Less than five minutes into a private press conference for Steve McQueen’s new film “12 Years a Slave,” an interviewer had already mispronounced star Chiwetel Ejiofor’s first name... twice.
After the reporter was corrected by a hovering publicist, Ejiofor quipped, “I’ve heard worse,” drawing a roar of laughter from the assembled media. It was exactly the kind of light, tension-diffusing note that the otherwise very serious discussion needed to start off on. (His full name is pronounced “Chew-it-ell Edge-ee-oh-for,” by the way.)
In “12 Years a Slave,” Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free African-American man who is kidnapped, sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War South, and spends more than a decade working on Louisiana cotton and cane plantations.
Part of what makes McQueen’s star-studded film so extraordinary is the fact it’s based on a true story: The real-life Northup published a memoir detailing his terrible experience in 1853. The director’s violent and soul-crushing big-screen adaptation of Northup’s tale premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday night to rave reviews, and is already getting a tonne of awards season buzz -- Ejiofor is now regarded by many as the frontrunner for Best Actor at the Oscars.
When asked about all that Oscar buzz, the 36-year-old London native demurred slightly. “Making this film has been an extraordinary journey,” Ejiofor said. “I’m delighted right now -- anything else is gravy.”
He also deflected the Academy Award chatter by talking about what attracted him to the project to begin with. “Solomon’s Northup’s story is one of kind,” he said. “It’s a real insight into a time and a place, a first person narrative/historical document that should be in every school in the world.”
Ejiofor’s co-star (and frequent Steve McQueen collaborator) Michael Fassbender agreed, and said that doing justice to the story of Solomon Northup was a “massive responsibility.”
“The main thing was to honour the spirits that lived these lives,” Fassbender said.
The “X-Men: First Class” actor plays Edwin Epps, Northup’s second owner – a vicious, Bible-thumping cotton farmer who despises the slave for his strong will and intelligence.
“I just tried to find a human being in there, as opposed to some evil plantation owner,” Fassbender said of his character. “He’s a human being who’s caught up in something so complicated and so unjust, but not evil.”
“Complexity” is a word that kept cropping up during the press conference. Director Steve McQueen acknowledged that “12 Years a Slave” tackles some very complex issues (issues that still reverberate in the United States to this day), but said that he thinks the current climate in the United States (a black U.S. President, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights march on Washington, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Trayvon Martin trial, etc.) will make audiences more receptive to the film.
“People are ready to reflect on this unfortunate past,” McQueen said. “Everyone in the audience is Solomon -- what he goes through, you go through.
“Truth is truth,” the director continued. “To see these images, to see what happened... That’s the power of cinema.”
"12 Years a Slave" will be released on Oct. 18. The 2013 Toronto International Film Festival runs until Sept. 15.
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