There are some performances that stick with you long after you see a film. That's the case with newcomer Lupita Nyong'o's portrayal of a beleaguered, unfathomably brave slave named Patsey in director Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave," an unflinching, harrowing, painfully true account of a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery.
The actress had quite the film education with her first big-screen role -- not only studying under McQueen and producer Brad Pitt, but also starring alongside Michael Fassbender (as terrifyingly temperamental villainous slave owner Edwin Epps) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (as the film's lead, Solomon Northup).
This is undoubtedly a movie that lives in your brain long after the credits roll, and Nyong'o plays a huge part in that; her performance is heartbreaking, inspiring, and nothing short of incredible. We caught up with Nyong'o while she was in New York City promoting "12 Years a Slave," to talk about working with McQueen, the technicalities of the film's long takes, and her role in one particularly infamous scene of brutality.
This is a really incredible film debut. And to be part of yet another renowned Steve McQueen film -- the man didn't even have a sophomore slump!
Right? What Steve has going for him is his pursuit for the truth, and that's what makes him so incredible and such a master. Because he's not interested in anything but revealing something true about humanity. And we're all just so lucky to have him in existence with us.
He just refuses to look away. Especially in this film, he doesn't yell "cut" where most directors would've. People call it "unflinching" for a reason.
He's very patient, and he also has a profound respect for the actor, what the actor can bring to a story, and he films for the actor -- that's what he's interested in. He's interested in the human exchange -- the realness of it -- and so the technicalities of it are never overbearing when you're working with him. People talk about the long takes -- everything we shot, we shot in long takes. We always shot scenes in their entirety, even when the angles were changing.
It's kind of impossible to watch this movie and not wonder what the set atmosphere was like. How did Steve make you feel safe, and was there ever a break in the tension or was there just a constant air of reverence?
We had so much fun making this movie and I know that seems crazy, but we had fun because we all recognized that we were doing something vital, something important, something powerful. And we all took on our roles with a real sense of responsibility and conviction. Therefore we could enjoy each other because we were in it together. The environment on set was joyful. And when the time came to do the more harrowing scenes, there was definitely a sense of reverence and people giving each other space.
What about the day of the now infamous whipping scene?
That day, I remember getting on set and I had the room to get where I needed to get, as did everyone else. It was almost like an unspoken communication, and everyone was always ready to go. That's the thing: because what Steve does at the helm of these kinds of projects is that he expects the best, and everybody wants to give the best, so everybody is focused. There's no need to say "Hurry up" because everybody is doing what they need to do.
How many takes did that scene require?
Honest to God, I don't really remember! Maybe four? I don't know. It was half a day for that scene.
It feels, as the viewer, like it would've taken longer to achieve -- not only because it's one continuous shot, but because it's so emotionally heavy. Were those practical effects or CGI effects employed?
I don't feel like telling! [Laughs]
What was your reaction the first time you saw the movie? Did you just sob the whole time like I did?
Yeah! I cried from the moment Solomon Northup was in shackles and throughout. I've seen it twice and I think I'm good for now! It was a cathartic experience and one that I was more than happy to go through. That's the thing about this film: yes, it asks a lot from its audience, but then it leaves you with a sense of...you feel satiated in some way. Like, something has been dealt with that was missing.
I just wanted to be nice to everybody. It felt like required viewing for humanity.
That's the thing! Yeah, exactly! It's a call to love -- that's what this film is.
Do you know what really happened to Patsey, how her life turned out?
No. Nobody knows. That's the thing: Patsey only exists because Solomon met her.
The thesis of the film, in many ways, is Solomon's plea that he doesn't just want to survive, he wants to live. Do you feel like you survived the role of Patsey, or lived it?
I lived it. Patsey has changed me. And I hope every role I play changes me a little, because that's the beauty of acting, is that you get to experience humanity, you get to explore and celebrate and analyze humanity. And why would I do it if it didn't change me?
"12 Years a Slave" opens October 18.