Best Supporting Actress: An Interview with 12 Years a Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o

Given the tradition of the preceding year’s Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor presenting the gold man to the newly crowned Best Supporting Actress, it would be in Christoph Waltz’s best interest to begin mastering his pronunciation of Lupita Nyong’o right about now.

While lead performance accolades seem to eschew risk in favor of mass appeal, the supporting categories—of course—help carry the enthusiasm of the ceremony by taking chances and recognizing challenging performances, often by newcomers. Should this pattern hold, a nomination, if not an outright win, for Nyong’o’s alternately spirited and wrenching debut performance in director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the 1853 Solomon Northup memoir 12 Years a Slave would be a fabulous and fitting irony since Waltz took home his prize for Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist-slave-spaghetti-western Django Unchained.

The notion that less than a year apart, a graphic, blisteringly accurate retelling of a true horror story could dazzle audiences as much as a bloody, strangely feel-good sendup of America’s biggest shame speaks volumes about the readiness, on the respective parts of movie studios, film-goers and –makers, to confront this part of our history as its own genre of sorts, through the telling of stories both bombastic and humble. And yet, 12 Years a Slave is something of an indefinable accomplishment, offering us not merely a glimpse into but a terrifyingly close, eyes wide open view of these atrocities—and not from the safety of some heroic white figure’s idealistic struggles and triumphs, but from the intimate, pained perspectives of the victims. One such figure is Nyong’o’s Patsey, a field slave whose expert talent for picking cotton and striking beauty draw the lecherous favor of her unstable master (Michael Fassbender) and the unbearably vindictive abuse of his wife (Sarah Paulson).

Though 12 Years a Slave boasts perhaps the most impressive cast of any major film released in 2013—including an astonishing lead performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor; chilling turns by Fassbender, Paulson, and Paul Dano; memorable cameos by Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Alfre Woodard; and a wonderfully understated Brad Pitt—it is Nyong’o who truly strikes lightning every time she’s on screen. In her portrayal of Patsey, Nyong’o achieves a masterful balance between the character’s buoyance and her darkness, rendering a nuanced and complex portrait of a woman whose exterior suggests complacence while on the inside she’s deeply broken and perpetually wishing for an end to the nightmare she’s enduring.

PopMatters sat down with Nyong’o to steal a few moments during a hectic press day, chatting about her sense of obligation to honor the truth of the woman she was portraying, her satisfaction with the extreme audience reactions the film elicits, and what it was like to work with her cast mates and McQueen on a surprisingly “joyous” set.

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Congratulations on the film winning the coveted Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival.

It’s so exciting! We just heard today.

Speaking of TFF, it was there that the film first received a standing ovation. But it was also the first time people in the audience reportedly walking out of the film because they couldn’t handle it. How does it feel to be involved in a project that elicits such extreme reaction?

It feels really, really good actually, because it feels like we’re doing the truth some justice. That’s what its’ about. Not everyone can handle the truth. So in that respect, the film is doing its job. Steve constantly talked about wanting to do the story justice and he did so exquisitely. He does that autobiography such justice, and the film is so beautiful.

It’s visually quite striking, which is something I hadn’t expected, that juxtaposition of those grim scenes playing out so artfully in terms of editing and cinematography.

Oh, absolutely. And that’s true to how Solomon [Northup] writes his book. There’s an example when he’s describing people hanging from a noose, and it’s horrifying. And yet, he’s also talking about the brilliant blue sky and the blossoms in the background. He was a very observant man and he didn’t shy away from integrating the beauty into the pain of the time. Steve worked hard to match that. We all did.

How did you come to be cast among this incredible ensemble?

I auditioned! [laughs] Simple as that. My manager got the script for another client of hers and thought I’d be great for the role of Patsey. I was just graduating from the Yale School of Drama, so I was finally allowed to audition for things. I put myself on tape in New York and two weeks later was invited to Louisiana to audition with Steve. That was the last step and then I go a call the next day offering me the part. We started filming very soon after.

And what was it like working with Steve? I’m especially curious about one of the more disturbing scenes in the film, which involves your character being viciously whipped, and how something like that comes together. I hardly imagine there’s any CGI at work here.

Steve is very efficient. He knows what he wants, he goes out and does it. But he doesn’t do it in any overbearing control freak way. We got on set that day and he said, very matter of fact, “I kind of want to get this in one take”. He had [the actors] rehearse as we imagined it would go down, and then he’d give us some guidelines but ultimately he’d always say, “Let’s see what feels natural for you do”. And then we’d walk through it. He and Sean [Bobbitt, cinematographer] have worked together for 13 years and they have a shorthand, they know what each other wants and needs so well. So, after we, the actors, would figure out what felt most natural for us, [Steve and Sean] would work out the technicalities around the actors, around the action and movement that had flowed naturally. [That particular scene] was a technical feat, but not something that I was ever burdened with. My role was just to fight for what Patsey was fighting for, which in that particular scene was soap to get clean. Of course I had to listen for the crack of the whip and such, but Steve keeps the technical burden to the minimum for the actors. He takes that on, and that’s the wonderful thing about working with him. Especially with this material, when you have so much to do you don’t want to think about whether your foot was in the right direction or not. Once everyone was on the same page and completely focused, we were able to get the shot and move on. The focus on the set was always so incredible and professional.

So what was the dynamic or mood on the set then? It’s such a serious, difficult film I can’t quite imagine what it was like between takes.

Oh, the set of 12 Years a Slave was an extremely joyous one! We all recognized that we were making a powerful, necessary, and beautiful film and we weren’t about doing it without that sense of responsibility, and we recognized that we needed each other to tell this story. We also knew we needed to hold each other up as we told the story. And yet we had so much fun making this film and when Steve said “Cut!” it was cut, and we went away and we drank together and broke bread together and went go carting together and paintballing! You know we did all those things because we were in it together and that was so useful because for me because the thought of doing Patsey in a method way would have destroyed me. Destroyed me. And I felt that I owed it to Patsey’s spirit to enjoy my freedom.

The first time we see Patsey, she’s sitting in the field humming and making dolls from cornhusks. It is such a childlike, innocent moment that it immediately came to mind every time I witnessed Patsey enduring some unspeakable abuse. How did that small detail come about? Was it scripted?

It wasn’t scripted, but all the clues were in the script and the book. Patsey is described [by Solomon Northup] as having an “air of loftiness that neither labor nor lash could rid her of”. She was the fastest cotton picker in the bayou and she was described as agile and pleasant, she could jump the highest fence. She was just an incredible woman and Solomon talks about had she been born out of slavery she would have been a leader. So I was faced with that from the book and I thought, “man, I have to do her justice, I have to represent this woman wholly, she is all of these wonderful things and at the same time she is the involuntary mistress of her master and is horribly abused and wants to die”.

The cornhusk dolls came to me a few days before shooting. I was daydreaming about Patsey as I often did, and I knew she was so good with her hands to pick all that cotton, five hundred pounds a day, and so I wondered what else she did with her hands. I had this idea she must have been artistic and what would she do with her free time. They grew corn, so I thought maybe she makes crafts with the cornhusks, and I looked it up and it was historically accurate, and so I told Steve and he loved it. It’s a childlike quality but it is ultimately an externalization of the part of her that cannot be enslaved. Human beings have an instinct for freedom. No one born into bondage doesn’t instinctively know what freedom would mean to them, and I did my best to express what that would look and feel like for Patsey. Ultimately that was my job. That was my obligation.

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12 Years a Slave is now playing in theaters.