If you watched Sarah Paulson in American Horror Story: Asylum, as a lesbian journalist unfairly locked away and subjected to electroshock therapy, and realized you’ve long been underestimating her, just wait till you see her in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which premiered last week to a rapturous response at the Toronto Film Festival. The wrenching, violent film is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a freeman from the North kidnapped into slavery, and Paulson plays Mistress Mary Epps, the wife of Michael Fassbender’s sadistic cotton plantation owner, Master Edwin Epps, who eventually comes to own Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in a career-making performance). She presides over the house in a hoop skirt and corset so tight it seems to have squeezed out her humanity, and goes to desperately cruel measures of intimidation and violence to cling to her position in the face of her husband’s undisguised affections for beautiful young slave Patsey (played by luminous newcomer Lupita Nyong’o). Jada Yuan spoke to Paulson.
You seem so nice. Where did you go to get that mean?
[Laughs.] The only way I could do it was to think about [Mistress Epps’s] motivations, because I don’t believe that anybody does anything just to be a mustache twirling evil-doer. There’s a little bit of a black heart in all of us. You’re capable of doing things you could’ve never imagined in certain circumstances. And I’m not saying this in defense of my character’s actions, because I do think they are deplorable. But from an acting standpoint, I had to find a way to make it something I could understand so that it wasn’t just some sort of generic, evil housewife. And to me, I was able to get into the head space by thinking about her fear and her terrible embarrassment at being disrespected and usurped by this woman. I mean, Epps is in love with Patsey, and she knows it.
If he’s capable of knowing what love is. He beats Patsey.
Something that Michael [Fassbender]’s been talking about is that he loves her desperately, and the reason he beats her is because he doesn’t know what to do with his own feelings. The thing I do think about Mistress Epps is that she is not — it’s not that she’s not bright, but she’s not very deep, she’s not very complicated. If you’re self-aware and you think, I’m feeling threatened, I’m feeling jealous, I don’t know what to do with myself, you don’t go hauling off and throwing glass decanters at people’s faces. But if a woman doesn’t have any other recourse in her mind because she’s not capable of thinking about something in a complicated way — I’m not saying she’s dumb, I’m just saying she’s not emotionally or psychologically smart, or developed in that way. She’s threatened and, like an animal, just wants to protect and win.
And she had no other options. Where would she go?
This is where she can exert her power, because [her husband] does listen to her, and he is weak, and she knows it. And he does hear her, that’s why there’s that great shot where Michael has the whip in that very harrowing scene with Lupita [Nyong’o] on the pole, and he starts whipping her, and off-camera you hear my voice say, “Do it.” Mistress Epps is relentless.
Did you figure out Mistress Epps’s backstory, or was that in the book?
No, her backstory’s not in the book because it’s from Solomon [Northup]’s account, so I don’t think he did a lot of research about who Mistress Epps was and why she was so horrifying. But Michael and Steve [McQueen] and I did collectively decide some things, some of which may not be accurate by a long stretch, but we decided that I had the money, but when we married [Master Epps] became the proprietor. We were like, “We don’t even know if this is historically accurate” [laughs], but he then became the deed holder, the title holder for the property, the land, and everything. We just created a story that was helpful for us. And I decided that I had a terribly, terribly cruel father and that his way of showing love and affection was through terrible violence, so that she doesn’t know any other way to show her love for him by defending their marriage in such a horrifying way, publicly. She’s a terrified woman, is what she is.
What were the shooting conditions like for you?
It was hot as hell. I’m in New Orleans right now doing the third season of American Horror Story, and it was about 20 percent cooler this July than it was last June when we were doing 12 Years a Slave. It was so insanely hot. And we had portable fans, but the problem with me is that [I couldn’t be sweaty]. Michael could be sweaty, everybody could be sweaty, but Mistress Epps, Steve really wanted it to be like she barely moves a muscle, like she has someone carry her from room to room. She doesn’t exert herself. So the me-sweating thing, nobody wanted her to be sweaty because she probably didn’t do a lot of sweating.
Did you have people personally fanning you?
I did get fanned a little bit. I would have my own fan and we had an electric fan and I would stay out of the sun as much as possible. Also, I was corseted and wearing all … it just was effing hot! Crazy.
How did you and Michael build your relationship?
Well, I got to New Orleans a few days before we started shooting, and I went and met Chiwetel [Ejiofor] and Steve, and we had lunch and I went back to Michael’s apartment — he called it his flat — and we went back there and rehearsed for a couple hours, and then Michael and I went on the roof of his place and sort of just talked about our characters’ backstory and made things up that we thought would be helpful or useful. We did a lot of that. It was great.
What were Steve’s directions to you on set?
He gave me an incredible image. He said to me [lovingly mimics McQueen’s British accent], “I want it to be like a figurine on top of a cake, like a figure on a cake,” and I was just like, “I know exactly what you mean.” You know, those dolls you stick on top of a cake, like a dress that’s out, neck up, chin up. You could throw that thing — they don’t break, they don’t move, just a hardness. There was a stillness, and I tried to do that in the movie, which I think I did do.
How did you get into the movie?
I got into the movie by auditioning.
You wanted it.
I wanted it badly because I wanted to work with Steve because I loved Hunger and I loved Shame, and I think Michael is an extraordinary actor. And I wanted it badly. And a lot of very famous actresses were coming after the part, but the great thing about Steve McQueen: He’s not interested in that. He’s interested in who he feels is the most right for the part. He doesn’t care if you’re the most famous actor in the world, and that is a very rare thing in this business, and it’s the only reason why I’m in the movie, because he was about to offer it to another actress — he would never tell me who it was — he’s about to offer it to another actress, and I made a tape in New York at the very last minute with a casting director who wasn’t even assigned to the project, who just did a favor for me, and I sent it, and the next day I got a call saying, “He’s very intrigued by you. He’s about to make an offer to another actress, and he’s not going to.”
We waited until the end of the day and got more information that he wanted me, and we had to work it out with American Horror Story. I couldn’t guarantee American Horror Story that I was going to be done in time and American Horror Story was like, “We already own her,” so there was this whole thing and I almost didn’t get to do the movie. And then Ryan Murphy asked 20th Century Fox if we could start a week later, shooting the show, which helped me finish the movie. [She tears up.] And he did that for me. You know, this is a business where fame is currency, it’s money, it’s in the bank, it’s job security, and when you don’t have it, or you have a little bit of it … Steve just doesn’t give a shit about that. And it means a lot more actresses are going to have opportunities that they never would have had because of the kind of filmmaker he is and that he’s interested in rightness for the part, and not, “I’m just going to stick so-and-so in there because she’s famous and we’re going to get more market money.”
Or else you get, like, Brad Pitt to be in it and produce it and the fame part is taken care of.
It’s just, he’s really not interested in that and I’ll be forever grateful to him because I’m a part of what I think is one of the great movies of our time … and the little actress in me who wanted to be an actress since I was 5 years old thinks this is the damn coolest thing that’s ever happened to me.