The movie is based on the story of how Northup, a free black man from New York, was kidnapped in 1841 and ultimately sold to Edwin Epps, a cruel Louisiana plantation owner, played in the film by German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender. Epps' treatment of his favorite slave Patsey, played by Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o, incurs the wrath of his insecure wife, Mary, played by U.S. actress Sarah Paulson. The film is about how Northup survives more than a decade of slavery in this hostile and dangerous environment before he is liberated and able to return home.
"I was amazed by this extraordinary tale of this man," Ejiofor, who is already generating Oscar buzz for his performance, told reporters in New York recently.
"I was surprised that I didn't know the story," the 36-year-old actor confessed, recalling his initial reaction when he read the screenplay for the film. "I was surprised again, when I read the autobiography, that this is Solomon's story. This is what happened to him. I was struck by the responsibility of telling Solomon's story, of delving into this world and the responsibility of telling the story from so deep inside the slave experience. I spoke to Steve and I decided to attempt to tell this story and then it actually became, rather than a responsibility, a privilege. Every day of shooting on this film was a privilege to bring Solomon's story -- and the other people in the film -- to bring their stories to life."
To prepare for the role, Ejiofor said he took a tour of Savannah, Ga., that focused on the black experience in the 19th century United States. During the excursion, Ejiofor said the guide showed him a place where slaves, including Igbo people from Nigeria, were once chained to walls after they were taken off of ships from Africa.
"I said, 'I'm Igbo.' And we had a moment. I sat down and I just looked at this alcove and I thought, 'I'm very connected to this experience,'" Ejiofor recalled.
"Hundreds of thousands of Igbos were taken out of Southeastern Nigeria, brought to America, brought to Louisiana, brought to South America, so I felt that. I think [slavery has] always been and will always be an international story," he noted.
"Steve McQueen mentions 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 everyone in the African diaspora is connected to these issues, connected to this event, so telling the story felt like a responsibility and the wider aspects of what it says about human respect and human dignity is an international idea. But the truth is 95 percent of the people working on this film -- 97, 98 percent -- were Americans. It's an American story that we're specifically telling. It has a wider impact, but it's an American story of these particular three plantations, but I felt it was always correct that there was an international element to [the film] because there was an international element to these events."
Ejiofor said he was also incredibly moved by how Northup maintained his humanity in the most horrific situations.
"He was an individual who has a fascinating way of looking at the world even in the context of what is happening to him," the actor observed. "I suddenly was struck by his depth of soul, his unbreakable spirit and the profoundness of his love and his lack of judgment, his lack of hatred, which is so surprising in his circumstance. He recognized he is someone who starts off in a battle for his freedom, but realizes he is actually in a battle for his mind. Anything that is not going to help him, he just cuts loose and hatred isn't going to help you, so he cuts it loose. He is focused on staying sane, of keeping himself together through all of it. Of not breaking. And I feel that he was an extraordinary person and I still reflect on his personality and the personality of somebody who is able to survive something like this with his mind intact and then also to have the wherewithal to write about it in such a poetic and direct and humble way is really amazing."