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12 YEARS A SLAVE

Michael Fassbender on Mr. Epps
In 12 YEARS A SLAVE Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen continue a collaboration that started with HUNGER and continued with SHAME. This time, Fassbender brings to life a very different shade of character in the form of Edwin Epps, the Louisiana slave owner who receives Solomon as payment on a debt, then reveals himself to be a haunted, drunken man whose fury is set off by Northup's unbeaten spirit. The real Epps had such a reputation for reprehensible behavior that to this day locals in Louisiana still admonish with the phrase "stop being Epps." Northup's memoir describes him as being "repulsive and coarse" and "having never enjoyed the advantages of an education."

Fassbender took the full measure of the man and did not flinch in portraying him. "The role is played exquisitely by Michael. He embodies Epps fully," says McQueen. "Once again, he is a tour de force."

Adds Chiwetel Ejiofor who locks wills with Fassbender throughout the film: "Michael found something so extraordinary and specific in how to embrace this character as a whole. He doesn't just play Epps as a mean guy -- it would be easy just to be mean -- but he plays him as someone who is suffering within himself, who considers the world to be kind of against him, and tries to right that by lashing out at the things that he thinks he owns, people like Solomon and the other slaves on his plantation. Michael gave Epps a rounded quality that is equal parts engaging and terrifying."

Fassbender was drawn first to the story. "It's an important story to tell," says the actor, "to look at the history of what we human beings are capable of doing to one another."

As he began to explore what drives Epps, he began to see that at heart, he is both confused and affronted by Northup. In a farming world where little is certain, Epps has come to find a certain personal sense of control in his cruelly paternal, dictatorial relationship with his slaves, but Northup defies that, even if in subtle ways. "I think Solomon is of greater intelligence than Epps, and Epps 19perhaps doesn't even have the intelligence to suss that out," observes Fassbender, "but there is something about Solomon he feels threatened by. He feels inadequate when he's around him, which I think is very much at the root of their relationship. For Solomon, it is a constant dance with an unpredictable and violent man."

In the middle of that dance comes Patsey, the slave with whom Epps is having an affair, a contradictory appetite he can't explain to himself, let alone to his intolerant wife. "He is obsessed with Patsey and that's information he can't process, can't live with," notes the actor. "For Mistress Epps it's doubly frustrating because everyone on the plantation knows. But for Patsey, it's horrific because she gets it from Epps and Mistress Epps. Patsey is basically at their mercy and they're not very merciful people."

For Fassbender, the key to the performance was digging deep into the layers of that lack of mercy. "It's always the same sort of process for me," he says. "I go over the scenes trying to find what parts of the story reveal certain aspects of the character. What's he searching for? Is there a root to this sort of violence? How do you relate to people if in your mind they are somehow seen as subhuman? When you are bringing pain to people every day how does that then affect you, and your muscle memory, and how do you carry that around? I saw a constant tug of war going on within Epps."

Working with McQueen, with whom he has tacit shorthand at this point, allowed that to emerge. "Steve really understands human behavior, he has a curiosity about it and approaches it in a non-judgmental way," he observes. "He's also passionate and he expects that from everyone around him."

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