’12 Years’ Writer Approached the Script Like a ‘Restoration Project’

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Steve McQueen
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The cast and filmmakers behind Steve McQueen‘s “12 Years a Slave” settled into the Directors Guild Oct. 14 to present the story of Solomon Northup, whose harrowing autobiography — a bestseller during the 19th Century — was the basis of the film. But Chiwetel Ejiofor, who deftly portrays Northup’s journey through bondage, hesitated before accepting the role.

“[Steve] called me up and he said he was going to send me the script and I was excited because I had been a fan of his for ages,” Ejiofor said. “After I read the script I had to take a bit of pause because there was a lot of responsibility.”

“You have these feelings as an actor, you hope for a great part and when it comes sometimes, it is a strange reaction, and you think, ‘Can I do this?’ I don’t want to go out there and make a mess of it.”

For many involved in the film, the trick was to remove their subjectivity as much as possible so as to make room for Northup’s original text to guide their work.

“This story was so powerful in and of itself and the perspective was so different than my own, I approached it like a restoration project that you want to elevate and excavate, but you didn’t want to overshadow and have too much of a personal imprimatur on it,” screenwriter John Ridley said. McQueen approached Ridley in 2008 about collaborating on a film about American slavery before McQueen found “12 Years.”

Lupita Nyong’o, whose standout performance as Patsy has garnered praise from critics, was just relieved that she could do her character justice.

“Patsy left an indelible mark on Solomon Northup and that is why she had such an important part in his story. It was about picking those things up and letting them govern how I went about it,” Nyong’o said. “As much as she moved Solomon, I was hoping to capture that light as well as the darkness.”

Ejiofor agreed that it was Northup’s words that determined every creative division. “The book was just incredibly valuable and gave me insight to Solomon, his life, his attitude, his world view, the reasons he was able to survive this, and the reasons he was the person that he was.”

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