An undeniably powerful film. Two roles of a lifetime. This is the story of two men who heeded director Steve McQueen's call to lift the curtain on America's darkest chapter. It's a film critics say is destined for the Oscar stage. USA TODAY stacks up the odds.
You know him from: Hunger, Shame, Prometheus,X-Men: First Class
Chasing 12 Years a Slave: "I'd known about it before I got the script," says the German-Irish actor. "For me, after that first experience with Hunger, which really kind of changed my life and just sort of changed the way I work to a large degree, I said to Steve, I was like, 'Look, I read the script, was in tears by the end of it,' and I said, 'Whatever it is, whether it's one day or two days in this, I'd love to be a part of it."
Oscar odds: Very high. "He is a great bet for a nomination," says Dave Karger, an industry Oscarologist and Fandango's chief correspondent. "The supporting-actor category allows for villainy more than best actor does. You see bad guys dominate a little more often in that category. What's interesting is he came as close as anyone possibly can to getting a best-actor nomination two years ago (for Shame) and he didn't get it. Sentiment is with him."
MORE: '12 Years' captures brutality, reality of slavery
Director's take: "There's nothing that he cannot do. Nothing," says McQueen. "And I think he doesn't even know half of it, which is fantastic."
You know him from: Phil Spector, Kinky Boots, 2012, Children of Men
Chasing 12 Years a Slave: Ejiofor (whose name is pronounced CHEW-ih-tell EDGE-ee-oh-for) had been on the hunt for a great role. "You're hassling your agent, you're trying to figure it out, you're traveling the world, you're reading scripts. And then it can happen," the Brit says. "You can get the script, you open it up, you read it and you think, 'Can I do this? How do I start to do this?' " Ejiofor took 24 hours to stamp out his own doubts before calling McQueen to accept the role. "And you think, 'Right, let's get on with it. Who's going to teach me how to play the violin? And how do I learn how to pick cotton or cut down trees properly?' You're in the game."
Oscar odds: A lock. "He's the guy to beat right now," says Karger, "which is fascinating because it looks like the three people he could be nominated against are Oscar winners: Tom Hanks (for Captain Phillips), Forest Whitaker (The Butler) and Robert Redford (All Is Lost)." Karger says he's leading even that pack. "He plays a real person. The character goes through unspeakable hardship in the film. And he comes out the other side to be an inspirational figure. It's just such a powerful, effective performance."
Director's take: "I think he's dealing with (the attention) tremendously well," McQueen says. "I think there's a lot of people saying things about him, about what could possibly happen, what might happen, but he's more focused on the work. I'm just very proud of him, of what he's done."