12 Years a Slave Interview
12 Years a Slave Interview
Can you explain the audition process, how Mr Ejiofor got the role, and the rest of the cast as well?

Steve McQueen

We knew each other before, and as far as I was concerned, as soon as I read the book there was only one actor who could play him and that was Chiwetel. There’s a dignity to him which I needed, which Solomon needed. He needed to be portrayed in that way, because that was Solomon Northup. Chiwetel is just a great actor. Also he reminds me of Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier. There’s a stature to him that translates onto the screen, that’s why Chiwetel is one in a million.
In relation to that, on your close relationship with Michael Fassbender - I wondered if you could expand on how well you work together? Michael said he wouldn’t play the Oscar game, I wondered how you felt about that and the whole idea of this Oscar game.

Steve McQueen

Me and Michael obviously go back a while, since 2007 when I first met him, when he auditioned for Hunger. Our relationship has blossomed into something - I value it more than a lot of things in my life, I value it tremendously. He’s an artist, he’s an amazing artist. He’s a force to be reckoned with. There’s a kind of magic he has, that he brings on set. He’s the kind of guy that when he leaves a set, people cry. He has a certain spirit. As far as a campaign, his campaign is right on screen. That’s Michael Fassbender’s Oscar campaign. He’s done his thing, that’s it.
I really liked the use of music in the film. Hans Zimmer is probably one of the biggest composers right now, he’s done everything from Pirates to Kung Fu Panda. I wondered why he was chosen to write the music for the film, and the process he went through in order to get the fabulous score.

Steve McQueen

Yeah, I just rang him up! As you do. We had a chat around Shame at one point, so I just rang him up and said, ‘Listen, I’m doing this film, there’s no money,’ and he said, ‘Steve, I’m destroying the world!’ - he was making Superman at the time. ‘Hans, is it possible you could think about this idea?’ - ‘I’ll do it!’ he said.

So that was it. From there, we had a lot of discussion. Hans is a fantastic guy. We had two conversations of five hours, at his place, then two other conversations for about three hours on the phone. And then I came to his studio. All that conversation led to a couple of notes. So he has to be submerged in the narrative so deeply that he comes out of it another way. It translates in him through sound.
What comes through most strikingly about Solomon is that he’s not a symbol. He’s an individual. How did you go about developing that kind of characterisation?

Chiwetel Ejiofor

It didn’t come that easily to me. When I first read the script I definitely saw the story of a man going through extraordinary circumstance. It wasn’t until I read the book and went back to the script, I realised - this is obvious in a way - this was actually the story of Solomon Northup. My responsibility was simply to tell his story. I’d seen it initially as feeling the responsibility of telling a story about the slave experience. Telling one of the only stories in cinema from inside the slave experience. That was a bit of a hurdle for me, trying to tell a story through this one person.

Of course, you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to tell the whole story of slavery, just the story of Solomon Northup. The book was then very revealing in terms of his character, and I realised his worldview and the way he approached the world and approached other people was remarkable. I tried to work out what his specific characteristics are, they’re mainly to do with his extraordinary reflex of survival and love of life. As well as an absence of hatred that he utilises. He’s able to continue through this system because he gets rid of anything not useful to his survival, both physically and mentally. It’s an extraordinary paring down of all those elements that allows him to navigate this.
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Content updated: 21/09/2019 23:53

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