Star Sarah Paulson Discusses What ’12 Years a Slave’ Says About Our Society Today

Sarah Paulson, 12 years a slaveFox Searchlight

Painting such a vivid picture of a time period over 150 years in the past, 12 Years a Slave still manages to touch on universal, timeless elements of humanity — the good and the bad. Although we might not be able to imagine any connection between our present progressive society and the atrocious nightmare that was the era of American slavery, Steve McQueen’s powerful drama serves not only as a haunting true story but in parts an allegory for the ways in which we still have many steps to take before achieving the liberty we strive for. Sarah Paulson, who stars in the film as Mistress Epps, the wife of slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), feels that 12 Years a Slave is an important piece of cinema in the necessary task of keeping these horror stories forever in our memories. In our interview with Paulson, the actress discusses the film, its influence, and working inside the mind of an indefensible character.

Sarah Paulson: I was completely unfamiliar with [the story]. Of course, my hope is that now that this movie is done, and as powerful as it is, that the book that the movie is based on becomes required reading in schools. I remember being in school, and your American history book would have a chapter on slavery an inch thick, or something. To have something to go with it, to give it a very personal, specific story, would be kind of incredible.

I wasn’t well versed in the history of slavery in the United States, beyond what I learned in school. It’s one thing to hear the facts about a time, and it’s another to hear a very personalized story. It’s easier that way to take in the weight and the gravity of the whole time when you can follow one person’s experience.

I want to talk a little bit about your character. In the movie, you have a sort of sliding scale of humanity. With the slave owners — you have Benedict Cumberbatch, who is a little bit more sympathetic. He’s kinder. Still a slave owner.
SP: For him, it’s not even about his kindness. It’s about economics. He probably, as a man, would have helped Solomon in a different way. But because of the financial loss he would withstand… but really [the film depicts] a time of economic reality, too, for the owners. 

But then, on the other side, you have your character and Michael Fassbender’s character, both of whom are obviously a lot crueler. I was wondering how, exactly, you viewed your character in that way. Did you see any humanity in her whatsoever?
SP: I certainly didn’t see the humanity in her on the page. But in terms of trying to find a way to act the part, I didn’t want to just think about some sort of surface “evil.” Because I don’t think that’s really… the cruelest person in the world doesn’t walk around thinking they’re the cruelest person in the world. They justify their behavior to themselves. I just decided that Mistress Epps was a product of her time. She was probably raised by racists. And because I don’t think she has a certain emotional, spiritual, psychological depth of character — I don’t think she’s terribly self-reflective — she has limitations as far as she’s willing to challenge the things she’s been taught. So, instead of challenging them, she just dives right into them, and decides that her way of seeing things is the most right. In conjunction with the fact that the man she’s married to is in love with another woman, who happens to be a slave on the property. And this longing that my husband has for Patsey is in plain view of everyone at the plantation, which is deeply embarrassing to her. So her way of fighting back is to try to win. She’s only interested in winning, because she’s so desperate, so afraid of being completely humiliated.

Does that vulnerability make the character easier to play?
SP: Well, it wasn’t even that I could think about trying to play her vulnerably, because I didn’t think of it that way. But I had to find a way to justify her thoughts, and therefore her actions. Not as a viewer watching the movie, but as an actor playing her I had to do that. Of course, watching the movie, I think that she behaves indefensibly. But still, from an acting standpoint, I had to find a way to get inside of her head. It wasn’t that it made it easier, it was the only way that I could figure out the how and the why to make it work.

Was there anything in particular that this movie taught you about the era of American slavery?
SP: More than anything, what I think this movie taught me, was how petty everything in modern daily life can be, in terms of what we worry about how we concern ourselves, when really — especially as Americans — we have so much freedom. Not being able to get a cab 3:30 on a Friday afternoon has been in the past, and probably still will be in the future, very frustrating to me … it’s just so easy to get undone by such simple things. When you see a movie like this and you experience a character like Solomon, you realize what the human spirit is capable of withstanding, and pushing through, and coming out the other side. The resiliency of that, I think, was very inspiring. That is what I take away most from the story — to try to be in the moment, and not take anything for granted. How lucky we all are, really.

Was there anything specific about Solomon, or any character in the movie, that you found the most painful, or the most difficult to learn about?
SP: That’s why I think the movie is important. Sometimes, when you put visuals, when you put imagery to something that you read, it makes it much more powerful. It goes inside of your brain, and it’s hard to let it go. When you read things, you can kind of skip over things, sometimes. It was very powerful to read the script, obviously, and the book as well, but somehow, putting Chiwetel [Ejiofor]‘s face to it… the whole thing is very painful to watch, I think. The idea of a person living freely, and then being captured and held against their will, and having no recourse and no rights. It’s terrifying. 

I want to go back to your character again. I thought it was very interesting, because I would consider her the character with the most power in the movie. When we first meet her, Michael Fassbender is domineering over her, but then there is kind of a shift.
SP: I do think that the only place that Mistress Epps has any power is in making her husband feel small. So, she uses it whenever she can. The only time a person does that is when they themselves feel really small. So I actually think she struggles with a certain inadequacy. I think she is so fearful about her standing in society and in her own home. How she’s viewed. The perception. Appearances are everything to her. And she’s just so deeply embarrassed by her husband’s behavior, and she uses that power that she has over him — which is to belittle him and embarrass him — in front of everyone. She does it whenever she can, to feel more powerful herself.

It’s a delicate thing. You can’t compare it to enslavement, but at the same time, women were not treated equally, and were considered less important and less valuable than men. But that still goes on today. As do all sorts of racism, as well. On the one hand, it really shows how far we’ve come. On another level, it shows how far we still have yet to go.

Is there anything else specifically that you think 12 Years a Slave has to say, allegorically, about our society today?
SP: I don’t really think that it is that different. People keep saying, “Why this movie now? What’s what is important about this movie?” That question is what is important about this movie. There are so many things that are analogous to today’s time period. Social stature … but I don’t want to speak in reductive terms about what is analogous because it was a specific time in our country’s history that was a boil on the skin of our country’s history. It’s something that nobody wants to talk about. It’s a very common human experience to not want to look back, and when you do look back, to diminish the reality of what went on. Especially when what went on was negative and horrible. The mistreatment of people by other people.

SP: But it’s hard. When you talk about today, we have an African-American president. I would never want to try to find things that are going on today in our society that are analogous completely to the time of slavery. But there are all these things that … continue to show that we are not as far along as we would like to be. Or as people think we are. People look back at slavery, and say, “We don’t need to talk about that. We have an African-American president.” Yeah, but we still have a ways to go. But I think people have decided that is a conversation that can be put to bed. And I think that is partly why this movie is unsettling to people. People don’t want to know that this is what happened. And when you put it that viscerally in front of someone, you have a physical reaction to seeing some of these images, as well you should.