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Interview: Lupita Nyong'o Takes S&A Inside the Emotion and Brutality of Filming '12 Years a Slave'

by Jai Tiggett
January 16, 2014 12:19 PM
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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. 

Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave'

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. 

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  • BlackCynic | January 19, 2014 10:29 PMReply

    Totally agree! On the one hand the focus away from stupid films like Secret Lifeand the Help are soooo silly and written by angry white women jealous of their beloved husband's raping of black women...the absolute glee at white movie goers at these movies is nothing short of sick. The only equivalent...Real Housewives of Atlanta/Miami and all the other ridiculously caricatures of black women as aggressive and angry and money hungry.
    SOOOO...I concur it is no surprise YET another slave, maid ill fated black woman wins a "prize".

    On the other hand, Lupita is dark, stunning and seems happy. She is the opposite of Precious in looks and may actually win approval from the ever self-loathing black Americans.
    And she is eloquent ...and does not embarrass like Beyonce...

    Time will tell.

  • troll hunter | February 8, 2014 1:06 AM

    DSOURCE is a troll. Disregard. thanks.

  • DSOURCE | February 8, 2014 12:38 AM

    Problem is, she's not an American black. American blacks are mostly loud, obnoxious, and ignorant. This I know, because the TV tells me so.

  • Reborn | January 17, 2014 1:35 PMReply

    Luptia is both talented and incredibly beautiful.
    I thought she held her own in 12YAS and her southern american accent was better than her peers by far.
    She comes across as very professional and deserves all the accolades she is getting
    Also her red carpet and promo dresses are fabulous - she wears bold colours so well!

  • beemooree | January 17, 2014 12:16 AMReply

    Congrats lupita on winning the critics choice awards.

  • Tarisai Gombe | November 8, 2013 8:22 PMReply

    I'd love for you all to see Lupita in this Original African series she shot and co-produced for MTV Base Africa. I believe two full seasons were produced, and she was brilliant in it. Her success is anything but overnight, she's been doing this for years. Take a look.

  • CC | November 8, 2013 9:07 PM

    Your late. S&A posted that series over a year ago.

    Drop this in the search box -->Get Familiar With Lupita Nyong'o's Work Before Seeing Her In '12 Years A Slave;' Watch 'Shuga'

  • AFRICIATE! | October 31, 2013 10:53 AMReply

    I just watched the movie this past week and I think she did a great job. I can see she is very concerned about giving the best performance as Patsey and I must say she succeeded in doing so. I hope she gets that Oscar nomination! I am also very proud of the casting and its choosing a dark skinned woman to play this role because that is something different from the Hollywood standard which would rarely show a dark skinned black woman being the center of affection. I wrote an article on this and you can find it on

  • Amiel Bee | October 16, 2013 12:30 PMReply

    I have to admit, I really haven't been looking forward to the barrage of slave films that have been slated for release since the debut of "D'Jango Unchained". However, I am very interested in seeing Lupita's debut in this film, as well as, Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance. I really want to see if this is as great a film as people say it is, or if it's just another excuse for Hollywood to see Black people at the receiving end of a whip.

  • CareyCarey | October 16, 2013 3:50 PM

    **CC jumps back on his soapbox**

    I don't know how you are anyone spells "success" or "great" but in reference to your quandary, check this out: " Patsey's brutal beating is tough to watch, and McQueen wanted it to be so. I really appreciated that about him. He doesn't let folks (especially white folks) off the hook because it perpetuates the "Oh slavery wasn't THAT bad" mentality" ~ S&A visitor

    OH MY! Now I get it, this film wasn't made to satisfy the thirst of Hollywood's (read white folks) need to see black people whipped and tortured, used and abused, it's a supplementary guide to black history. Yeeeaaah, riiiight.

    Miss Amiel Bee, I am here to tell you that Lupita's performance deserves all the accolades being thrown her way. Yes, it was an outstanding performance that's deserving of Oscar consideration, but it DOES come with a price.

    In this role, like other black female Oscar winners before her, she had to expose her body, have sex with a white man and endure unimaginable pain... and be a slave. She certainly pulled it off, she emoted disgust, misery, disdain, fear, remorse and suicidal tendencies to a tee, however, I don't know if that display of pain translates to a great film?

    But one thing for certain, two things for sure, given Oscar voters lust for maids, slaves, butlers and dysfunctional black women, there's sure to be a few black faces on next year's Red Carpet - in the form of Forest Whitaker (The Butler), Lupita Nyong'o (The tortured SLAVE) and possibly Oprah Winfrey (The dysfunctional alcoholic wife who has sex with her husband's friend).

    Now I ain't mad at white folks because they do what they do and it is their party, but I am hesitant to (check that) I am not jumping on the "This is a great film" bandwagon, I'll let you make that call.

  • Saumu | October 7, 2013 4:57 AMReply

    I love Lupita 's passion, I hope she mixes it up and till uses her documentary filming skill to tell more African stories. She doesn't need to follow in anyone's path, She's already a trail blazer

  • dancelover51 | September 28, 2013 12:57 AMReply

    Lupita is amazing and she is my new obsession. I hope the opportunities for her are endless but I am very much aware of the lack of opportunities for Black actresses especially if they are of a certain hue.

  • CareyCarey | September 27, 2013 12:00 PMReply

    "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."

    I didn't read the entire interview (some have a tendency to spoil my initial viewing experience) but those words caught my eye. Point being, she's attractive, she's young, she's new, she can act and she's black. So what is next for her?

    When I look at the history of young attractive black women in the film industry, it's certainly a precarious slope. Without question their crossroads are much more arduous than their white contemporaries with similar assets, leaving one to wonder whose footsteps can Lupita follow?

    I suppose only she knows her vision of success but in it's most fundamental and traditionally accepted form, which attractive black actresses' career can she use as a model? Could it be Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Eartha Kit, Fredi Washington, Pam Greer, Angela Basset or Halle Barry? Or is it safe to say all of the above's career opportunities belies their beauty and acting skills? Well, again, when I juxtapose all their careers with white actresses with similar assets, I believe there's a few glaring differences that should give Lupita grave concerns.

    Heck, beauty aside, given the history of all black actresses, it's safe to say their career paths are treacherous, to say the least. It's a long winding road filled with limited opportunities, the burden of representation and seldom seen black love companions.

  • michboa | September 27, 2013 8:36 AMReply

    I love people who are obviously passionate about what they do. I hope to see more of Lupita on the big and small screen.

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