Outshining Brad Pitt in the Oscar-touted epic 12 Years A Slave, all eyes are on break-out star, Lupita Nyong’o
Words: Lizzie Pook
Illustrations: Katy Wakefield
You know a film is good when you walk out of the cinema and can’t look anyone in the eye. When you’re forced to take a five minute stroll around the block before you can take a deep breath, dust yourself off and return to your normal life. That’s the effect of 12 Years A Slave. A remarkable and necessary film that’s got the critics running out of superlatives, and awards-organisers polishing their gongs.
Based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War Deep South, it stars A-listers including Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch, and British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (magnificent as the beleaguered yet doggedly determined Solomon).
But rising above this ensemble cast of household names is Lupita Nyong’o, a previously unknown Kenyan actress and filmmaker, who graduated from the Yale School of Drama only last year. As young slave girl Patsey, Nyong’o, 30, is a picture of serene and powerful brilliance. The object of her slave-master’s affections (a lustful and utterly brutal Fassbender as Master Epps), Patsey is whipped, raped and abused, acts she endures with devastating submission.
It’s a hard image to bring to mind when you see Nyong’o off-screen – posing with Kanye West; gracing the cover of The Hollywood Reporter alongside Oprah, Julia Roberts and Emma Thompson; and cheerful, elegant and considered in press conferences. But for some reason, when I meet her in the bar of a London hotel, dressed in a vintage tea dress and grinning like a Cheshire cat, it all comes flooding back. This actress is part of one of the most searing, visceral and brilliantly unromantic films I’ve ever seen. Hollywood’s new leading lady. Capable of stunning packed cinemas into silence before reducing them to tears. I really hope I don’t spill my tea.
Lupita Nyong'o makes her stunning film debut with Michael Fassbender in 12 Years A Slave
How are you coping with the monumental buzz that’s surrounding you right now?
[Laughs] Well, at the moment I’m just focusing on the work and trying my best to show up on time. I’ve made a rule not to Google myself. I’m just not consuming any of it. But, actually, I don’t even really feel a sense of pressure. Nobody needs to tell me this film is good. I know in my bones it’s good. Steve McQueen has made a masterpiece. It’s a film for the ages. It’s a gift.
Steve McQueen has admitted he hadn’t heard of the book until his partner brought it to his attention. Were you aware of the story?
I hadn’t heard about the book at all, and was quite surprised by that, actually. So I focussed a lot on the text. But I also did other research. One of the first things I did after getting the role was visit the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore [a museum dedicated to African-American history]. I walked in and was confronted by a 500lb bale of cotton, which is what Patsey would pick in a day. It was huge: taller than me, wider than me and thicker than me. So I was met with a loftiness right there. I also read an excerpt from one diary that told how a slave was beheaded and his head put on a stick as a warning to everyone else.
Did anything else surprise you?
Yes, the fact that white people, upon killing a slave, would save part of them as a keepsake. Like a limb, a finger or a thumb. They’d have it as a lucky charm. Sometimes they even made leather accessories out of the skin of slaves. I never knew that.
You had to film some gruelling scenes in the film. How did you keep yourself from getting overwhelmed?
Every day I made myself recognise that I had the privilege of doing it in an imaginary world and that the girl I was representing did not. So that took care of that really. To try and protect myself would be doing Patsey a disservice. So I just had to open up and allow it to happen.
Lupita Nyong’o: now on every film critic's radar
Did the white actors on set feel any discomfort? Their ancestors had committed such atrocities; did they feel they needed to apologise?
There was no apology and I commend them for that. It was not for them to apologise. The characters they played are not the most lovable people, but they did Solomon well by lending themselves to playing such difficult roles. What’s unique about this film is that it’s unapologetic but also non-judgmental. The white characters are not just villains. Each and every one of them is well-rounded and complex; you can see their motivations, you can see where they’re coming from, even though you might not like it. Take Michael Fassbender’s character, Master Epps. He’s in love with Patsey, and he hates the fact that he’s in love with her, so he tries to destroy that love by destroying her. Steve [McQueen] is not pointing fingers. He’s showing it as it is and that we are all responsible. Humanity is held accountable in this film.
The scenery is stunning – every shot is almost like a painting. What was it like filming in Louisiana?
Incredible. I think part of the reason the film is so heartbreaking is because it’s just so beautiful. Such horrors took place in such gorgeous places. But it was a treasure to be able to film on the land where these things happened. We were flanked by these 300-year-old oaks, and I realised that these very trees had witnessed slavery. Slaves took shade under them, slaves hung from them. It certainly helped me get into character. But the heat was oppressive. On the first day of filming it was 108°F [42°C]. When it’s that hot it affects how you walk, how you think. Everything.
What was your relationship like with Michael Fassbender off-screen? On-screen he is so vile towards you, how did that translate off-camera?
I love Michael Fassbender, and I hope he loves me. We didn’t do any method acting or anything. When Steve said cut, it meant cut. We felt we owed it to our characters to enjoy our freedom, and the whole cast had a real camaraderie. We had dinner together, we went go-karting, paintballing and dancing – believe me, Fassbender can dance. We had a great time shooting this film.
You were born in Mexico and raised in Kenya. What was your upbringing like?
It was normal. I went to a Kenyan-system primary school and a British-system secondary school before moving back to Mexico to go to college. My father was a politician but he’s the only father I’ve known, so that was normal to me too. Moving around so much does mean I can speak four languages, though: English, Swahili, Spanish and Dholuo.
That’s impressive. Who were your female role models growing up?
Role models is a tough term, but the first time I thought I could actually be an actor was when I watched The Colour Purple. I saw Whoopi Goldberg and she looked like me. She had my hair, she was dark like me and it was the first time I thought, ‘I could do that.’ Obviously, I grew up watching Oprah, too, so she’s an inspiration. I learnt a lot from her; in fact, I first heard about the term ‘sexual abuse’ from that show.
12 Years A Slave is your first acting role. Where do you go from here?
I have no idea. If I figure that out I’ll let you know. I’m a sucker for fantasy. I love Game Of Thrones. Oh my god, the Khaleesi, I cannot get enough of her. I love comic book movies, too. It’d be fun to do something like Kick-Ass. But drama is really my sweet spot; I love the kind of stuff that costs me something and that says something profound about humanity. I work best when I feel compelled to say something. I don’t ever want to say something because it’s convenient. I want to say something because I have to say something.
12 Years A Slave is in cinemas from 10 January