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'12 Years a Slave' in the hands of relative unknowns

Michael Fassbender is Master Epps; Lupita Nyong’o is Patsey; and star Chiwetel Ejiofor is Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave.

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Michael Fassbender is Master Epps; Lupita Nyong’o is Patsey; and star Chiwetel Ejiofor is Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave.

12 Years a Slave is dotted with famous faces in brief appearances — including producer Brad Pitt — but its dramatic impact rests in the hands of relative unknowns. Get to know the key players in one of the finest movies of 2013:

Steve McQueen, director

Sharing a name with an icon is the only thing Hollywood about McQueen. Proudly black and British, the 44-year-old filmmaker and provocateur debuted in 2008 with Hunger, the story of Irish dissident Bobby Sands' hunger strike in prison. Then came Shame (2011), a study in sexual obsession that earned an NC-17 rating. 12 Years a Slave is his third feature, all starring Michael Fassbender.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Solomon Northup, a free man who is enslaved

Like McQueen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, 36, (pronounced CHEW-eh-tell EDGE-ee-oh-for) was born in London, his accent suppressed to play a 19th century American slave. He's usually "that guy" in supporting roles, recognized yet not easily identified. His most visible role previously was as Denzel Washington's brother in American Gangster. However, his turn as a sassy transvestite in 2005's Kinky Boots, inspiring the Broadway musical, deserves attention.

Michael Fassbender, Edwin Epps, slave owner

McQueen's Hunger put him on the map but playing a British officer posing as a Nazi in Inglourious Basterds (2009) made Fassbender fascinating to audiences. Playing the younger Magneto in X-Men sagas hasn't hurt. Classically handsome, he brings out the ugliness as Epps: "I wanted to play him like the boil on society that he was," Fassbender said at the movie's Telluride debut.

Lupita Nyong'o, Patsey, a slave

12 Years a Slave is the movie debut for Nyong'o, a Yale School of Drama graduate born in Mexico and raised in Kenya. She starred in MTV's 2009 miniseries Shuga, set among Kenyan youth. Nyong'o also directed, produced and edited the documentary In My Genes, focused on albino Africans. She recently completed filming Non-Stop, an airline action flick with Liam Neeson.

Steve Persall, Times movie critic

'12 Years a Slave' in the hands of relative unknowns 11/05/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 5, 2013 6:28pm]

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