The incredible cast of 12 Years a Slave open up on the experiences of making the film
If '12 Years a Slave' doesn’t win a single award from now until the Oscars, it will still go down in history as one of the 21st century’s most important, affecting films. The story of Solomon Northrup’s enslavement and the subsequent hell he faced is as brutal as any ever told, and to truly extract even a modicum of sincerity, the entire cast had to be both honest and befittingly talented.
But when you’re speaking of a cast that comprises Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, Pual Giamatti, Quvenzhané Wallis and Michael K. Williams, honesty and talent is never in question.
From the lead right through to the supporting roles, the striking thing about ‘12 Years a Slave’ is the quality of acting. This starts with Ejiofor, who had the daunting task of stepping Northrup’s shoes. “We’re very lucky to have all these roles filled with great actors, starting with Chiwetel,” explained director Steve McQueen.
“He’s in every scene. Emotionally as an actor it’s a rigorous workout; you can’t imagine how difficult it was it was to do what he had to do. And he was amazing,” added Alfre Woodard, who plays Mistress Harriet Shaw. Such praise has manifested in numerous award nominations for Ejiofor, with a Bafta nod for Best Actor the latest. He’s favourite to win, even amongst competition like Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern and Leonardo DiCaprio.
“Solomon’s journey is an odyssey, and it spreads over 12 years and he encounters all these different people, and so it became this huge cast of great actors,” explained the British-born actor.
On the other end of the spectrum – on a narrative sense, at least – is Michael Fassbender, who plays the evil plantation owner Edwin Epps. Utterly besotted with Lupita Nyong'o’s Patsey and uneasy around Ejiofor’s Northrup, Epps takes his inner turmoil out on the slaves he owns.
“There’s an immediate disliking, because Epps feels inadequate around Solomon, funnily enough. And that’s the route of their relationship; Solomon just has to follow orders basically, and it’s a dancing game. But he’s essentially obsessed with Patsy." Patsy is played by newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who turns in a masterful performance as the female black slave - the object of violent beatings and sexual molestation. "Lupita is a complete newcomer, straight out of drama school,” explained Fassbender, who calls the Bafta nominee “bright” and “impressive”.
Another memorable turn comes in the form of Paul Dano’s John Tibeats, a crushed soul lashing out against those he deems inferior due to a lack of self understanding and self worth. He is, despite this caveat dressed in sympathy, a vile character.
“I talked to Paul a lot about Tibeats, because I just didn’t want to make him a one dimensional character,” explained McQueen. “My character is not likable, and when I first read it, it felt a little daunting, But you just look into the person and try and find why they might be like that,” said Dano.
As well as having a British director, the cast features a strong contingent of British actors - many Americans are still getting used to the fact that Chiwetel’s accent isn’t real. Cumberbatch, who has enjoyed a recent spate of work in some more light-hearted Hollywood affairs, plays William Ford. While Mr. Ford a plantation owner who, despite owning slaves, has a wider sense of humility. “He’s someone who’s tortured, really, by his own self-awareness. He completely understands the inhumanities of what’s going on,” says Cumberbatch.
Ford hands Northrup a violin in one of 12 Years' more touching moments
Individually, the aforementioned actors give the film clout in terms of pulling power; it is regarded as the all-star film of the year. But put those performances together, and you get a cast that seem genuinely determined to tell an important story; to further unearth the realities of slavery, which, lest we forget, occurred as recently as 150 years ago.