Chiwetel Ejiofor's '12 Years' Beating

Inside the grueling scene that has Oscar voters buzzing

12 Years A Slave Chiwetel Ejiofor
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Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in '12 Years A Slave.'
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Since its surprise screening at the Telluride Film Festival on August 30th, 12 Years a Slave could easily be considered the year's most buzzed-about film, and certainly its most provocative. Director Steve McQueen's latest effort is based on the memoirs of Solomon Northrup, a free black man that was abducted and enslaved for a dozen devastating years. 12 Years has been captivating select audiences since the Toronto International Film Festival in September and New York Film Festival last month. Now, with the film's nationwide release in its third week, the general public has eagerly joined the conversation, with hot-button topics ranging from the present day effects of racism to the much-lauded performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northrup.

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To cover the entirety of feelings surrounding the making of this movie, which Ejiofor admits was "life changing," would be impractical. Still, Rolling Stone asked the London-based actor to recount the scene which had the largest emotional reaction. "That would have to be the first beating, by Burch's man," Ejiofor says introspectively. "That's the turning point. There is this psychological change – it's the first time Solomon understands that the world can truly be different."

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He brings us back to that day on set: "That was a particularly difficult scene for me, physically and psychologically, because the paddle had to break. Think about it – you need a paddle that's sturdy enough to hit a person multiple times, over and over again, but that eventually has to break on my back. The first time we did the scene, the actor was hitting me and it didn't break. So we cut. Then Steve [McQueen] spoke to him. When we started the second time, there was this change in the actor – he was so focused on breaking the paddle that he wasn't thinking about me as much anymore."

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Ejiofor admits he didn't speak to the actor again that day. He later tracked him down the following morning. "He felt horrible. He felt like he'd hurt me, but I just said that's the film that we're here to make."