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12 YEARS A SLAVE

Lupita Nyong'o on Patsey
Taking the role of Patsey -- the enslaved mistress who is at once the most industrious worker on Epps' cotton plantation and the unfortunate object of Epps' tormented sexual fascination -- is Lupita Nyong'o, the Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised Yale film school graduate makes her film debut in a role that demanded an enormous emotional commitment.

Steve McQueen found her in an extensive auditioning process. "We saw over 1,000 women and Lupita just shone through," he recalls. "When I met her, I thought 'that's her.' She has this vulnerability to her, but she is also a tremendous force. She made me feel humble in her presence."

Nyong'o's journey to get to know Patsey started with an education in the physical realities of life in slave times. "One of the first things I did was visit the slave ship at the Wax Museum in Baltimore. I went into the ship and it was such a three-dimensional experience that it totally shook me. I had never considered slavery in such a personal way," she says. "I also read many books. I tried to surround myself with as much information about slave narratives from that time as I could find."

She even learned skills from the period: "From my research, I discovered that it was historically accurate that Patsey would make cornhusk dolls," she says of the children's toy common to Southern plantations. "So I learned how and now it's a passion of mine. It definitely made her more alive to me."

Finding Patsey's voice was also a journey. "There are no recordings from that time period so we don't really know what people in the 1800's actually sounded like. Our dialect coach, Michael Buster, found an amazing documentary called The Quilts of Gees Bend about an isolated African American community in Alabama and that is what we used as a template," she says.

The more alive Patsey became to her, the more Nyong'o was devastated by the accelerating violence she experiences at the hands of Epps. At the same time, she looked for insight into him.

"Epps is a product of a time when anything interracial was forbidden. His attraction to Patsey is so grotesque in part because he is resisting it with his whole being," she observes. "He wants her and he hates the fact that he wants her. He's so abusive because he's projecting his discomfort with himself onto her."

It was both thrilling and frightening to watch Fassbender embody those contradictions. "I was very nervous about working with him but he made it so safe. On camera, he's terrifying. But in real life he's a very gentle person," she says. "I think I got through those scenes with him because I didn't have time to second-guess myself. I just felt honored to be given this responsibility to tell Patsey's story."

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