top of page
  • Writer's picturePopEntertainment

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o and Alfre Woodard –

Updated: May 9, 2023

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o and Alfre Woodard

Looking Back on 12 Years a Slave

by Jay S. Jacobs

Director Steve McQueen's film version of former slave Solomon Northrop's autobiography 12 Years a Slave takes an eye-opening look at one of the great shames of American history, the prevalence of the violent slave trade in the 1700s and 1800s. 

Northrop was a free man who was claimed as a slave and had to spend over a decade in forced servitude, all the while trying to get back to his family.  In the film Northrop is played by respected British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, finally receiving a star-making (and undoubtedly Oscar-bound) role after years of supporting gigs in the likes of Salt, 2012 and Firefly.

He was joined in the cast by respected actor Michael Fassbender, working again with director McQueen after last year's Shame, as well as superstar Brad Pitt, veteran actresses Sarah Paulson and Alfre Woodard and the exciting first-time actress Lupita Nyong'o.

We were recently invited to a press conference in which the cast members Ejiofor, Fassbender, Nyong'o, Paulson and Woodard discussed the hard-hitting film.

Director Steve McQueen has been saying that the reason he made 12 Years a Slave was to tell the truth about slavery.  What was your truth in coming to this project?

Chiwetel Ejiofor: My truth?  I had a conversation with Steve.  He sent me the script for this and I was amazed by the story.  By this extraordinary tale of this man.  I was surprised I didn't know the story.  I figured they must have made a very strong adaptation from the book, otherwise I thought it would just be a ubiquitous tale, like everybody would know it.  I was surprised again when I read the autobiography that it kept so... that this is Solomon's story.  This is what happened to him.  I was struck by the responsibility of that.  By the responsibility of telling Solomon's story, of delving into this world and the responsibility of telling a story from so deep inside the slave experience.  I spoke to Steve and I decided to attempt to tell the story.  Then rather than a responsibility, it became a privilege.  Every day I was shooting this film was a real privilege to bring Solomon's story and the other people in the film, to bring their story to life.

Michael Fassbender: I remember Steve said to me, I think we were doing junket for Shame or something like that, around that time, and he was like, "The next thing I want to do is I want to make a movie about slavery."  I was like, of course, that seemed pretty obvious.  Steve always seems to tackle the elephant in the room.  So that was the first I heard of it.  Several months later I got a script and I wasn't sure what part Steve had me in mind for.  I was hoping it would be Epps.  I called him up as soon as I read the script.  I was in tears.  I found it such a moving story, an incredible story.  I couldn't believe that it was a true story and I hadn't ever heard anything about it before.  I called him up immediately and I said, "Look... whatever.  If this is one day, two days work on this job.  I just want to be part of it."  It felt like it was a really important story to tell.  Luckily enough, he offered me Epps.

Alfre Woodard: For me it was Steve McQueen.  I was so excited in just this way when you say: oh, my God, here is a new filmmaker with a voice and a vision and the artistic ability when I saw Hunger.  And then Shame.  I was campaigning for that, because I thought it was the best picture of the year when it came out.  The moment that I got a call saying "Steve McQueen would like you to be in this film," and I said yes to the agent and people.  They said, "Well, no, we'll send you a script."  I said, "No, just yes right now."  They said, "It's very small."  I don't care what it is, yes.  Then when I got the script and discovered Mistress Shaw, I was really excited because I knew it was a voice and a presence that we had not seen in American cinema.  So I was on board.

Lupita Nyong'o: Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be involved with a project of this magnitude right after graduating from drama school.  It's been a gift all around, but particularly because when I was in high school, primary school, I wasn't really good in history.  I didn't really retain information.  One of the things I love about being an actor is that you get to visit things outside of yourself, outside of your sphere, and take them personally.  So for me, it was a real privilege to take this time in history personally.  I have learned so much through this process that I would otherwise just not know.  With this particular story, I didn't know that I didn't know these things about slavery.  I'm just glad to be a part of this, that the knowledge will be spread and retained in a way that it would otherwise not be done. 

Chiwetel , Lupita and Michael, you were not raised here.  How did you relate to this story of American slavery?

Chiwetel Ejiofor: I suppose the wider ideas of slavery were something that I have always been aware of and felt connected to.  I remember I was in Savannah, GA.  In Savannah there are these two tours you can go on.  There is the tour of Savannah and there's this guy who pulls up in this small transit van and takes you on the black tour of Savannah.  I went on this tour.  One of the things, because Savannah is so untouched, for anybody who has been there, in Georgia it is sort of pristine.  It's amazing.  The largest historical site, one of them, in the world.  There is this little alcove that is used now [for] people to park their cars in it and stuff.  Back in the day it was used to take the slaves from off the boats and put them in this little place.  There were these huge cast iron gates that would slam shut on them.  There is a walkway above and it would give the people from Savannah the first opportunity to look at who had come off the boat.  To start having a think about who they might want to buy. 

In this little alcove, as I was standing there in this miserable state, I noticed that there were these extra bolts on the wall that hadn’t been removed and had probably been there for hundreds of years.  I said to the guy why are there these extra bolts on the wall and he said – knowing nothing about my background – "Oh, that’s for the Ibos."  I said "That's for the Ibos?"  Yeah.  I said, "You know, I’m Ibo."  We had a moment.  I sat down.  I just looked around this alcove.  I thought: I’m very connected to this experience.  Hundreds of thousands of Ibos were taken out of southeastern Nigeria and brought to America.  Brought to Louisiana.  Brought to South America. 

I think it has always been and has always been known to be an international story anyway.  Steve McQueen mentions that his family is from the West Indies.  Of course the slave trade in the West Indies was an extraordinary event which ended up at times as a kind of land war.  I think everybody in the Diaspora, the African Diaspora, is connected to these issues.  Connected to this event.   Telling the story felt like a responsibility.  The wider aspects of the story, what it says about human respect and human dignity is such an international idea.  But, the truth is 95% of the people working on this film – 97% or 98% – were Americans.  It's an American story that when specifically telling it has a wider impact.  But it's an American story of this particular plantation, or these three plantations.  But I feel that it was always correct that there was an international element to it.  There is an international element to these events.

Michael Fassbender: I have to say that I'm pretty proud that in Ireland I think we have a pretty good educational system.  Maybe because we were late to have private schools in the country, so the state schools were in pretty good shape.  History was always an important subject for me.  One of my favorite subjects.   History, again in Ireland, we are very proud to teach it.  Not only our own history but international history, also.  So, I was always very much aware of American history and the slave trade.  Also the South Americas.  Having gone down to Brazil and been to Salvador and seen there in the port town where the slaves came in from Africa and were held and chained up.  It kind of reminded me of when you were telling us that story, Chiwetel.  So I was well versed in it.  So when I got the script and the story was told in such an eloquent, complex way, I was – again, as Chiwetel said – I was just very privileged to be part of it. 

The movie has many bleak parts, but McQueen has said it is about love and the human soul.  What are your feelings on that?

Sarah Paulson: I think that he said something really great.  He said it was a call for love, which he I were talking about yesterday.  For me, the impact of the end of the movie... you go into the movie knowing what the end of the movie is, that he does regain his freedom.  When he reunites with his family you see the power that was living inside him the whole time that he was enslaved.  To be reunited with his family, that was alive in him the whole time.  It's hard for me to speak about it, because obviously, I didn't play the part.  But as a viewer, and reading the script and the book...

You spoke of the responsibility you felt in taking on this role.  Do you feel you have given Solomon his just due?

Chiwetel Ejiofor: There was a moment of change for me.  The first time I read the script, I didn't necessarily see Solomon in the story, actually.  I saw a man.  I saw the story as a whole thing.  I thought it was an amazing story, about this man whose freedom was taken away and he was trying to get back to his family.  These things happened to him.  These were the obstacles in his way.  It was only really when I was reading the biography that at a certain point it suddenly struck me that this is about this man.  Very specifically this is about Solomon Northrop. 

This is this individual who has a very fascinating way of looking at the world, even within the context of what is happening to him.  I suddenly was struck by his depth of soul, his unbreakable spirit.  The profoundness of his love.  His lack of judgment, even.  His lack of hatred, which is so surprising in his circumstance.  But again, he's somebody who starts off in a battle for his freedom but recognizes that he is actually in a battle for his mind.  Anything that is not going to help him, he just cuts loose.  Hatred ain't going to help you, so he cuts it loose.  He's focused on staying sane, of keeping himself together, even through all of it.  Of not breaking.  I feel that he was an extraordinary person.  I still reflect on his personality.  The personality of someone who is able survive something like this with his mind intact.  Then also to have the wherewithal to write about it in such a poetic and direct and humble way is really amazing. 

That was always my touchstone, trying to get as close as possible to Solomon Northrop was the most important thing.  The only real way of trying to tell the story, in all it's epic vastness, was to continue to try to go down that path, which is a very rewarding path to go down.  A very special person.  Like I said, really a great privilege to try to get close to that.

There was a special screening in Sarasota Springs.  How many of you got to meet the descendents of Solomon Northrop?

Lupita Nyong'o: It was just me.  It was incredible to be in a room full of people who had Solomon Northrop's blood coursing through their veins.  They were just people.  They were contemporary.  Some of them were meeting for the first time, which was... I felt privileged to be at a family reunion.  One of his descendents wrote a poem after reading the biography for the first time and was just talking about his creative expression thanks to his great-great-great grandfather.  He had also gone on a quest to find the first publication of the book.  His adolescent daughter had just found a copy in New Orleans.  It was there in the room.  He gave it to the matriarch of the family, who was his mother.  It was very touching, but at the same time it was so real, because as he handed to his mother, his mother was on an iPhone (laughs) talking to someone outside.  And she was like, "Wait, what?"  It was so cute.  It was a very special occasion.  They were very welcoming to Fox Searchlight and to me.  We showed them clips of the film and they were all so excited that their story was going to be shared with a larger audience.  I look forward to them seeing the film and being able to talk with them some more. 

Steve McQueen said he likes to work with people who are exciting, thrilling, dangerous and brave.  What was it like working with Steve McQueen and each other?

Alfre Woodard: I would say back at him.  Especially dangerous and brave.  By that I mean, you don't really half-step when you're around a person that lives out fully.  Especially an artist.  That's one of the things I loved about being around Steve.  From watching his work and then being around him, that was very true.  Dangerously... as an actor, any time you're going to play a character, find the real person, put flesh on them, bring their reality out front, you have to first start naked.  Then if it requires running naked into it, that's what you do.  The director is the person that is there to grab you, to hold you, to make sure that your nakedness is appropriate. 

He's that kind of director.  You can give whatever occurs to you that comes organically from the work you've done.  The homework, the prep work.  You give it there, not half-stepping.  That's the only mistake.  That's the only way to be wrong creatively, is not to fully go in any direction that you're going to.  He's one of those that you trust.  You know he's got your back.  He's got the eye, he's got the sensibilities and he's got the bravery to want you to play it up to the edge of the glass.  He'll let you know if it goes over, but he'll certainly let you know if the glass isn't full.

Michael Fassbender: That's pretty good.  (laughs) Alfre summed it up there really eloquently.  I don't know.  I think I'm going to be not so eloquent.  I think he's just got a bullshit detector.  You can't come on set and start... I think as actors sometimes we have a tendency – well, I'll speak for myself – to use tricks.  Or get comfortable in certain ways of going about the work, because the work in certain respects has become very formulaic.  There is this certain way things are being taught, whether it's down to script-writing, to direction, you very often see the same format at play. 

Steve just likes to disintegrate that.  As he's often said, this is a baby form in the art world.  Filmmaking has only been around just over 100 years.  There is no formula.  There is no right or wrong, in a way.  There just is.  You have to go out there and do it.  When you're on Steve's set, there are no railings or safety nets.  In fact, he encourages you to fail, and then fail better, as he says himself.  So it's exciting.  It's exciting to be out on one of his sets.  He's very demanding, but he's also very nurturing.  He's got an incredible ability – like Alfre was saying – in all departments to give confidence in using your instincts.  Actually depending on your instincts.  Following them and not questioning them.  That's where he comes in, to nudge you in the right direction. 

Essentially all of us are searching for furniture and objects in a dark room and discovering things together.  That takes courage.  Lupita showed it the first day she came in to rehearsal.  I remember it so clearly.  She came in.  We were doing the soap scene.  I could see she was carrying it all in her body when she walked in.  She knew she had to go to a certain place.  She was retaining it.  She'd obviously walked there with that information.  I could see the hunger of a new student coming out of school.  That's such a beautiful thing to see.  It basically made me think I've got to get my shit together here.  (laughs)  Those are the sort of things that make it exciting and real.

Copyright ©2013  All rights reserved.Posted: October 18, 2013

Photo © 2013. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved.


bottom of page