Will ‘12 Years…’ rule the Oscars?
LOS ANGELES—Will it be the year of Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” in the Oscars? The very moving, brutal film based on Solomon Northup’s book, “Twelve Years a Slave,” his own harrowing account of being an educated, free black man who was sold into slavery, has been dominating the Best Picture race this awards season.
The UK-born filmmaker said in our interview that he was “upset” that he didn’t know such a book existed but learned later that nobody in his circle was also aware of the tome.
The director behind “Shame” and “Hunger,” which both starred Michael Fassbender (this is their third collaboration), said he wanted to adapt the book into a film right away. “I talked to Brad Pitt at Plan B (a film production company cofounded by the actor) and he was so receptive to it. He wanted to make it.”
The result is an acclaimed film that earned nine nominations in the 86th Academy Awards, including a director nod for Steve and acting citations for Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northup, Michael and Lupita Nyong’o, in her sensational feature film debut. The 44-year-old director has received numerous honors, including being appointed Officer and Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2002 and 2011, respectively.
When not traveling around the world making or promoting films, Steve is in Amsterdam where he lives with his wife, cultural critic Bianca Stigter, and their two children.
Excerpts from our interview with Steve:
According to Michael Fassbender, he wants to work with you again and again. How different was it to work with him on this third film?
He’s been so focused and intense from day one. I remember when we finished making “Hunger.” On the last day that Michael was on the set, I looked around and got all the crew. I said to them, “Everybody in this room at some point is going to [proudly] say, ‘I worked with Michael Fassbender.’” That was in 2008. I don’t think I was wrong.
Michael is an extraordinary actor. He’s the most influential actor of our generation. He’s like the Gary Oldman or Mickey Rourke of his time. Kids see him and they want to be an actor. Actors see him and they want to work with him. Directors see him and they want him to be in their picture. That’s how influential Michael is. It’s an honor that I got the chance to work with him and have some kind of connection. I am very proud of that.
Did you have Chiwetel in mind for the Northup role from the start?
Chiwetel was always my first choice because he has this genteelness about him. He’s a real gentleman. He’s from the old guard. He opens a door for a lady, stands up and offers a chair. Solomon was that kind of person, similar to Sidney Poitier or someone like that.
I knew that the humanity in Chiwetel on the journey of making this film would be tested to breaking point. I hoped that he would get through it and he did. I spoke about silent movie stars with Chiwetel because [the role] has a lot to do with his face. He wasn’t talking a lot [in this film]. The audience had to read him. He had to work on those eyes, which were very important… when you look at Solomon, each individual in the audience should feel like looking at himself, as if you were going along that journey with him. What he saw, you saw for the first time, too.
The scene where Solomon had to pray has such an impact.
It was in the moment of being so desperate, when that letter was found. He had nowhere to go. He tried to do everything he possibly could to survive, then one of his friends died. At his lowest ebb, for him to have that spiritual moment, to reluctantly and then wholeheartedly involve himself with [praying], it was the best way to demonstrate that in a real cathartic manner.
Can you share what you know about what happened to Solomon after those 12 years?
After Solomon got back to Saratoga, New York, he wrote his book and then he went to do lectures in Northeast America. Then he wrote a stage play out of the book. He did two stage
plays from it, one was in Washington and all over the Northeast. Then, in the other one, he appeared as himself—similar to Billy the Kid when they put on the plays. There was a riot in his last performance of “12 Years a Slave,” which was documented in an American newspaper.
After that, Solomon sort of fell off the map. There’s no other recorded evidence of what he did afterward. No one could find out what happened to him. He was involved in the underground railroad so during that venture, some things could have happened.
How did you learn about the book?
I wanted to make a film about slavery. I was working with the writer, John Ridley. It was taking a bit of time. My wife said to me, “Why don’t you look at actual stories of slavery?” She had been a historian. We both researched and she found this book, “Twelve Years a Slave.” She said to me, “I think I’ve got it.” If ever there was an understatement, that was it. As I turned the pages of the book, each page was like reading a script. It was miraculous. There was a revelation on each page. I was upset with myself that I didn’t know this book. It turned out that everyone I knew didn’t know about it.
Did your mother name you after the famous actor?
I was born in 1969 a year after “Bullitt” came out. My mother told me that when the nurses in the hospital passed by, they always asked, “How is Steve McQueen doing?” So that was it.
Do people get confused with your name?
People are getting older and the young people don’t even know who Steve McQueen is anymore.
(E-mail the columnist at [email protected] Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.)
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