Based on the unforgettable memoir that exposed the inner workings of slavery in the 19th Century, comes 12 Years A Slave, director Steve McQueen’s (Hunger, Shame) mesmerizing and incredibly moving account of New York family man Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) unexpected kidnapping, his dizzying journey into Louisiana’s slave plantations, and his unbreakable quest to get home to those he loves.

In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup, a free Black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty (personified by a malevolent slave owner, portrayed by Michael Fassbender), as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon’s chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist will forever alter his life. 

Opening on October 18th in the US and January 24th in the UK, 12 Years a Slave also stars Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’o, Alfre Woodard, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ruth Negga, Adepero Oduye, Paul Giamatti, Garret Dillahunt, Sarah Paulson, Scoot McNairy, Dwight Henry, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Michael Kenneth Williams. 

When you were first approached by Steve McQueen for this film, I can imagine it was a daunting yet thrilling thought to play Solomon Northup? Submerging yourself into the sheer power of Northup’s resolute determination, this man who finds himself in one unimaginable circumstance after another….

Chiwetel Ejiofor: I felt Solomon’s beating heart from the minute I started reading about him. At first I was awed enough by the enormity of the part that I gave careful thought to the task ahead. When I first read the script and then the book, I found it devastating. It was heartbreaking to look behind the curtain of that period in history. I’d never read or seen anything like it in my life. Of course I knew about slavery but mostly in a general context. This story really does put you in Solomon’s mindset, so that you start to understand what he is going through and what he is witnessing. I really began to feel what this kind of emotional journey would mean to someone. After that, it was impossible to lose it. It penetrated me to the point that I still feel it. It’s quite a thing. It’s a story about how hard it is to break a man’s spirit, about what tremendous reserves a man has. Solomon witnessed one of the harshest structures in the history of the world, and survived with his mind intact. For me, it was an extraordinary experience to be part of telling this story and one of the most challenging roles of my career. I knew it was going to be physically, emotionally and psychologically difficult. I told Steve I needed to think about it. But the impact the story had on me was unshakable. If I was honest with myself I knew that there was no way that I wasn’t going to be involved with it.

I can imagine that the gravity of telling Solomon’s story served as a sort of North Star throughout all the scenes that took you to the brink?

Chiwetel Ejiofor: Definitely. The story is so impactful and so real. The emotional journey was an extraordinary challenge, but it’s the kind of challenge where everything else kind of falls away and the character becomes an obsession. That obsession gave way to insight. I’ve thought a lot about this film in the context of how it applies to our contemporary world, and I think there is something about Solomon that stretches across time and place, that touches something very deep inside us all. It’s that sense of our own personal belief in our freedoms and our connections to our families and the people who surround us. That’s the real power of Solomon’s story. It is beautifully rich and deep and tragic and redemptive – but it’s a very human story. It’s a story about human dignity and our freedom’s and what we most require in the world.