Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor's soul-baring portrayal of 12 Years a Slave's Solomon Northup, a real-life Saratoga Springs, N.Y., musician, husband, and father duped by two white men and sold into brutal servitude in the antebellum South, has propelled the longtime actor (Children of Men, American Gangster) into the kind of media spotlight he never expected, or sought. For the first time, strangers on the streets of Los Angeles are correctly pronouncing his exotic name (for the record, it's CHEW-eh-tell EDGE-ee-oh-four). ''I was never particularly excited about being at the front of the crowd,'' Ejiofor says. ''With acting, you can tuck yourself away and, through the character, express all your humanity, hopes, fears, and dreams.''
''He's a calculated risk-taker,'' director Steve McQueen says. ''There's a fearlessness about him, but he's the kind of actor who thinks too much before 'How is this going to happen?' and then all of a sudden, he jumps.''
When McQueen first approached Ejiofor about 12 Years, the actor thought it was out of his reach. ''It blindsided me,'' Ejiofor says. ''I hadn't seen a film like that. I thought I'd never see a film like that. It was a story that was so inside the slave experience. I recognized it as a huge responsibility.'' Only when he realized that he had to tell just one man's story, not carry the weight of hundreds of years of slavery on his shoulders, did he agree.
He did months of research, reading Northup's memoir and studying the economics of the slave trade, before setting foot in Louisiana. Once there, nothing about the experience spooked him, he says. The scenes of intense violence—hanging from a noose, being beaten mercilessly—only helped him connect more deeply to his character. ''In those moments you feel that you are as close as you can get to what was going on,'' he says. ''It allows another level of legitimacy in the pursuit of someone's story.'' Still, the time on the plantation took a toll, says McQueen, who advised Ejiofor to be mindful of what the role might be doing to the actor's head. ''Being in that environment, it's not play,'' the director says. ''He was dancing with ghosts.'' Nicole Sperling