Steven Spielberg discovered him, Ridley Scott and Alfonso Cuarón have hired him; now, with an Oscar nod for his performance in ''12 Years a Slave'' almost certain, the British actor finally takes center stage

By Nicole Sperling
Updated December 20, 2013 at 05:00 AM EST

On a sweltering summer night in 2012, the cast and crew of 12 Years a Slave gathered in Louisiana for a start-of-production meal, and director Steve McQueen was trying to get a read on his leading man. The British McQueen (Shame) had cast his countryman Chiwetel Ejiofor in the starring role of freeman-turned-slave Solomon Northup. The actor, 36, had a reputation for being reserved, and McQueen had yet to crack his shell. “We are all feeling each other out, getting to know each other, and Chiwetel gets a bit drunk and asks, ‘Does anyone believe in love?’ and I thought, ‘I love this guy,'” McQueen says with a laugh. “It’s all in him — all that humanity, all that questioning, all that feeling just bursts onto the screen.”

It’s helped him burst to the front of the Best Actor Oscar race, too, and earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Ejiofor’s soul-baring portrayal of Northup, a real-life Saratoga Springs, N.Y., musician, husband, and father duped by two white men and sold into brutal servitude in the antebellum South, has propelled the longtime actor (Children of Men, American Gangster) into the kind of media spotlight he never expected, or sought. For the first time, strangers on the streets of Los Angeles are correctly pronouncing his exotic name (for the record, it’s CHEW-eh-tell EDGE-ee-oh-four). “I was never particularly excited about being at the front of the crowd,” Ejiofor says. “With acting, you can tuck yourself away and, through the character, express all your humanity, hopes, fears, and dreams.”

In person Ejiofor, who was born in England to Nigerian refugee parents, is a poised, contained presence. He analyzes. He ponders. He laughs often, but never in a way that feels carefree. He may be able to reveal his heart when the cameras roll, but off screen he seems very much in his head. “He’s a calculated risk-taker,” McQueen says. “There’s a fearlessness about him, but he’s the kind of actor who thinks too much before — ‘How is this going to happen?’ — and then all of a sudden, he jumps.” Adds his 12 Years costar Lupita Nyong’o: “His spirit is like water. He’s calm, but there is a danger in that calmness.”

The second of four children, Ejiofor grew up in London. His father was a doctor, and both parents were also musicians. Creativity was encouraged. Then, when Ejiofor was 11, he was in a car accident that killed his father. The pale scar that slices across his forehead is from that event.

Asked about his father now, the actor says only that the man was, and remains, “a big presence in my life.” But Ejiofor’s younger sister, CNN correspondent Zain Asher, thinks the incident was pivotal to her brother’s life in multiple ways. “We come from a very traditional Nigerian family where your parents would want you to become a lawyer or a doctor,” Asher says. “My father loved his profession as a doctor, and he really took Chiwetel under his wing. There might have been a higher chance that Chiwetel would have followed in my father’s footsteps had he still been present.”

After the accident, Ejiofor started acting, both in high school and with London’s National Youth Theatre — a proven breeding ground for British actors, including Daniel Day-Lewis and Helen Mirren. “Acting allowed him a medium to express himself,” says Asher. “When you go through a traumatic experience, it forces you to look inside. That experience changed him. I remember him being a lot more outgoing before it happened. Now he is very thoughtful and introspective.”

Following his graduation from high school, Ejiofor attended the acclaimed London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, with the goal of joining all the major theater companies in the U.K. and traveling around the country performing Shakespeare and the other classics. A film career was nowhere on his radar.

Steven Spielberg changed all that, casting a 19-year-old Ejiofor in the 1997 drama Amistad. Initially, Ejiofor says, “I had total determination to return to London and keep working in theater.” But hanging out on a soundstage with Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins has a way of broadening your perspective. “I had seen the other side,” he says, laughing. “The expanse [of the film], the limitless opportunities, the creative scale of it was so beyond. It blew my mind.”

Since then Ejiofor has toggled between studio movies (Inside Man, Salt) and smaller films (Kinky Boots, Talk to Me). He continues to carve out time for stage work, including a recent seven-week run in London’s West End in A Season in the Congo, directed by Joe Wright (Atonement). The play’s long political speeches can be a slog for the audience, but Wright compares Ejiofor’s performance to that of a great singer tackling a difficult song. “One can be entranced by the nature and beauty of his voice,” he says. “It opens a portal into what he’s saying and turns the story into poetry.”

When McQueen first approached Ejiofor about 12 Years, the actor thought it was out of his reach. “It blindsided me,” Ejiofor says. “I hadn’t seen a film like that. I thought I’d never see a film like that. It was a story that was so inside the slave experience. I recognized it as a huge responsibility.” Only when he realized that he had to tell just one man’s story, not carry the weight of hundreds of years of slavery on his shoulders, did he agree.

He did months of research, reading Northup’s memoir and studying the economics of the slave trade, before setting foot in Louisiana. Once there, nothing about the experience spooked him, he says. The scenes of intense violence — hanging from a noose, being beaten mercilessly — only helped him connect more deeply to his character. “In those moments you feel that you are as close as you can get to what was going on,” he says. “It allows another level of legitimacy in the pursuit of someone’s story.”

To counteract the film’s heavy narrative, the cast and crew kept things light during their time off. And Ejiofor didn’t recede after that initial “Does anyone believe in love?” dinner. Nyong’o says he chaired most of the social events, including trips to the go-kart track, paintball wars, and one epic dinner where he regaled his castmates with a single 25-minute joke. “He had all of us just waiting for the punchline,” Nyong’o says, laughing. (Sadly, she can’t remember what it was.) “He tells a funny joke, that guy.”

Still, the time on the plantation took a toll, says McQueen, who advised Ejiofor to be mindful of what the role might be doing to the actor’s head. “Being in that environment, it’s not play,” the director says. “He was dancing with ghosts.” To help exorcise them, Ejiofor chose not to return to London or to Los Angeles (where he lives part-time) after the film wrapped. He hunkered down in Brooklyn, where he knew few people and therefore could spend some time in self-imposed isolation. He read The Grapes of Wrath and tried to make sense of what he had just been through. “I felt that I was living in a reality that was so engaged with those primary forces: man, woman, economy, industry, violence, and love,” he says. “I didn’t want to take that kind of dynamic straight back into real life.”

His real life is now getting more complicated. He may not have wanted fame, but the acclaim for his performance seems to be delivering it to his doorstep anyway. He’s discovering that the public wants to know him, not just the people he plays. That’s a long, perilous leap for a 13-year-old boy who preferred to express whatever he was feeling from behind the high walls of a character. “You realize that you can’t hide and you have to be more open and expressive of yourself,” he says. “It’s scary to look at it like that: A 13-year-old decided my life.”

12 Years a Slave

  • Movie
  • R
  • 134 minutes
  • Steve McQueen