One of the most talked about films of the fall is Steve McQueen‘s 12 Years a Slave. It’s based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free Black man forced into captivity. During his bondage, he encounters several people including a young slave woman called Patsey. She’s played by newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who went through an intense auditioning process for the role. Nyong’o spoke to ScreenCrave about her transition from drama student to co-starring in this brutally honest portrait of the ugliest side of American history.
How did you find out about the casting for 12 Years a Slave?
Lupita Nyong’o: I was at the Yale School of Drama and I was just about to graduate. At that time, we got to do a showcase in New York and in LA. It’s basically our coming out event. We perform in front of invited industry professionals. So I was finally allowed to audition for some professional gigs. My manager received this script for consideration for one of her other clients, Garrett Dillahunt, who plays Armsby in the movie. And she read it and saw the role of Patsey and she thought I’d be good for it. She had me go on tape when I was in New York for the showcase, and then the next week I happened to be in LA for the showcase there. She invited the casting office to come and watch my work, after which [casting director] Francine Maisler called me in for an audition.
I read that finding the right actress for Patsey was like finding the right Scarlett O’Hara for Gone with the Wind. What was the audition process like?
Lupita Nyong’o: It was a one hour audition, grueling as hell. She put me through the wringer, but she told me this is what I have to do because this is what the role requires. It was one of the hardest auditions I’ve ever been through — until two weeks later, when I went down to Louisiana to audition with Steve [McQueen]… That was another one hour’s work on camera working with him, and an interview that probably took another hour. It was him asking me about my life and what I want to do and stuff like that. Finally, in the evening we went to dinner and he surprised me with Michael Fassbender’s appearance… I had a moment of just talking with Michael and that was it. The next day I flew back to New Haven and got the call from Steve himself offering me the part. I was weak in the knees.
Since the story is written from Solomon’s point of view, we don’t know much about Patsey’s background. How did you fill in the blanks?
Lupita Nyong’o: Solomon does give us some background in the autobiography, so I felt really blessed to have that. Patsey left a real impression on him so he talks about her history. She was born, I believe in South Carolina, to a slave woman and her father was a new slave from Guinea. She took great pride in that, having a father from Guinea. And she was sold to Edwin Epps (Fassbender) early in her childhood. She was actually a favorite of Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson) growing up. She was in the house and treated extremely well until she became, I guess of age, in her developing years. That’s when Master Epps took a sexual interest in her and then the feud starts with Mistress Epps and she has her sent to the fields.
I take it you used that as fuel for the character?
Lupita Nyong’o: Those were all gems, all treasures of who this woman was. Coming from a place of privilege really and falling so fast and so deep at the hands of the very people that loved her. For me, her relationship with her masters was kind of like the Stockholm syndrome where you’re traumatically bonded to the people who cause you such abuse. It’s a complicated relationship. It’s a longing for the love from the past and the resentment and the shame of the present.
Watching this film was a really emotional experience. As one of its stars, how did it effect you?
Lupita Nyong’o: I too was extremely moved by the film. It was a cathartic experience to watch it. It was something I dreaded doing. They kind of had to bully me into watching [laughs]. I was just like, ‘I don’t know if I want to go back there you know?’ But I’m so glad I did because it’s not a happy ending for everyone. The fact that this film has been made and can be shared today, helps in the healing. It’s a shame that this story has been lost for so long. That it’s not more commonly known. I feel like this should be required reading for everyone around the world not just for Americans. In reviving this story and making it available in this contemporary way, I feel is a call to love and a start for a wound that needs to be healed that we weren’t fully aware was still there. A lot of people were saying that, like I didn’t know it was still an issue until you see it in this way that is so relevant to today.
This movie really puts things into perspective. As an African-American woman, if I was born 150 years earlier I could have easily been in Patsey’s shoes.
Lupita Nyong’o: It’s a good reminder that things could have been a lot worse. That’s why I was heartbroken that we don’t know what happened to Patsey. But we have a pretty good sense that things didn’t end well for her. But I’m so glad that Solomon had the wherewithal to write this memoir in the same year that he was freed so that her story can live on and the stories of people like her who were silenced forever.
12 Years a Slave opens in theaters October 18.