It's an impressive enough feat to give a standout performance in any ordinary film. But to achieve this superlative in a film like 12 Years a Slave, one of the most powerful we've seen in ages, and at the very beginning of your career no less, it's simply miraculous. Lupita Nyong'o makes her professional acting debut in Steve McQueen's relentless drama about Solomon Northrup — played in the film by Chiwetel Ejiofor — a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1800s. Nyong'o plays Patsey, a dutiful and sensual (as the actress describes her) slave of the merciless Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who perseveres through his neverending physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of her as a testament to the human spirit. N'yongo articulated the psychology that allowed Patsey to survive against the most overwhelming of tortures, and her own access of such unimaginable pains to portray the character.
I believe this is your first feature film?
Can you talk a little bit about how you came onto the project?
Yeah, sure. I was at the Yale School of Drama. I was just about to graduate, when my manager got this script for another client of hers who was also in the film — Garret Dillahunt. She saw the role of Patsey and she thought I would be good for it, so she had me go on tape in New York. It just so happened that the next week we were going to be in L.A., doing our Yale showcase there. So she had the casting office come in to see my work. They then invited me in for an audition with them. Francine Maisler put me through the ringer! And then, finally, I was sent to Louisiana to audition for Steve [McQueen]. So, it was really … a lot of auditioning.
Were you familiar with the story of Solomon Northrup before?
Absolutely not, and I was shocked and dismayed that I hadn't heard of it. I, of course, talked a little bit with my friends about it, and few if any had heard of the 12 Years a Slave autobiography.
Is the era one that you are particularly well-versed in, or have read a lot about?
I've come across it, I'm sure, in history class growing up. But it was nothing that I'd ever really delved into in any way, really. But I didn't know I didn't know — that's the thing about the slave era. You read about it in school a little so you think you know, but the thing about this story is that it really shows us the complexities of the slave economy. We meet all sorts of different characters that are fleshed out and real and human. And recognizable. You can relate with them. That's what makes it so relevant, so rich. It's not this thing that happened x-number of years ago that we've passed. The truth of the matter is, we haven't really passed. We still are dealing with the effects of the time. So, I'm definitely way better educated about the time than I was before.
Is there anything specific that you appreciate having learned from this project?
The infamous — or is it famous? — scene of Patsey's whipping. Solomon, in the book, describes that as the darkest day of all time. To go into that knowing that was what we were creating — the darkest day — it was a lot. For me, that was the most emotional gymnastics, because it's so much that Patsey is going through when she is about to be humiliated, debased, beaten by her slave master, who is like her father figure. I liken it to Stockholm Syndrome, where you are traumatically bonded to the person who is causing you the most harm. That was a very challenging scene to walk into, and to walk into allowing myself to feel that kind of emotional and physical abuse, for lack of a better word, and humiliation.
Obviously, we were lucky to be born into an era that, while problems persist, we don't know this kind of pain.
Some do, unfortunately, still.
That's true. But I'm interested to know how you accessed this kind of pain, that I hope and imagine you don't know personally.
I think that was what made getting this role so important to me. It was an opportunity to work on real hefty material, and to really exercise what I have been training to do. It's a real exercise of imagination, and empathy. I rehearsed and prepared… I did all sorts of things to prepare for this role. And to allow myself to experience that kind of grief. The thing is, as human beings we aren't as individual as we'd like to believe we are. And I think that's what makes acting possible. Despite the fact that I have not experienced something, I have it in my human capacity to imagine it and to put myself in someone else's shoes, and to take someone else's circumstances personally. That's what makes acting possible — the fact that we are not as individual as we think we are.
Speaking on that, you spent a lot of time with Michael Fassbender in the movie. And his character is despicable, to put it lightly, but you see that there is a lot self-loathing as well. In characters like his or Sarah Paulson's characters, did you see any vulnerability or humanity?
Well, yeah. In doing 12 Years a Slave, in performing in it, I obviously could not be concerned with what they were going through. [Laughs] But in watching the film, I was mesmerized by the way in which Michael and Sarah so expertly show the humanity of these people. They are not one-sided, they're not one-dimensional. They are complex human beings with a lot going on. And yes, even in the scene in which Master Epps is raping Patsey, you see his self-loathing. You see how it is breaking him to do this. His need to connect… it was so disturbing. It was really, really disturbing. But also, I was awestruck by Michael's ability to do that. Because it's true — the institution of slavery did not only affect the enslaved. It affected the enslavers. That's what Michael and Sarah's characters show us, that everyone is motivated by something. This kind of cruelty is not inhuman. Humans do these kinds of things. We, as human beings, have the capacity for extreme cruelty. But we also have a resilience and a need for love, and that's what gets Solomon through those 12 years. I really do think this film, in portraying this time period, is a call to love. That is it. And not a passive love. A love that takes a stand, that faces these things, takes ownership of them, accepts them, in order to be able to forge forward in a better way.
That's beautiful. The resilience really stands out to me. In Patsey we see, in almost everything she does, we see a strength and a resilience. I was hoping that you might speak on how you might have imagined Patsey's will to go on.
It's all really in the script and the book. In the book, Solomon Northrup describes Patsey as "having an air of loftiness that neither labor nor lash could rid her of." And that's it. She is this woman who is in a dire situation, belongs to a master that is capable of anything and everything at any time, and she forges forward by being present and by doing what's in front of her fully. So, when she is picking cotton, she is picking that cotton. So much so that she is picking 500 pounds of cotton a day. I went to the [National Great] Blacks In Wax Museum in Baltimore, and I saw a 500-pound bale of cotton. It is taller than me, it is wider than me, and it is way thicker than me. It's ridiculous how much cotton that is. It's spoke, to me, of an incredible woman, a simple woman, who has found a way to persevere, to endure, and to work through her pain. She didn't have the luxury of wallowing in it because it was endless. She'd been in that plantation since she was a little girl. She's always working through her pain. I took those things from the book and the script and really tried to find active ways of showing that. That's the thing — when you read those things, you don't ask yourself how. You just accept it, and then it becomes true.
As an actor, I find that I always ask myself, "How am I going to do that? How am I going to do that?" And the answers always ends up [being], "You just are." That's always the answer I have to arrive at. And it takes some time. It takes trying and failing. But if I just allow it to be the truth then half the work is done.
I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about the scene in which Patsey asks Solomon to drown her, because that is the scene really took me down the most. If you can speak on the way you approached that scene psychologically, and your emotional connection to it?
Well… Patsey, in the script, was described as being "effortlessly sensual." And I was reading James Baldwin's Fire Next Time, and in it he says that to be sensual is to rejoice in the force of life. Life itself. And to be present in everything that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread. That was something that, for me, Patsey's effortless sensuality. Because she was present. That was … the thing that was so seductive about her. So, in approaching that scene — in talking with Steve and exploring it together — it occurred to me, "How do you play that scene with agency? How do you play it as though she's not giving up?" Because that's not it. She was not giving up. Patsey was always looking for comfort, she was always looking for peace. At that point in her life, the only way to achieve that comfort was through death. Steve wanted it to be soft, and to be played as a win, and not a loss.
12 Years a Slave is in theaters now.