Lupita Nyong’o makes an unforgettable screen debut in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, playing Patsey, a slight, delicately boned woman who, day after day on the harsh Louisiana plantation where she toils, bests all the men with the sheer amount of cotton she picks. She befriends the drama’s hero, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man kidnapped into the nightmare of bondage. She is also the object of obsession for slave master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a position that puts her in the cross-hairs of Epps’ jealous, vengeful wife (Sarah Paulson). The role is a riveting, auspicious beginning for the recent Yale School of Drama graduate.
“She’s a star,” says McQueen. “A star is born. I went through over 1,000 girls. [Casting director] Francine Maisler and I looked through all these girls, and I was giving up hope and then one day, this tape came in. I put it on and thought, ‘This woman is beautiful. She’s amazing. Is she real?’ I couldn’t even believe that she was real. And then she came into the audition and that was it. That was solved. When all hope was lost, we found that girl. Amazing.”
In the San Francisco Bay Area recently with McQueen and Ejiofor to attend the Mill Valley Film Festival where 12 Years a Slave screened, Nyong’o was ebullient and gracious as she sat down to talk about the film and her dazzling role in it.
Q: Patsey is quite a debut. What was it like for you to start here with the likes of McQueen, Ejiofor and Fassbender?
A: It was a dream come true to work with such complex and meaty material and then to do so with such incredible artists. Steve McQueen, I watched Hunger and Shame shortly after my first audition and I fell in love with immediately and was just spellbound by his pursuit of the truth and the patience of his camera and the way in which he depends on the actors to really do the storytelling. I knew that he was a director that I would be too lucky to get an opportunity to work with. I was all game to do this project and I was so glad that they were game to work with me.
It’s all thanks to the man at the helm, Steve, the conversations happened with Steve. I had conversations one-on-one with Steve and he did the same with the other actors. I think what that creates is a mystery, a danger when you get on set, in a very safe environment, but then you’re really talking and listening, because nothing has been kind of pre-planned. Our rehearsal was kept to a minimum. I probably had a less than 15-minute rehearsal with Michael and about a 15-minute rehearsal with Chiwetel. Steve didn’t want to belabor it. He wanted to save it for the camera, so that it is as real as possible, the human exchange is as real as possible.
Q: Can you talk about researching your role? You must have started with Solomon Northup’s book.
A: Luckily for us, we had the autobiography, which gives a very specific back story as to who Patsey was. She was born in South Carolina and she was sold to Master Epps in her childhood. She was actually a favorite of the mistress and the master before she was sent out into the field. She was coddled and fed with milk and biscuits. It is not until Master Epps gets a sexual interest in her that the mistress begins to get jealous and throws her out into the field.
Other than that, I did research into the time period, but always with – I did subjective research. There’s too much out there. I was going to end up being a historian and that wasn’t the important thing. But I did research into the history and the time period, just to get all my senses involved. What food they ate, things like that. I read other accounts of slavery from the female perspective.
The last bit of research, that actually came in very handy, was into the corn husk dolls. I was daydreaming about a week before we started shooting about what else Patsey could have done in her very little free time. Because she had such nimble fingers to pick 500 pounds of cotton a day, it spoke to me of someone who must have been artistic in some way, very good with her fingers. I knew on Master Epps’ plantation they grew corn and so I thought, ‘Well, maybe she made something out of corn husks’ I looked it up online and it was historically accurate. In Louisiana, they have festivals where they recreate those things. They make crafts out of corn husks. So I shared that with Steve and he really loved the idea and he got the art department to supply me with corn husks immediately. In the end, the way Steve used the corn husk dolls in the film, it’s an externalization of the part of Patsey that couldn’t be enslaved. That was really important for me to discover.
Q: You’re also a documentary filmmaker. (In 2009, Nyong’o made In My Genes, a film that focuses on albinism in her native Kenya.) When it came to doing research, did that background make it easier to hone in on what would be relevant to you?
A: It did, but I think everything in my past has brought me to this point. At the Yale School of Drama, one of the things that we are encouraged to do with every single project, not just one based on truth, is to try and create an environment of truth for yourself that goes beyond the material, beyond the script that you’re using, so that you can play better. When you know this person inside and out then you can be spontaneous in the moment rather than too controlled.
In this case, making this film with Michael and Chiwetel, they are very spontaneous performers, so you really have to be present and listening. Doing that kind of research gives you the freedom to be that present and listening, because you know who you are.
Q: Your character endures things that are absolutely horrific. Even though you are acting and not actually going through what this woman went through, that had to be stressful. How difficult was it to inhabit Patsey’s skin?
A: Playing Patsey was not easy. I had to open my heart and my being to a lot of grief and sorrow. It was the undercurrent of everything I did in 12 Years a Slave. That wasn’t easy. It asked a lot of me, but I was honored and I felt very privileged to have the opportunity to tell this real woman’s story. What kept me sane, if you will, and what kept me light was recognizing that I was doing this in a fictional world and she lived this for real. Whenever I remembered that, it grounded me and centered me. It was like, “If she could live it, I can do it.” – Pam Grady