TODAY   |  October 08, 2013

Chiwetel Ejiofor: It was a ‘privilege’ to play slave

The actor talks to TODAY’s Matt Lauer about his experience playing the role of Solomon Northop, a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 19th century, in the film “12 Years a Slave.”

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> one of the stars of the movie that's attracting a lot of attention leading up to award season. this is called "12 years a slave." it's based on the true story of a free man kidnapped into slavery in the 19th century . take a look.

>> my family, and my home. now you tell me all is lost? that's the way to survive.

well, i don't want to survive: i want to live.

>> good morning. nice to see you.

>> morning.

>> wow, that's the first word that comes to mind. they gave me a screener of this last night. i watched most of it. i haven't seen the end yet. at times i couldn't watch and most times i couldn't turn away. do you understand what i mean by that?

>> i do. i mean, i was always -- when i read the script and i read the book, i was just devastated by it, actually and there was so many times when i was reading it that i had to put it down for a second and breathe a little and take a moment. so yeah, i think it's such a beautiful story. i always thought it was an amazingly -- it's not pretty, it's just beautiful, you know, in a way.

>> let's just give the history here. he is a free black man living in upstate new york . living well. he has a wife and children. he's a talented musician and he basically gets abducted into slavery.

>> it happened, a lot, as soon as slavery was made illegal in terms of getting slaves from africa it started to happen that people would be kidnapped off the streets in new york, a lot of children as well and sold into slavery in the south. this is the only account that we have from somebody that went through the experience and survived it and was able to tell their story.

>> and this is a treasure trove because he did write a memoir about it. what did you learn?

>> the whole process was to try to get as close to him as possible in away and understand this remarkable person and his life and to have that first-person historical narrative was invaluable to me as an actor and amazing thing to look at and draw from tnch.

>> there are whippings, there are hangings, as difficult as it is for a viewer, what was it like as an actor to shoot scenes like that?

>> it's always interesting because to me it was a privilege. i wanted to tell the story and i wanted to be inside of the experience and to tell the story of solomon's life and even the moments that are hard or complex were sort of, i just felt connected to what he went through.

>> i want to mention brad pitt has a small role in this. also producer on the movie. and i read something you said in an interview, that you don't see him as purely a bad guy . that he's dealing with some pain of his own. can you explain that?

>> i think it's that thing about people if you're trying to tell stories about people, real people , you have to look at them as three dimensional characters. they're not two dimensional and that's the thing with michael's character who is essentially this horrific guy. but there's a human being there and that's what is really engaging an that's what is engageli engaging about the book and the story is you're dealing with real people .

>> here we are in october. we're moving into award season and i know you heard this but you are already placed on a very short list for best actor at the academy awards . and you're just staring at me.

>> what.

>> what does it mean?

>> it's amazing, you know? i suppose i'm deeply proud of this film and i'm really excited to get it out there and for people to see it and to get their reactions to it and it's something that i think working with steve mcqueen who is an extraordinary film maker who has been the most amazing experience of my life in terms of an actor and beyond that. so i'm thrilled to be in this moment.

>> i think we're going to be hearing your name a lot over the next several months. congratulations on this.

>> thank you.

>> by the way, 12 years a slave hits theaters on october 18th . we'll be back