‘12 Years’ actors immersed themselves in authenticity, camaraderie on set

Actors wait a lifetime for a role as rich as that of Solomon Northup, a 19th century free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery and later wrote a memoir about the experience.

Yet British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Kinky Boots,” “Children of Men”) did not jump at the chance to play Northup in British director Steve McQueen’s film adaptation of “12 Years a Slave,” opening today in Sacramento.

“I had to pause before accepting the part,” Ejiofor said by phone during a recent publicity stop in San Francisco. The script included physically and emotionally grueling scenes to which Ejiofor was not sure he could connect. “I was consumed by the complications of telling this story and whether those places could be reached by me.”

Such concerns evaporated after Ejiofor took the part and ensconced himself within McQueen’s (“Hunger,” “Shame”) immersive approach to the project.

A scene that required Ejiofor to stand on tiptoes, a noose around his neck, for a prolonged period was shot on a Louisiana plantation much like the plantations on which Northrup toiled. The setting, and the physical challenges of the scene, took him further into character, Ejiofor said.

“In a way, you are looking to legitimize your ability to tell someone’s story,” Ejiofor said. “I felt by getting as close to how (Northup) would have felt physically, it sort of helped me do that.”

Sparely told yet scorchingly immediate, “12 Years” seems a lock for an Academy Award best picture nomination and a directing nomination for McQueen. Also likely are a lead-actor nomination for Ejiofor and supporting nods for Michael Fassbender, who plays a hate-filled plantation owner, and Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Patsey, a slave with whom Fassbender’s character is obsessed.

Ngyong’o said McQueen cultivated an adventurous yet safe atmosphere on set, thus allowing his cast to reach difficult emotional and physical states.

“I watched ‘Hunger’ and ‘Shame,’ and I knew that Steve was an artist whose vision, whose voice, whose aesthetic I could trust,” Nyong’o said of McQueen’s 2008 film about Irish hunger strikers and 2011 movie about a New York City sex addict, both of which starred Fassbender.

On set in Louisiana, McQueen would “encourage us to fail and then feel better and to really risk-take because that’s when you find interesting, magical, miraculous things,” Nyong’o said.

Kenyan actress Nyong’o, a Yale School of Drama alumna, makes her big-screen debut in “12 Years.” She said more seasoned actors Ejiofor, Fassbender and Sarah Paulson (who plays Fassbender’s duplicitous wife) created “a high level of respect, and a real circle of trust” on set. “We needed each other to go to these really difficult places.”

Her performance also was guided partly by Northup’s description in his book of Patsey “having an air of loftiness that neither labor nor lash could rid her of,” Nyong’o said.

Northup’s book, published in 1853 after he regained his freedom and returned home to New York state, provided a “template” for a production striving for realism, Ejiofor said. “The clues were all within the very detailed historical narrative that Solomon had written.”

Costume supervisor Patricia Norris applied Louisiana soil to Solomon’s work clothes to show wear and tear, and dried the clothes in the sun rather than in a dryer.

No such extra measures were necessary, during the film’s shoot last summer, to impart to actors the harsh conditions under which Northup and other field hands worked.

“It was something like 108 degrees on the first day of shooting, with very high humidity, and we were all outside picking cotton,” Ejiofor said. “It put you totally in the world of what was happening (in Northup’s book).”

Ejiofor said his formal education in England mostly skipped lessons about slavery. But he educated himself about the international slave trade, he said, partly because of his family’s roots in Nigeria, a longtime slave-trade hub.

Interested in learning more about American slavery, Ejiofor traveled to Louisiana weeks before the “12 Years” shoot to get a feel for the area. The candor with which the Southerners he met discussed the slavery era was unexpected, he said.

Descendants of plantation owners were “so open and wanting to reflect and engage with this period of history,” Ejiofor said. “(They) would take us all around their plantations and tell us all the stories, which would include the revolts where some of their forebears were killed … . (They) really wanted to get these stories out. It was an extraordinary realization that there are so many people who felt there has been a slight gap in the knowledge and the expression of this time and era.”

One assumes clouds of shame and anger surrounding slavery in America, and by extension, that “12 Years” can be so unflinching because its director is British and therefore detached from Americans’ whirling emotions. Ejiofor said that is not the case.

“Steve’s own background is from the West Indies, where there was kind of a ferocious slave trade over sugar,” Ejiofor said. “I feel like he has a strong connection to slavery.”

Most overarching, though, is McQueen’s desire to “look at certain areas that people for whatever reason have shied away from,” Ejiofor said. In “12 Years,” it is the cruel truths of slavery, in “Hunger,” the abject conditions in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison, and in “Shame,” a sex addict’s joyless physical connections.

“He’s interested in these areas that people want to push aside but (that) are very important to look at,” Ejiofor said of McQueen.

Though “12 Years’” era and setting are specific, it’s “always a good time to figure out what our relationship is to human respect and human dignity,” Ejiofor said.