The state of Louisiana — with its manicured plantations, moss-draped sycamores and creeping kudzu vines — serves almost as a character itself in "12 Years a Slave," Steve McQueen's historical drama based on the life of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was drugged, kidnapped and enslaved in the antebellum South for a dozen years.
At a recent installment of the Envelope Screening Series, actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northup, and Alfre Woodard, who plays a former slave married to a plantation owner, discussed how the film's powerful sense of place helped them get into character.
"You don't have to make-believe anything," Woodard said of shooting on multiple plantations outside New Orleans. "All you have to do is show up and be open."
She added: "Walking into a place where so many lives had been lived, had been lost, had just triumphed, it's palpable. It's just like the humidity — you can feel it."
For Ejiofor, the process of getting into character began before he actually got to the South. "In a way I'd started this journey in Nigeria," he said, "like so many people from this period.
"I was finishing a film in Nigeria, and I went to the slave museum in Calabar, in the south of Nigeria, and was looking at the roll call, the list of people that were taken from there. And the following day I knew that I was going to fly out to Louisiana, and I was so struck by how many people — hundreds of thousands of people on this roll call in this museum — were sent to New Orleans. And so the next day I go on this journey in a completely different way, obviously. … That was important just to find an overall sense of the place and the time and the experience."
For more from Ejiofor and Woodard, as well as cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, watch the video above.
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