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This weekend, Sarah Paulson tackles a harsh and some might say unforgiving role in 12 Years a Slave. In Steve McQueen‘s latest, the actress is the wife of a brutal slaveowner played by Michael Fassbender. ScreenCrave recently spoke to Paulson about embodying such a vicious character. We also discussed the psychology behind the master-slave relationship, which was commonplace for hundreds of years.

The book Twelve Years a Slave is told from Solomon Northup’s perspective, so not much is known about Mistress Epps. How did you fill in the blanks?

Sarah Paulson: You’re right, it really is his autobiography of his experience during those 12 years. So it’s his interpretation and his experience with Mistress Epps. So the other stuff I, with Steve and Michael, had to fill in. We did some work on our own to come up with a backstory to support the choices that we were making.

In one confrontation scene, it seems like Master Epps hints at his wife’s humble beginnings. 

Sarah Paulson: Yes, but we couldn’t decide whether or not that was Master Epps trying to belittle her right back, or if it was true or not true. There was a real question about that in terms of what we decided for ourselves.  We didn’t know if he was just saying that to be cruel to her or if he meant it. But he might have. He might have really meant it.

 Why do you think she stays with a man who’s obviously obsessed with another woman?

Sarah Paulson: I think it’s two-fold. I think one is that he does have the money and station even though he’s an alcoholic and has a reputation for being a hard man. The most disgraceful thing you could think of at that time was to get divorced or have your husband fall in love with another woman, much less a slave. That’s deeply humiliating to her, the concept of that. I think it would be hard for her during that time to walk away from the marriage, and also to go to what? It’s a different time for women then. She doesn’t have much recourse, which is probably why she perpetrates such violence towards Patsey also.

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Is there any background between those two women?

Sarah Paulson: One thing that was in the book — though there isn’t a scene of this in the movie — but when Patsey was a young girl she was Mistress Epps’ favorite girl. They were quite sweet with one another. It’s when she became a woman and my husband’s eye started wandering in her direction that everything started to go awry between Mistress Epps and Patsey. To Mistress Epps, it’s kind of a double betrayal because she lost both her husband and one of the girls she helped to raise.

Can’t Mistress Epps understand that Patsey’s the victim in this situation?

Sarah Paulson: She does understand that, but I think it’s much easier for her to kind of lash out at Patsey because it’s more accepted — that kind of behavior from a slave owner to a slave.

Where do you think that comes from? 

Sarah Paulson: She was raised by ignorant people who were racists and bigots. I don’t think she has the mental or spiritual or emotional capacity to challenge what she’s been taught. Therefore, she behaves in the most entitled sort of way. Her opinions and her ways of doing things are the right ways. I think if she were a more self-reflective person she would perhaps investigate why she was feeling such vile feelings towards Patsey.

How did you get involved in this amazing project?

Sarah Paulson: I got involved by auditioning. I found out on a Thursday night about the movie and I was in New York and the casting director was in Los Angeles. My agent said, ‘If you wanted to get in on this, they’re moving very quickly. I think Steve McQueen is about to offer this to another actress but if you can get the tape done quickly and by tomorrow morning we can get it to L.A. and at least you’ll be in the mix of things.’ I said, ‘OK.’ So I read one scene. I didn’t even read the whole thing, they didn’t give you the whole script. I put myself on tape and I got a call the next day saying, ‘Steve is very intrigued by your tape. And he was about to make an offer to another actress but he’s going to hold off.’ Then they called me a day or two later and said that he decided to go with you. He told me that he showed the tape to his daughter and his daughter was terrified of me and so he thought that it was probably a good idea that I was cast.

12 Years a Slave is now playing.