Fox Searchlight’s highly anticipated film “12 Years A Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen hits theaters today. Produced by Brad Pitt, the film is based on an incredible true story of one man’s fight for survival and freedom.
In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty (personified by a malevolent slave owner, portrayed by Michael Fassbender) as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon’s chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) forever alters his life.
Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o gives a stunning performance in the film as an abused slave named Patsey, who befriends Northup and supports him on the plantation as he struggles with his lost freedom. The Source Magazine sat down with Nyong’o, to discuss her role.
Q: So, you were one of thousands of girls that Steve McQueen auditioned. Tell me about the casting process.
Nyong’o: Well, for one thing, I did not know about the other thousand girls, and I’m glad that I didn’t know that so I could just do what I needed to do. And so I got this audition through my manager, Didi Rea, who represents Garret Dillahunt, who’s also in the film—he plays Armsby—and she got the script right around the time that I was about to graduate from Yale. She read the role of Patsey and she thought I’d be good for it, so she had me put myself on tape in New York, and then I went and auditioned for Francine Maisler in L.A. And then finally my third audition was down south with Steve in Louisiana.
Q: And this is very emotionally complex and dark role. Tell me about diving in and channeling that girl and how you went to that place.
Nyong’o: I got the call from Steve and I was so excited and terrified, ’cause then that was when the work began. And I knew that it was going to be a hard task to allow myself to experience and express so much pain. But I felt privileged to do it because this was a real woman’s story, that this woman actually did exist and she’s one of the reasons that I can be here today and working as an actor telling her story. So, I went about doing it with the training that I had just spent three years in drama school getting. It was immediate application and it’s all about doing the research and I read the autobiography, which was very useful. Solomon describes Patsey as having an air of loftiness that neither labor nor lash could rid her of, and that speaks to me like a huge, powerful woman. And I went to the Blacks In Wax Museum in Baltimore, where I was confronted by a 500-pound bale of cotton, which was way bigger than me, and that’s what Patsey picked every day. So, I did things like that. I read female accounts of slavery as well and just tried to equip myself with as much information that would help me tell this very specific story.
Q: And tell me, how did Chiwetel support you?
Nyong’o: Chiwetel is a gentleman and he is a very gracious actor and a scene partner to be with. Working with Sarah and Michael and Chiwetel and Alfre, we never really had bonding sessions about the work we were going to do. We all knew what we had to do and we just went about doing it. But what Chiwetel provided was the space and the safety to do it. And he was always very encouraging of my work. And, yeah, he kind of set the culture of the set because he is so together, and he’s the one who has to go through these crazy 12 years, but he made it possible, he made it normal to do this work on a daily basis because he was calm and efficient and present. And he is a fine, fine, fine actor.
Q: Fassbender is obviously nothing like his character, but what was it like seeing him transform himself? He was incredible as well.
Nyong’o: Yeah. I think that’s the thing about when you’re working on a role, you have such a subjective view of what’s going on. And for me, when I act, I prefer not to really observe performances because my job is to be telling a story from within the character. So, the thing about Michael is he’s electrifying and he’s spontaneous and you don’t know what he’s going to do next, so you have to be present and you have to be reacting to what he is giving you in that moment. You can’t phone it in, you can’t kind of approximate. You have to be in that moment, and that’s really exciting for me as an actor to be able to work off of someone who’s alive now.
Q: Tell me about why this story so important.
Nyong’o: Well, this story is so important because…it gives us a very personal account of what slavery was like and we are able to go into that slavery. We’re sold into slavery with Solomon. We can all relate to the freedom that Solomon experiences and gets taken away from. And so, we are able to take this time in history personally in a way that makes it relevant and we can reflect on it today, which is so important because it’s a wound that hasn’t fully been addressed, attended to, or healed, and this is one way to start that process. And it’s a call to love, which is what it ultimately is. And I love how people leave this film and want to hug each other and just be nicer to each other, because that’s the only thing that’s gonna heal the world really. Michael Jackson said it, you know, “Heal the world. Make it a better place,” and this is what this film is doing.
Q: Can you speak about a challenging day or scene for you on set?
Nyong’o: All of them. Playing Patsey was challenging, hands down, all the way. But the scene that took me by surprise was the scene in which Patsey’s wounds get attended to ’cause it was the one scene that I’d overlooked in terms of really preparing for. ’Cause I was like, “You know, I just lie there and they dab me on the back and then it’s done,” but that day I was just confronted by the fact that what was fake on my back was real for this woman, and it was not real just once, it was real many times, and that I got to walk away from her pain every day. I got to walk away from it and she didn’t. And it grounded me and centered me in a way and it broke my heart to think that the one thing she felt would give her peace was death, and that I agreed with her.
Q: Can you tell me about working with Director McQueen. This is your first major feature film.
Nyong’o: You know, Steve is an incredible director. He has an instinct for the actor’s instinct and when he casts you, he casts you not easily. He doesn’t cast names. He casts actors that have something that he needs to tell his story. And he gives you the room to do the thing he hired you to do, and it’s so great to be with such a director that gives you that kind of room to play because then you can really risk things and find things that you’d otherwise not find if you were trying to be too neat and too precise. And then you have the confidence of having a man in charge that knows what he wants and knows how to tell a compelling story. And so, magic happens.
Q: How did your theater background help you dive into the film?
Nyong’o: My theater background is invaluable in this experience because going to Yale and having those three years to explore my craft and to hone it really prepared me for this film. I mean, I would not have been able to do this film if I had not gone to the Yale School of Drama because I learned to risk failure at Yale, I learned how to get from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence and to truthfully believe in imaginary circumstances.
You can check out the trailer for Nyong’o’s latest film, “Non-Stop,” which hits theaters February 28, 2014.
In the film the legendary actress Alfre Woodard plays a former slave who ends up happily married to her slave master and hopes that Patsey can achieve the same good fortune. Check out what Ms. Woodard had to say about working on “12 Years A Slave.”
Q: What attracted you to the project?
Woodard: Steve McQueen.
Q: How did McQueen first get on your radar?
Woodard: Hunger and Shame. So, when I saw those movies and you know how when you see a film or you read a book and with a book I start to get a little depressed in the last quarter of the book because I know it’s coming to an end and I know you got to wait for that writer to write again. That’s the way it is with Steve…and I’ve even said to him…“So, what are you thinking about next?” cause I just want more Steve McQueen films.
Q: What do you admire about Steve McQueen as a filmmaker?
Woodard: As a viewer, I love the fact, first of all, that he assumes that we have intelligence as an audience. And so he doesn’t bang us over the head and cut and cut and jump around. He doesn’t have his actors speaking the subtext. It’s very truthful and direct. He has the ability to cinematically give you information that might take three pages of narrative from another filmmaker to do. So you just get this seamlessly beautiful and complex picture and it almost unfolds the way our brains work. And what I love about him as an actor is that he gives you things you can activate. Lesser directors might conceptualize and tell you things like if you’re trying to get an actor to do something or help them get to a place or tell them what you want, it has to be something that can be activated to put into action, but not general things like “There’s a pall of sadness,” you know just to say “What if this is the only person who will speak to her?” That changes everything. So you have that information emotionally, you hear that in your head…So, it’s a very active way of communicating and he insists on you being truthful and honest in your approach.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about being in Louisiana on location and being on a real plantation and how that lent itself to your performance?
Woodard: Well, you know, location is everything. The location that you’re shooting in and then how the production design places you in a very specific place. And, you know, shooting on a plantation—I’ve shot on plantations before, I’ve shot in the South—there’s nothing like being in the South if it’s a Southern story because the landscape in the South is alive. It just emits heat and moisture and it even groans. And so, physically as an actor, you don’t even have to imagine, you don’t have to go there. Your dialect changes because you can only speak a certain way. So, it just helps everything along. And then every time I enter a plantation, enter the road on a plantation, there is an emotionality that just courses through your body when you’re not even conscious of it. If you stop to think, you go, “OK, I know what that is,” but people that are not conscious of what that connection is and that there’s so much energy and spirit and so much experience that cannot be stopped and doesn’t stop when the people pass on to another plane, even people that are not conscious of that feel emotional when they enter a plantation. So, of course in this plantation that we were shooting on, was a plantation that’s right next to the Epps plantation all around it. And to the point that people today when someone’s being particularly obnoxious and awful, it’s said around there, “Oh, come on, you’re being an Epps.”
Woodard: I mean, that’s how strong and how in the place, in the moment history is never gone. It’s just yesterday, just like Saturday was yesterday.
Q: And you said in the press conference that you thought this is a very unique character because women like her aren’t portrayed in cinema. Can you reflect a little bit more on that?
Woodard: Well, most real women are not portrayed in cinema, but this one in particular I think even in American history isn’t documented. Another great thing about this film is that it’s populated with the reality of living on a plantation and living in a slave economy. So, there’s naturally a lot more people there to choose from to identify with, to have the human experience, wondering “Oh, would I do this? Wonder who I would be,” because it would be as if heretofore if you were doing a film about the dollar economy, but you’re only gonna have four archetypal characters. And leave that out of the millions of us who live these complex lives. And so, not only do we see, meet Mistress Shaw, who is somebody that Solomon met and that he had experiences with, but it just lets us know—it continues to open up that idea that it was reality just like your reality…We always imagine history in one-dimensional—certain people standing up. We don’t imagine them having a hissy fit about the fact that the coffee is bitter the same way we do or that, you know, “Let me see how I’m gonna move up in this company” the same way Mistress Shaw says, “You know what? This whole heat thing out here in the field is not working for me. Let me figure out how to move up to a better station,” you know.
Q: There was a great scene with you, Chiwetel and Lupita. Can you speak about working with them? Lupita is a brand new actress.
Woodard: Well, I was very excited. It was actually Lupita’s last day, and so I had this excited energy and I was just so happy to get to set and to be with Steve and have him tell me to do something. And so, it was perfect because Mistress Shaw is completely untouched by the kind of reality that Lupita and Chiwetel in their roles as Platt, the slave name for Solomon, and Patsey are living next door…it’s like oblivious, “Let’s just have tea.” And it served it well in terms of us coming away—we already feel like we’re in a parallel universe, down the rabbit hole, as Steve says, with Solomon. We get snatched and kidnapped into slavery with him into this parallel universe, but then we think, “Oh, this is another place. Wait, we’re gonna be able to breathe. Oh, no, this is weird. Something’s happening here. The whole ceiling—the whole floor is tilted.” So, what I had to do is to deny everything that I knew about the script and just insist on that tea party, not just for them, not really for them, but it was for me. It’s my tea party. Patsey is really my friend, but Solomon—I knew he knew words and things. He knows more words than my master or Master Epps. So although he’s sweating and dying, I don’t go “Oh, you want somebody to wipe your brow and give you a drink of water?” I say, “No, sit down and have tea with me because I want company.”