The British actor reflects on his work in 12 Years a Slave and seeing the story the film tells from inside the brutal experience.
Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor
Tavis: Chiwetel Ejiofor has five Golden Globe nominations to his credit, as well as a coved Laurence Olivier award for his performance in “Othello.” Now he’s adding to that long list of acclaim for his role in “12 Years a Slave,” a movie that has just been honored with multiple Oscar nominations. Chiwetel Ejiofor, it’s an honor, sir, to have you on this program.
Chiwetel Ejiofor: Thank you.
Tavis: Good to see you, good to see you. I was asking when you walked in whether or not you’re tired of all of this running around and -
Ejiofor: No -
Tavis: – black tie and awards programs and nominations.
Ejiofor: Yeah, sure. (Laughter) No, no, I’m in good shape. It’s been an incredible journey with this film. I really – I think it’s just a film we’re all so deeply proud of, and we were just deeply passionate about making. It’s been incredible, the way it’s been received. So I’m kind of thrilled about it.
Tavis: Steve McQueen was here on this program months ago and then I guess weeks ago, when the film first came out. He told me the story of how he came to first read of the story of Solomon Northup. Before you saw the screenplay, had you known the story of Solomon?
Ejiofor: No, I’d never heard of Solomon Northup. I’d never heard of him, I’d never heard of his biography. I had actually had very limited awareness, if any awareness, of the whole kidnapping in the North, people being sold into slavery that way.
I didn’t know anything about that, so it was all a bit of just a revelation. It was kind of incredible. I thought initially that Steve and John Ridley must have done a very sizeable rewrite from the biography, because I felt like if this was the story, then I would have known this. I would have known this story. It’s too extraordinary.
Tavis: When you first came to know of the story and first saw, I guess, Ridley’s screenplay, John Ridley’s screenplay, did you immediately know that you absolutely wanted to sink your teeth into this, or was this a moment of hesitation or equivocation or intimidation?
You’re a fine actor, you tell me. But I’m just trying to get a sense of how you responded when you first saw the material.
Ejiofor: Oh, I was intimidated by it.
Tavis: Wow, that’s – okay.
Ejiofor: Yeah, I was intimidated by it, and I really felt the weight of the responsibility of it. I’d never seen a story from inside the experience before. I’d never seen a film from inside the slave experience in this way. I didn’t think – I suppose we – you come to the point where you think that there’s just not going to be a film that’s inside this experience.
Because the kind of received information is always well, it’s too difficult to make, it’s too difficult to finance. If you go talk about slavery, you have to talk about it from some angle that’s a little more oblique.
You can’t just confront it head-on from the perspective of somebody who went through the experience. So when I recognized that Steve was going to make this film, I realized that it was really an opportunity to do something that really hadn’t been done before, and I didn’t want to – my first feelings were feeling the weight of that responsibility of that.
Then feeling the self-doubt of that, and not wanting to be the guy on the set – like, because I would have to always look back on the experience and question whether I was the guy to do that, you know what I mean?
Ejiofor: So I felt all those things. Those were the questions in my head, and that’s why I just sort of needed a moment of pause once Steve had asked me about it.
Then I went back to the book. When I went back to the book, something happened when I read the book that time, because I just felt that it’s a kind of, it’s a reflection on a man’s life.
It’s a reflection on this man’s life, and he writes about it in such an eloquent, poetic, beautiful, humble way, about his experiences. I realized, I think, then that I didn’t have to worry about the weight of it or the sort of geopolitical racial consciousness of it, of the history of slavery and so on.
But I just had to think about Solomon Northup and his journey and what he went through, and trying to connect to him and his story.
Tavis: So it was the re-reading of his text that convinced you to do it?
Ejiofor: Yeah, it was just going back to the book and really starting to hear his voice. I think that the first time I read it I didn’t really see him in it, in a way. When I first read the script I saw it as the story of a man that goes through this extraordinary circumstance.
I think it was just going back to the book and really reading the book just made me realize it was the story of this man, and hearing his voice a little bit more and connecting to him in that way just allowed me to realize that I was listening to the wrong part of my head, you know what I mean? (Laughter)
I needed to go back to what actually – it sort of comes more naturally to me anyway, just to try and get into a character.
Tavis: Yeah. The flipside, it seems to me, Chiwetel, of your comment earlier, which I concur with, about the difficulty that movies like this have getting made in this town, the flipside of that is that this movie has been met with so much acclaim and honor and accolade and nomination.
What’s your read on that? Because there’s been great debate, as you may or may not know – you’ve been running around going to parties – but on the Internet – as you well should, for your wonderful work.
But on the Internet and beyond, certainly in Black spaces that I move through all the time, there’s been great debate about how we read the fact that this is a movie – a story that needs to be told, a story that has been brilliantly told, but now a story that’s being met with all the Hollywood accolade. How should Negroes read that?
Ejiofor: How should they?
Ejiofor: I don’t know. I suppose you can look at it from – I suppose like so many things, there’s probably not one answer to that question. I feel that this is in the unique space of storytelling of movies, I feel, I think like Steve McQueen, like a lot of people, that there was a massive gap, that there was a massive hole in the canon of cinema in terms of there hadn’t really been one film that had been made from inside the slave experience.
Where somebody from inside the slave hut or whatever is calling out to say this is what happened to me, this is what it felt like. I feel like there should be one film out there that is actually from that experience, and that people can see and reflect on what it was like, not told through somebody else’s eyes as sort of objectively told about people, but told from people themselves.
Tavis: I guess what I’m pressing on is what you make of the fact, though, that those kinds of projects are, to your earlier point, difficult to get made.
Tavis: But this one has been made, and it’s been met with a lot of critical acclaim by white folk, folk outside of our own community. I’m just trying to get a sense of what you make of – how you juxtapose those two realities. The difficulty in getting it made, but their celebration of it.
Ejiofor: Well, I think it’s simple: Steve McQueen.
Tavis: Okay. There’s the answer. (Laughter)
Ejiofor: He’s an absolutely phenomenal filmmaker, and I think he’s made an extraordinary film. I think he’s made something of a masterpiece, actually, and I think that that’s the reason that people first of all came towards him with some financing for the film, and also, based on his other work, “Hunger” and “Shame.”
Then I think he delivered a film that people responded to, because I think he’s – and he collaborated with I think an extraordinary team of people in the editing, Joe Walker and Hans Zimmer, and a fantastic cinematographer in Sean Bobbitt.
I think his team of people that he worked with on this film were exemplary, and I think that’s what’s created it as film, not just movie or cinema, but film.
Tavis: You used the word a moment ago, and the minute it came out of your mouth it just immediately took me back to a conversation I had with some friends of mine at a dinner party not long ago.
The conversation centered around this notion of “masterpiece.” Because I think each and every one of us in our lives, if we’re in the artistic space, we want to create something that gets regarded as a masterpiece.
Tavis: Now for many people, that never happens. If it does happen, it may not be celebrated as such.
Ejiofor: Sure, yeah.
Tavis: But I think you’re probably right that what McQueen has done here is to create a masterpiece, but it stars you. What I want to ask is how you process that. Obviously you’re going to continue to work, you’re going to do a lot of great stuff into the future.
Tavis: But I’m just trying to get a sense of how, in your spirit and your soul, you process what if this is my masterpiece, and it never gets this good ever again?
Ejiofor: Well, I think that’s definitely a possibility. You make a film like this, and we made the film, and you give as much as you can to the project. You have this idea in your head of what you feel the kind of best version of the film is.
Then you go away and then the director goes away and he works (unintelligible) and then you’re presented with the film. If you’re lucky, the film matches, to some degree, the level that you expected or hoped for when you were making the film.
But I think it is very rare that a film sort of surpasses your imagination of what it could be, of how good it could be, and I think that that is, for me – and I just say this that it’s only objective; it’s just my point of view.
But for me, the film exceeded that so completely that I felt that Steve had done something extraordinarily special, and probably yes, very rare for my working life. But that’s also a great thing.
That’s the kind of – I think that’s just the gift of working with somebody who has such a great artistic sensibility that yeah, that working with people like that on projects that come together in the way this one did that can produce work that may, in the end, be some of the best work that you’ll produce.
Tavis: I want to ask an awkward question, but I want to beg your forgiveness for asking it before I ask it. I apologize for the awkward question.
Tavis: But I am curious as to your take. You were in the movie “Amistad,” and obviously you’re the lead in “12 Years a Slave.” Both movies about this wretched period of American and world history.
Tavis: “Amistad” did okay; was not met with the kind of acclaim that “12 Years a Slave” has been met with. You were in both. Not many people were; you may be the only – I don’t know. You may be the only person that was in both of those films.
But anyway, you were in both. I’m just trying to get a sense of what you make of the fact – and some have situated this in the era of Obama, and that “12 Years a Slave” and all these other Black film is a phenomenon at this particular moment in history.
But I’m trying to get your sense of, since you were in both, what do you make of the fact that one did okay and one has been met with just critical acclaim and accolade?
Ejiofor: Well, they’re both very different films, and I think it still goes back to this idea of telling a story from inside the experience. “Amistad,” which I thought was a terrific film by Spielberg, it tells a story from a slight angle.
It’s not really about slavery; it’s about a court case. It’s an intriguing historical point of view and period of time. I think what has become unique and exciting, in a way, about this film is exactly those things – that it’s from Solomon Northup.
Its detail and its richness in the historical account tell you something about that period, and tell you something about slavery that is not possible to access from any other source but a primary, first-person historical document.
You understand the heat, you understand the differences between picking cotton and cutting sugar cane and cutting timber, and how these lives on plantations are created with these full, three-dimensional characters.
You can only do that when you listen to somebody who was there. (Laughs) That’s it. I think that that is part of the sort of jump-off point for this story, and the excitement that the story generates is part and parcel of that. It’s part and parcel of Solomon Northup talking about his life from that perspective.
Tavis: I want to pick up another one of your words and get you to juxtapose for me whether it’s excitement or disappointment that it has taken you foreigners, you people from the other side of the water, the pond, to educate the rest of us, to bring to us a story that has been met with this kind of response.
Ejiofor: I just don’t think it’s – I never – I suppose I was born in the year that “Roots” came out. I’ve never thought of slavery – and I probably have been, have encountered slavery and the word slavery and the ideas of slavery from ever since I had consciousness.
I’ve never, ever thought of myself as outside of that experience, do you know what I mean?
Tavis: That’s fair, that’s fair.
Ejiofor: I’ve never thought of myself as part of a different kind, different Black person.
Tavis: But this wasn’t taught in British schools, though.
Ejiofor: Yeah, no, no – it wasn’t taught in detail, but it was something that obviously from my family and my family history – my family’s from Nigeria, where hundreds of thousands of slaves, especially from the very specific place where my family’s from, which is Eastern Nigeria and the Bight of Benin, hundreds of thousands of people were taken from there.
Taken to America and to the West Indies. My family and I, Ebo, and I remember speaking to people in Savannah telling me about the extra bolts used in some of the underground places for the Ebo, specifically for the Ebos.
I know that my history is completely connected to that history. Anybody in the African diaspora has a connection to that history, and also to the psychological connection to that history.
So I never felt the ideas of separation in that way. I know that Steve McQueen, his family’s from Grenada, so he also doesn’t have any separation from that idea. It’s part of our collective history as a diaspora.
Then also England and Britain and France and all of the European countries that profited from the slave trade in such a humungous way, and the horrendous trade in the West Indies, are all part and parcel of the same thing.
So when I approached Solomon Northup’s story, I didn’t approach it as a foreigner at all. I didn’t think of it in that way. Of course it’s an American story, and I felt that I was correct that 95 percent of the people that were involved in the film were Americans. But I also thought that it was right that there was an international element to the cast, to the crew, to people that were there, because there was an international element to what happened.
It was an international trade, and it felt to me correct that it takes a kind of international group to tell that story. Moreover, I thought that it’s a story, really, about human respect. I don’t think that there’s any national border to that. It’s a wider story. It was always a wider story to me than that.
Tavis: Confession here – they say confession is good for the soul. When I first saw you, the very first time I saw you on screen in front of my eyes, I went to do some research, and there wasn’t as much then as there is now, of course, about this guy.
I had to first learn how to pronounce this name. I said, “I’m going to see this guy repeatedly; I want to learn how to pronounce this name.” I say that to say that one of the things that I, perhaps the thing I most respect about you beyond your immense talent, is the choices that you have made and the roles that you’ve decided to play.
Because I know that for all the stuff that I see you do, there’s a bunch of other stuff you’ve passed on, turned down, didn’t find of interest. So I love the choices that you’ve made.
Ejiofor: Thank you.
Tavis: I’m saying that to get at how much more pressure now your agent or representatives are under to bring you high-quality stuff. Because when you do something like this, you can’t go out the next week – and please don’t go out and do nothing – you know? (Laughter)
How do you make choices – and obviously you’re an actor, you want to do a little bit of everything.
Tavis: You want to do funny, you want to do serious, I get all that. But I’m just trying to get a sense inside your head now of how you go about making choices for the remainder of what is going to be a brilliant, I’m sure, career.
Ejiofor: Well you need all the same elements that you always needed, which is – a lot of things happen in your absence, sadly, that you need those elements of luck, and you need people who are interested somewhere else, in the stories and ideas that you’re interested in, and somehow you can come together.
I suppose having a film like this that gets out there and people respond to in a way that makes the process of you coming into contact with material that you like a tiny bit easier. That’s the hope, at least.
If that happens and you can continue to do the work that you want to do and make those choices and make choices about your work and your professional life that are based on what interests you, and more than that, what you feel can be really of interest to other people.
Tavis: I’m trying to get a sense of whether or not there has been a strategy that you’ve been trying to employ to bring you to a certain place.
Ejiofor: There hasn’t really been a strategy, actually, and I suppose that’s – in a way, that’s the strategy, you know what I mean? (Laughter)
Tavis: (Unintelligible) strategy.
Ejiofor: That I’ve always kind of just been – I’ve always sort of let the work try and speak for itself, and be interested in just what takes me in that time. Whatever medium that’s in, be that in film, in television, in theater, it’s made no difference.
I’ve not tried to plan it at all. I’ve just tried to keep my eyes open, tried to read everything you can, and tried to see whether I see myself within it. If I do, then I can get excited about it.
It’s meant that the answers and wanting to do something has actually come quite easily when that happens. That you can just say yes, because even if it seems a little left field, it’s just something that’s caught your imagination about this project and you want to go with it.
Tavis: Stage work – you want to do more of that?
Ejiofor: Oh, yeah. I started, obviously, doing theater, and I always thought that I would, in a way I always thought that I’d be a theater actor. When I was starting out, I didn’t really plan on making films, actually.
Just through a sequence of events – and obviously when I was at drama school, being cast in “Amistad” made a very seismic change. Then I had a time where I really fell in love with film when I was working with Stephen Frears on a film called “Dirty Pretty Things,” and that kind of started my desire to make films.
Tavis: Can I cut in right quick? What was it about that particular project, since you made it clear that that’s when the light bulb really went off for you?
Tavis: What happened?
Ejiofor: Well, he approached the film in a very kind of, and directing in a very artistic, in a very poetic way. I felt for the first time a real, I suppose just a real connection to that.
I felt the real artistry involved in cinema, which I hadn’t – which was my fault, it’s not that – but I hadn’t really felt that before when I was making other films.
I think when I was doing “Amistad” I was just too young to really understand what the process was, and beyond that I hadn’t really got involved. It was just somehow – and I thought that the artistry was all in the theater.
The stagecraft, the technical aspects of acting, and also the poetry of direction and those understandings of scenes and breaking them down. It was really the way that Stephen Frears approached that film that I realized that there is a kind of absolutely deep and passionate, poetic language to cinema that I was excited about exploring.
Tavis: You keep giving me these words and phrases to make these transitions, so thank you for that. “Deep and passionate.” It’s one thing to do a film that is regarded and that is honored, but not every film that fits that frame ends up being a film that generates the kind of conversation that “12 Years a Slave” has generated.
Is there a particular point of pride or a particular something that you feel about the fact that this movie has kicked up such conversation? Beyond just being a good film, it’s kicked up a lot of different conversations.
Ejiofor: Yeah, it has, and I think that’s really a testament to Solomon Northup, actually, and to the way that he describes these experiences. I don’t know if we were explicitly going after a film that people would have these kind of conversations about – it’s a terrific thing that they are.
I think we were just deeply passionate about telling his story, and seeing where that took anything. Ultimately, it is a story about human respect, and I feel, what I do feel is that it’s never too early or too late to get into the conversations about what human respect means, and what it really means.
What it means in anybody’s real life today, and how the treatment of others affects us all. I think that we’re always – often, people are just very – there seems to be a sort of cottage industry in dividing everybody all the time.
Dividing everybody into genders and sexuality and races and religions, and I think it’s important to have films out there, to have discussions out there which really try to get to grips with where that kind of thing can lead.
Maybe there’s not as much of it as there could be and should be. So in the sense of that kind of conversation, I’m obviously deeply proud of the film.
Tavis: I think I want to circle back. This is my last question; I’m out of time. I want to circle back to where this conversation began, sort of. Just between the two of us -
Ejiofor: Yeah. (Laughter)
Tavis: – how are you personally handling all of this? Because it seems to me that when there’s this much love being thrown at you, which is a beautiful thing, somewhere inside you have to still yourself and center yourself, and just kind of manage your way through all of this.
Tavis: But you look – because you’re an actor, so you look cool.
Ejiofor: Well, I’m acting grounded right now.
Tavis: (Laughter) Are you acting grounded?
Ejiofor: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter) I have a very grounding family, actually, as well, so I can always touch in with absolute normality at any given point, which is a wonderful thing to have.
So all of this is also in the context of that. It helps that I’ve been working at it and working at this profession for a while now, as young as I look. (Laughter) So it kind of helps to be able to put everything in perspective in that way.
Tavis: Is this, to your point about being at this for a while – because acclaim comes for different people at different times. Is this, are you okay with this moment, that what is happening for you is happening for you right now? That works for you?
Ejiofor: Yeah. You always hope that when something like this happens and fortune comes your way in that way, you always hope that you can – in a way, you hope you can live up to it.
So that’s what I would wish for myself going forward, that I can continue to do work with people responding.
Tavis: By now you have learned how to pronounce this name; if you haven’t, get used to it. Do what I did some years ago and figure it out: Chiwetel Ejiofor is how you pronounce it.
He’s all that and then some – brilliant actor, one of the best of our generation, and he has earned all of the accolade that he and his entire cast have received for “12 Years a Slave.” Chiwetel, good to have you on. Congratulations.
Ejiofor: Thank you. Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Good to see you, my friend.
Ejiofor: And you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
[Walmart sponsor ad]
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.