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Lupita Nyong’o on 12 Years a Slave, Getting Into Character, and ‘Impostor’s Syndrome’

Lupita Nyong’o. Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty

Before September’s Toronto Film Festival, almost nobody had heard of Lupita Nyong’o, the gorgeous Kenyan actress who hadn’t even graduated Yale Drama School when Steve McQueen gave her the most prominent female role in 12 Years a Slave. By the time the film screens at the New York Film Festival next week, though, everyone who cares about movies and awards season races would do well to learn her name. The film is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freeman kidnapped into slavery, and Nyong’o’s performance as Patsey, a young slave who’s become the object of obsession for sadistic cotton plantation Master Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, is easily one of the most arresting acting debuts in recent memory. Valued for her beauty and her astounding ability to pick 500 pounds of cotton a day — more than twice the haul of any male slave — Patsey is objectified by Epps, scorned by his wife (Sarah Paulson), subjected to horrifying cruelty by both, and often dreams of death as her release. Jada Yuan spoke to Nyong’o in Toronto about researching the role and the experience of getting whipped by Michael Fassbender. (It involves lots of hugs!)

You hadn’t even graduated from Yale Drama School before you got cast, correct?
Yeah, I actually got cast, I think, three weeks before I graduated.

It must have been crazy. You must have been so excited.
I was extremely excited and of course, extremely intimidated. I had impostor’s syndrome until the day I landed in Louisiana. I was certain that I was going to be fired. I was certain I was going to receive a call and they were going to say, “I’m sorry, we made a mistake.” Every single day. And it wasn’t until the day I was flying to Louisiana that they made the announcement on Deadline that Patsey had been cast. So the whole time I was like [whispers], “Maybe they’re reconsidering. They must be reconsidering.” Luckily, I wasn’t fired. [Laughs.] My friends can definitely attest to that.

What were the shooting conditions like?
Oh, it was the height of summer in Louisiana, so it was hot. It was extremely hot. And it was something else to be picking cotton in that kind of heat. And then I just recognized, these people were made of some strong stuff. The people who lived through slavery. I mean, they did that, picking cotton, more than sixteen hours a day, in that heat. A heat that was kind of challenging me in these kinds of plush conditions I was in. It was definitely very sobering, that experience. It was great to be there. Flanked by these oak trees that have been there for over 300 years.

The oak trees dripping with moss.
Yeah, all those trees that have witnessed slavery. It did nothing but help us go there, you know?

What sort of research were you doing? How did you get into the character of Patsey and embody her?
One of the first things I did, I went to the Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore. My friend had told me that it was worth it and that you could get a kind of three-dimensional experience of slavery. So I went there and — indeed, I walked into the museum and the first thing I saw was a bale of 500 pounds of cotton, and that’s what Patsey was known to pick every day. And it was taller than me and it was thicker than me. And it was way wider than me. I was just, like, met with, “Yeah, this woman was really lofty to do this kind of thing and live so fully in that moment and then at the same time want to die and be relieved of her pain.” So that was a real influence, that place. And you see they have extracts from different diaries. These men on the ships and everything, they kept diaries of their experience, so they’re talking about how they killed the slaves and put the heads on stakes, and you see in the Middle Passage how everyone was chained together and people would die and everything would fester and all the disease and sickness. So the people who made it to the New World were made of really strong stuff. So that gave me an overview of slavery and other aspects of African-American history that we don’t really hear about. Like the fact that one of the first people on the North Pole was a black man. There were lots of Africans that got here that weren’t slaves, explorers and stuff. And we never hear about them. I read other accounts of slavery from the female perspective, as well. And the rest is about finding the physicality, the voice, and that kind of thing to make her real.

How physical did you have to get, say, in the whipping scenes at the hands of Master Epps, played by Michael Fassbender? [Editor’s note: This is a movie about slavery, yes, there is whipping, and, no, that’s not a spoiler.] I’m assuming you weren’t actually touched, but your reactions were so spot-on —
It’s all about the crack of the whip. You hear it. And you feel it. I felt the wind of it every single time. I didn’t need much more. That was one technical thing, and definitely it took some finessing because obviously I can’t see what’s happening. I can’t see the whip. I can only react to the sound and the wind of it, yeah? So it was hard, but that day was as real as it could have possibly been for me, because in preparing for it, all I could do was be present. That was a quality of Patsey that Steve captured in the script. He said that she was “effortlessly sensual,” and I found this quote from James Baldwin, who described sensuality as being — he said, “To be sensual, I think, is to rejoice in the force of life itself and to be present in everything one does from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” And so Patsey was present, and that’s what made her so sensual.

And made her threatening to Master Epps’s wife, played by Sarah Paulson.
And threatened his wife, of course. Obviously it’s what intrigued and attracted Master Epps. And she had to be present because he was so volatile. I mean, Patsey was raised on that plantation. She was born on another plantation, but she was brought there as a little girl and she was in the house to begin.

Is that backstory in the movie?
No, it’s in the book, in [Solomon Northup’s] autobiography. She was in the house and a favorite of the mistress, until she grew old enough and Master Epps started to take a liking to her and then the mistress had her sent out into the fields. These are people she’s [lived with and is] traumatically bonded with. It’s kind of like a Stockholm Syndrome.

Patsey has a very fraught and intense relationship with Master Epps. Did you and Fassbender have to avoid each other on set so as not to be too friendly?
When I was working on this, I would spend time on my own on set just getting into the zone, listening to music. Just observe. But we had a very loving relationship and before we’d do the scenes, me and Michael would make nice. I remember before we did the scene in which he [does something really horrible … avoiding spoilers!], we went up to each other and we didn’t say anything and we just gave each other a look and maybe we hugged and then we did the scene and we hugged after that. That was important to have, those buttons of we’re going in and we’re going out.

You’re Kenyan, Steve and Chiwetel are British, Michael is Irish. Is there something important about non-Americans telling this very American story?
I think that’s something that people can assess and analyze from the outside. Really, I think it’s a coincidence, and really, it’s a question better suited to Steve. But I think America isn’t really made of many of Americans, is it? And our jobs as actors is to lend ourselves to things that are not of ourselves. I’m just so happy and privileged and honored to have been able to tell this American story.

Lupita Nyong’o on 12 Years a Slave