomon that makes him very distinctive and distinct from a lot of people and a lot of us—myself included, I think, who would probably continue to have that sort of one-track energy—is that he recognizes that he is actually in a fight for his mind.
CE: And he recognizes that fairly early—that actually, as he gets into this system, he’s able to see it as what it is. He’s able to see the institution in its ability to psychologically destroy the people that are enslaved within it. And he recognizes that actually that is the fight that he’s in: to maintain his mind. And so that pursuit is what actually gives him a sort of watchful care. And that is recognized by the masters that are around him: that there is something else on his mind.
G: Yeah. And there’s a kind of ironic victory, I think, when he acknowledges that he is in a community—when he sings the spiritual, right? To me that’s such a striking moment in the film. Some might look at that as a sort of defeat, acknowledging "I am stuck here," but there’s a truthfulness in that and there’s a kind of recognition that "I’m a part of these people—I’m not above them."
CE: Yeah, that’s a—it’s again a very strong part of the film, I think, and a part of his psychology that in that moment you’re talking about, he’s burying—you know, one of the slaves dies, as they did with that blistering heat in the cotton field: an older man who collapses and dies in the heat. And they’re burying this man. And in that moment of burying him, Solomon sees himself. For all of his wants and aspirations and desires to get his freedom and to go home to his family, he recognizes that one day these slaves that are around him may be burying him as a slave—as a dead slave. And in that moment, he again in his instinct recognizes that he has to be open to the possibility of not going back. And yet, he still has to survive. And so it is a moment of change again where he embraces his community, embraces his spirituality, embraces the possibility that this is now his world and the decision is "I’m still going to fight to get back. But if that is not possible, then this still will not destroy me."
G: I want to hear a little bit about the physical landscape and perhaps especially the oral history that you encountered when you went to shoot in Louisiana and how that informed your work.
CE: Yeah, it’s an amazing place. You know, Louisiana is—even the plantations—even if you’re aware of what happened to—when you first encounter them they are—some of these plantations are so striking to look at, so beautiful to look at. And that’s one of the interesting, slight juxtapositions and sort of perverse juxtapositions of what occurred in these kind of places that are amazing to look at. And you know, if you’re in the swamps or the sort of woodland areas, you are confronted always with these beautiful landscapes. But if you travel off the beaten path and try and go through the sort of thickets, your world will change within a hundred meters. These are very difficult landscapes: one-hundred and eight degrees of burning sun and pouring with sweat and insects all around you. But it puts you right into the heart of what was occurring and what people were daily—what they were daily going through in terms of their work and this very arduous work in these kind of conditions and what sort of mindset that would mean. You know, in terms of people and going through the plantations, it was amazing to travel through Louisiana, to speak to people on the plantations and to hear people tell their stories and be excited about the film: even people whose forebears were slave owners and plantation owners—absolutely determined and so excited about this story being told, and telling stories. I was on one plantation—a woman there who—one of her forebears was killed by slaves who attacked him and nailed him to the door of the plantation and let him bleed out and went on gathering more slaves in this huge slave revolt, which ended in New Orleans when the munitions had been moved to another place the day before they got there. So they couldn’t get the armaments they needed and were eventually rounded up. And she was telling me this story with such passion and such determined—
G: As if she had been there.
CE: Yeah. And determined kind of empathy for their plight against her family, you know, that it was a kind of extraordinary realization of how many people want to hear these stories and want these stories told.
G: All right, we have to wrap it up, but as a final thought, could you talk about—you did some soul searching about whether you wanted to tell this story or be a part of telling this story before you took the role. What did you conclude that this was the reason you had to tell this story?
CE: I think in the end I was just compelled to tell it by Solomon and his journey. And I felt that there was—when I recognized the point of contact was what I had to reach: the point of connection with Solomon. And what I had been nervous about in a way—what worried me—what had set me back was the wider ramifications, the wider context of telling—of the responsibility of telling the story about the slave experience, telling the story so deeply inside the slave experience, telling the story of a person, and the responsibility to him and to his descendants to tell that story accurately. And all of those things kind of cloud your ability to sort of see straight, you know? And then you think—can I do this? And then my point of connection was to him as I got more and more in contact with the book and the biography and just thinking about his journey and his psychological journey. I was like "I can forget about the rest of it actually and concentrate on trying to tell this man’s story as a remarkable story."
G: Well, Chiwetel Ejiofor, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks very much.
CE: Thank you.