'12 Years a Slave' actors share deep 'Roots'

The Fresno BeeNovember 6, 2013 

Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps), Lupita Nyong'o (Patsey) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup) star in "12 Years A Slave."

FRANCOIS DUHAMEL — Fox Searchlight

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o, stars of "12 Years a Slave," grew up worlds apart.

He was born in London to Nigerian parents and studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. She was born in Mexico to a Kenyan family, who raised her primarily in the African nation, and graduated from Hampshire College in the United States with a degree in film and theatre studies.

Despite their different backgrounds, the actors were linked by one common bond — the ground-breaking miniseries "Roots."

"I remember watching 'Roots' as a child and it left an impression on me," Nyong'o says.

Her co-star adds, " 'Roots' was so impactful when I was growing up. It was the first time I knew about American slave trade."

Years later the two have come together to bring the writings of Solomon Northup, a free man who actually lived the "Roots" experience when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in pre-Civil War America. Ejiofor plays Northup and Nyong'o plays Patsey, a young slave he befriends, in the film by director Steve McQueen.

Working on the movie gave both actors a different perspective on American slavery.

"When I was younger, I looked at slavery as an international concept. I was interested in what affect slavery had on Africa, particularly in West Africa, Nigeria, because that's where my family's from," Ejiofor says. "But, once I read the script, it became a different experience. I felt a responsibility of telling this story. I wanted to make sure I knew everything about this man and so I read his book.

"When I first read the screenplay, I thought this was the story of anonymous man who goes through this extraordinary experience. In reading the book, I realized that he was not an anonymous man but this was a specific journey and a specific world view."

The more Nyong'o read about Patsey, the more she realized the dramatic roller coaster of emotions she would have to play. The character goes from being a favored slave of a cruel master to being at the brutal end of the jealousy felt by her master's wife.

Nyong'o realized that the way Patsey adapted to survive was a lot like the Stockholm Syndrome many captives feel for those who have imprisoned them.

No scene in the movie better exemplifies the emotional, physical and mental abuse the slaves faced than one where Northup is forced to whip Patsey. It was an extraordinarily tough scene for both actors, but it was one they knew would bring the most focused light on what the slaves went through.

"Northup used great detail when he described the whipping. How heartbreaking it was for him and what it did to Patsey," Ejiofor says. "I am deeply privileged to bring this story out. We shot the scene at a plantation and in some way it felt like we were dancing with the spirits."

Filming "12 Years a Slave," particularly the whipping scene, affected the actor so deeply that it took him two months after the filming was completed to come out of the "emotional rabbit hole" he had slipped down into during production.

Nyong'o's recalls how the scene affected some of the crew who were so deeply moved they broke down and had to leave the set. While the cameras were rolling, she, too, felt they were "dancing with the ghosts" that still haunt the plantation.

The filming was so intense, Nyong'o didn't want to see the movie when it was completed. She was finally convinced and is glad she did. It ended up being a cathartic experience.

Both actors now hope that the movie will have the same impact on viewers that "Roots" had on them so many years ago.

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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