One of the striking things about Lupita Nyong'o is the passion and intensity with which she speaks about her role in 12 Years a Slave. While some actors live with a role for a brief time, do the job and move on, she seems moved by her character Patsey on a more meaningful level, and understandably so. As an object of fixation for Master Epps (Michael Fassbender), Patsey represents one of the most brutal aspects of slavery in America. The film was Nyong'o's first major audition as a graduating student from the Yale School of Drama, and her performance is already generating critical acclaim and considerable Oscar buzz ahead of the film's October 18 release.
We've covered Nyong'o's work since about 2010 and know her as a writer and director as well as an actor. She made time to talk with Shadow & Act about her experience on 12 Years a Slave, as well as what's on the horizon for her career.
SHADOW&ACT: It was a pleasant surprise to see a new face cast for such a coveted role in a high profile film, when Steve McQueen could have potentially gone with an actress already in the mainstream. Can you talk about the casting process for this. Was it a role that you specifically wanted and auditioned for?
LUPITA NYONG'O: My manager [Didi Rea] received the script for another client of hers, Garrett Dillahunt, who plays Armsby in the movie. But she read the role of Patsey and thought I'd be good for it. It was just at the time when Yale was allowing us to audition for professional gigs because we were about to graduate, and so 12 Years a Slave was actually the first audition that I went on tape for in New York. It just so happened that the next week I was going to LA for a showcase, so then Francine Maisler, the casting director, invited me in to her office to audition. It was a one-hour, very grueling audition. Then I was shortlisted and invited to Louisiana to audition with Steve about two weeks later. So it was three auditions in three different states.
S&A: The most painful and memorable scene to watch is that in which Epps asks Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to whip your character, and as he starts to do that, Epps takes over because he doesn't like Solomon's effort. McQueen doesn't completely show the violence, but suggests it through your character. It's not only emotionally stirring, but McQueen makes us watch for what seems like an eternity, which makes it even more uncomfortable. Tell me about filming that scene.
LN: All throughout filming 12 Years a Slave, there was a focus like no other. Everyone took ownership of this film and gave their all. So there was always a reverence, a vibration on set, as Michael [Fassbender] says a lot. It was like a sound that you could hear, a focus. And on that particular day I remember getting on set and feeling like I was covered. Everyone knew that this was going to be a hard day, not just for me, but for everyone involved. And we just went about getting it done. In the autobiography, Solomon [Northup] describes that day as the "darkest day of all time." But I felt safe going to that depth of despair in that environment. And I also felt the humiliation quite similar to what Patsey must have felt, though obviously hers was much worse.
S&A: Was that a scene that was heavily workshopped beforehand, if only to get it done in as few takes as possible, given how painful it is to observe?
LN: No, that's the thing about Steve. He doesn't like to belabor things too much. He did want it to be a one take thing, he said that. We got on set, we walked through it at 30%, how we thought it would run naturally. Then he and [DP] Sean Bobbitt would work out the camera movement accordingly.
Steve and Sean have been working together for 13 years and are seamless partners. They have this instinct for performance. So for me as an actor there were some technicalities involved, for example I wasn't being whipped so I had to react to the crack of the whip and be present for that, but I wasn't bombarded with the technicalities of where the camera was. I just had to truthfully believe in the imaginary circumstances and give it my all.
S&A: Tell me about seeing yourself in the role for the first time. What was your reaction?
LN: I was dreading seeing it to tell you the truth. I felt very generous and open in performing it, but I was nervous about seeing it and hating my work. I finally went and saw it at the beginning of June at Fox Searchlight in New York. I cried a lot. It was a cathartic experience, but I'm so glad I went through it because I was able to see this masterpiece that Steve created and what everyone else brought to it.
You go through a lot watching the film but it makes you feel closer to humanity. I think it's a real gift to be faced with man's potential for extreme cruelty but also man's resilience and the fact that love really does conquer everything. It's the only answer to these kinds of atrocities and it’s not a passive thing. It's about taking a stand to the point that such a film like this can be made so that we can face our history, embrace it, and move on.
S&A: Your name is showing up on a lot of lists as a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee. Is all of that sinking in yet? Do you feel prepared for it, because it's only going to get even more chaotic as awards season begins.
LN: I don't know whether I'm yet prepared and for that kind of conversation. For me, my challenge was just to do this woman justice because this is a true story. The woman that I met in Solomon's autobiography was astounding, so astounding that he took time to describe her history so specifically. She left a mark on him. So that was my concern, to do right by Patsey. For it to be viewed now and see that she's resonating with people - I'm relieved. I feel relief because I feel like I did my best, and my best translated. I'm so excited about that.
S&A: Once the film is released nationwide and there's an even wider awareness of you, it may not be so easy for you to walk down the street as it may be now. Are you even thinking about that, at this point?
LN: That is going to be an interesting thing. I'm kind of curious, I don't know. I don't really know whether or not there's a way to prepare for that.
S&A: We've learned about the upcoming airplane thriller in which you co-star with Liam Neeson. What else is next for you, not only with acting, but also with writing and directing?
LN: I definitely intend to create my own work in the future so that we don't have to keep saying we don't have work for black women. But right now I don't know what's next. I hope that there are more opportunities to come my way.
S&A: Is there any particular kind of project you're interested in doing next?
LN: Drama is my sweet spot, but the thing about being an actor is that you want to do a variety of things. I definitely love fantasy and would want to be in a fantasy project.
12 Years a Slave comes to theaters on October 18.