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The Supporting Cast
12 YEARS A SLAVE is rife with intense and conflicted characters, each of whom is carefully portrayed by the film's large and diverse cast. Taking the role of Tibeats, the carpenter who oversees the plantation for William Ford, is Paul Dano, seen last year in RUBY SPARKS and LOOPER, and who received a BAFTA Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role in the oil epic THERE WILL BE BLOOD. He took a chilling journey into the character.

"Tibeats has an irritable, nasty disposition," Dano describes. Indeed in the book, Tibeats is described as "ignorant, quick-tempered and spiteful . . . neither esteemed by white men nor respected by slaves." He harassed Northup, harangued him and ultimately attempted to lynch him.

Dano goes on: "I think Tibeats is jealous of Solomon, suspecting that he is an educated man and might be smarter than he is. Solomon clearly doesn't know his place and Tibeats isn't used to that and feels he needs to show him who is boss."

Stepping into that authoritarian mindset was a serious challenge. "When I first read the part, it felt daunting," Dano admits. "Normally you daydream about the parts you play with excitement. But treating a person the way Tibeats does is hard and I had to search for some kind of empathy for the character and why he is that way."

To do that, McQueen and Dano talked at length about Tibeats' likely background, coming up with a story for how he came to be so short-tempered and violent in his demeanor. "We didn't want him to be one-dimensional," notes McQueen. "Paul and I talked about Tibeats as a person who himself had probably been brutalized, whose father beat him, and within that context and environment, when Solomon challenges him, you can see that things are going to erupt, and they do."

Dano arrived in Louisiana in the middle of a heat wave, which only added to his sense of stepping into another kind of world. "The incredible heat and humidity made it so real," he says. Chiwetel Ejiofor says that Dano's performance was equally real. "Paul created Tibeats as a man who believes he's entitled to a certain kind of behavior," he observes. "That's a difficult mix -- to be dangerous, yet engaging and with a sense of your own righteousness in a terrible situation."

Northup encountered yet another form of slavery's brutality in the form of Mrs. Epps, a carefully coifed, delicately refined yet intolerant woman who is mortified by her husband's affair with a slave. Taking the role is Sarah Paulson, most recently seen in Jeff Nichols' MUD, who won over McQueen in her audition. "A lot of people went up for that role, but when I saw Sarah, that was Mrs. Epps," remembers McQueen. "She wasn't afraid. She could be direct and cold at the same time. It's a very hard role, and most people weren't able to bring their own selves into it. But Sarah did. She was so powerful."

Paulson says her guide to the character was the script. "It doesn't happen all the time, but it was very clear to me on the page who she was," she says. "There was no way for me to try to soften her or to make her anything other than that, and I felt the story couldn't be told properly unless I really went there."

Rather than see her as a pure villain, Paulson instead tried to dissect Mrs. Epps' narrow- minded mindset. "I believe in her mind she was truly doing things as she believed things should be done. So I didn't want to overdo it," she explains. "Also, there is something more horrifying about a person who is so committed to their beliefs that they don't even notice what it is that they're putting out into the world."

Paulson believes that Mrs. Epps is still in love with her husband, much as she is hurt by his infidelity, that love is something that comes out in moments. "Steve did something kind of amazing in the dance scene where I perpetrate a violent act towards Patsey. He said to Michael, 'I would like you to do something physically loving towards your wife, something sweet that counteracts what you're saying to her.' And of course Michael being Michael took that note and decided to put his hand around my throat. Then he took his thumb along my mouth. Which in the moment made me want to kiss him. I think it's a beautiful example of the way the Epps probably were together and it inspired something in me."

Part of Mrs. Epps' persona is her studied poise, which she maintains even under the most heinous circumstances. At one point, McQueen gave Paulson the direction of holding herself like a figure on top of a cake. "She is someone trying to be a woman of a greater elegance than she actually possesses. So Steve wanted me to have an air of someone who thinks she's really something," she explains.

But that elegance turns to something darker in the presence of Solomon. Paulson believes that Mrs. Epps feels threatened by him. "He's scary to her because she doesn't trust him," she explains. "And since her husband can be intoxicated at times, she feels it is left to her to be the one to make sure all the I's are dotted and all the T's are crossed on the plantation."

As Mrs. Shaw, Alfre Woodard portrays another type of Southern woman often lost to history: a black woman who, once a slave, is now a white plantation owner's wife, and a slave owner herself. Mrs. Shaw's sense of nobility and power makes her a kind of idol and advisor to Patsey.

Says McQueen: "There's something about the scenes with Mrs. Shaw that are very surreal. Out of the thick bayou comes this tranquil plantation where she is sipping her tea with her little biscuits and fine China, and it's almost like the Mad Hatter's tea party."

For Woodard, the project was alluring from the start. "I've loved Steve McQueen's work -- it's the kind of work that artists study, because it's so intelligent and layered. He is making films that people will be talking about and watching 50 years from now," she says. "I was not disappointed to be down in the swamps in tons of petticoats with sweat rolling down and bugs biting me to be working with Steve."

Woodard says of Mistress Shaw's unusual relationship with Patsey: "I think she befriends Patsey because the mistresses from the surrounding plantations aren't going to come visit with her. She's in a class all by herself and that's lonely. But she also sees that Patsey is the object of desire of her slave master, and she can help Patsey figure out how to manage that."

Rounding out the main cast is Adepero Oduye, recently lauded for her breakout performance in PARIAH, as Eliza, who finds herself and her children in the same slave pen with Solomon and ultimately sold with him, alone, to Master Ford. "When she and Solomon meet, they realize they're similar in that they have lived a completely different life from what they are about to encounter," she describes.

In a starkly emotional moment, Oduye explores one of the most shocking experiences female slaves commonly went through, as Eliza loses her young children during the sale to Ford. "It happens forcefully and suddenly," she explains. "One minute she's with her children and the next she's in the cart with Solomon. It's very hard for her because everything that she has endured, every choice that she has made, she did for her children in the hopes her former master would one day free them. The biggest challenge was knowing that these things happened to the real people who lived through this. I couldn't help but think about how the real Eliza's children were torn away from her."

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