For years, directors wondered why British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor wasn’t a major star. His leading performance in 12 Years a Slave, the slavery epic directed by Steve McQueen, is about to change the script

I am waiting in the lobby of central London’s Langham Hotel when I spot Chiwetel Ejiofor trying to negotiate his way through the revolving doors. Apparently unsure whether he’s coming or going, he goes round, then round again. I find myself shouting his name across the room and, finally, he hears me. He’s smiling broadly but clearly dazed after yet another full promotional day for 12 Years a Slave.

We have met several times in the past decade and Ejiofor, 36, has always impressed with his impeccable manners, low- key charisma and innate calmness. He was born in Forest Gate, east London, to Nigerian parents. At 11, Chiwetel survived a car accident in Nigeria that claimed his father’s life. He spent months recovering in hospital and, if you look carefully, there are scars still visible on his forehead.

He and his three siblings were raised by their mother, who encouraged her kids to read Shakespeare — though Ejiofor once told me that he was also in awe of Cary Grant in Once Upon a Honeymoon. He started acting while at Dulwich College and attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. In 1997 he won a small part in Stephen Spielberg’s Amistad and has pretty much worked non-stop on both stage and screen ever since.

Stephen Frears, who directed him in Dirty Pretty Things in 2002, noted that the actor had ‘impressive presence and a moral authority’. Ejiofor certainly takes acting terribly seriously, but doesn’t always push himself; he seemed to float through the Richard Curtis rom-com Love Actually. Yet the power he unleashed onstage at the Donmar in Othello in 2007, a stint that won him an Olivier Award, made it hard to think of the role ever being reprised.

David Mamet, who cast him in the recent TV movie Phil Spector, used to ask himself why Ejiofor wasn’t ‘a huge, huge star’. Well, 12 Years a Slave is about to make him that star. His role as Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery, has propelled him into the spotlight. There is already a best actor Golden Globe nomination and an Oscar nomination will surely follow on 16 January.

The Oscar buzz began last August, when the film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival — and for once the hype is justified. In his follow-up to Hunger and Shame, the British artist-turned-director Steve McQueen has made a harrowing but important period drama based on Northup’s 1853 bestselling memoir of the same name.

McQueen’s unsanitised film is a stark reminder of the horror of slavery. The brutal whipping scenes are undeniably tough to watch — much more disturbing than anything in Tarantino’s Django Unchained — but tearing your eyes away from Ejiofor is impossible. His restrained anger anchors the film, even in a cast that includes Michael Fassbender as a depraved slave owner and Brad Pitt as a benevolent Canadian who decries slavery.

Ejiofor is not exactly an industry secret, but he’s now making the long-anticipated transition from director’s actor to household name (at which point CHOO-it-tell EDGE-ee-oh-for will finally slip off everyone’s tongue). Though his career is about to be launched into orbit, he gives no indication that his newfound fame is about to change him. He remains good company, and laughs uproariously when the hotel fire alarm sounds just as he is wondering how to explain what he was doing in the office of JJ Abrams, the new director of Star Wars…

How did you feel the first time you watched 12 Years a Slave?

I saw it for the first time with an audience at Telluride. Usually I’d be hyper critical of my own performance, which is not a particularly nice experience. This was really different: I found myself going on Solomon’s journey all over again. It was remarkably immersive.

Is it true you initially turned down the role, but Steve McQueen left you to mull over the script for a few days because he knew you were the only one capable of pulling off such a profound and challenging part?

I’d been interested in Steve’s work since Hunger. We’d talked about working together for a few years and then he phoned up and said he wanted me to play this guy Solomon Northup. I know nothing of him; the book had just disappeared. I was really excited. I read the script, which was beautifully written, and knew it could make an extraordinary film. But I felt the weight of responsibility. I’d never had that voice so loud in my head before: the what-if-you-fuck-this-up voice, the acute self-doubting. What if I couldn’t get to those places? What if I got to those places and found I was actually wanting? I knew that would be haunting for me.

What changed your mind?

The fact I’d never come across a story from inside the slave experience before. It had become so normal to see it from the slave owner’s perspective that I didn’t think I would see one without ever questioning why. Obviously I was aware of the slave trade, but it wasn’t a part of cinema language. The script for 12 Years a Slave presented the first-person historical narrative that had been missing. 

The film has obviously had a profound effect on you: did it, for example, change the way you think of yourself as a black man?

No; instead it opened up these questions about diaspora and race relations. The dismissal or refusal to examine such a core part of history throws out of balance all our perceptions of racial identity. There’s a perception of black people as interlopers, but that ignores how integral to industrialisation black people were. A film like this opens up so many themes. If slavery is ignored then it becomes impossible to understand where all the pieces fit together.

McQueen wanted to make an honest film about slavery that was true to the accounts in Northup’s memoir, but everyone in the cinema will be recoiling when Solomon is forced to whip a young slave called Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) for what seems like an eternity…

I left that judgement to Steve — and the cinematographer. The description of Patsey’s whipping in the book is incredibly graphic. I think Steve managed terribly well to show what happened to her without being crazily graphic about it. I suppose he could have kept the camera on Patsey’s face and not her bare back, and he could have kept the scene short. But as a film maker he would have failed to achieve something. If he cut corners he’d have done a real disservice to Patsey and the audience wouldn’t have understood what slaves went through.

Have you been surprised by the standing ovations and awards buzz in the United States, a country that sometimes tries to brush over its past?

I partly live in Los Angeles and I’ve spent time in New York but I’ve often found it very hard to put America into neat boxes. The film was co-produced by Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company, and you’re aware with those kind of people that there’s a real desire to confront this area of history. So no, I wasn’t totally surprised. It’s the kind of loud and overwhelming response I was hoping for.

How do you feel about the Golden Globe nomination and the possibility of winning an Oscar?

It’s impossible to try and compute such things, or put them in my actual DNA. I was surprised the Oscar talk started as early as Telluride. It was the only point at which awards talk worried me because I didn’t want this sober reflection of a man’s life to be drowned out by an awards system that would take place in half a year’s time.

How do you maintain your sanity in the run-up to awards season? Do you make time for yourself or get much time to indulge your love of sailing?

Living in both LA and London is a good balance for me. I love the water. I have a Dutch barge in London that I occasionally take on canal trips and I’m on a racing team in LA. It’s a great way to hang out with people who aren’t part of the film industry. I’m a bit of a sunshine sailor though; I don’t sail here in Britain. I’m always hopeful that I’m going to get better at making more time for myself.

You recently wrote and directed a short film, Columbite Tantalite, about the west’s fixation with African mineral wealth. Did you enjoy the process?

There’s something very satisfying about being around for the whole process. It’s quite addictive. I did a play at the Young Vic last summer about Patrice Lumumba, the beer salesman who led the Congo to independence in 1960, and there was something about the modern Congo that couldn’t really be expressed in the play. After visiting the Congo I became fascinated by the relationship between Africa and the West. It’s much more complicated than the post-colonial cliché suggests. It’s all about money — who has it and who hasn’t.

You are also returned to Nigeria to film the upcoming adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, set during the Biafran war of the late Sixties. Was it a story close to your heart?

Absolutely. I wouldn’t have been born in London had it not been for my family fleeing the Biafran war. My grandfather was in the north of Nigeria at that time. He was an accountant for a mining corporation and so was caught up in the pogroms that were happening against the Ibos, but he managed to get most of the family out. He had a crazy three or four years, which I managed to speak to him about well before the film and just before he died. We spoke for hours. I recorded him talking about the war and the day to day of how it affected him. It was a fascinating insight into the history of Nigeria.

Finally, should we expect you to turn up in Star Wars given that you were spotted in JJ Abrams’ office?

Um… well… I just went to meet them. That’s all I can say — for now. You’ll find out soon enough! Let’s just say that I was there to make coffee for everyone.