She’s the “it girl” whose talent and beauty are the talk of Hollywood. Lupita Nyong’o is the break out star of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave and in just over a year she’s gone from a acting school graduate preparing to wait tables while landing bit parts, to a sure-bet in the Oscar’s Best Supporting Actress category. Talk about a whirlwind.
Born in Mexico and raised in Kenya (and now a resident of Brooklyn), Nyong’o, 30, studied at the Yale School of Drama before scoring 12 Years. She stars as Patsey in McQueen’s gripping historical drama, a slave who endures unspeakable acts of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her psychotic owner, played by actor Michael Fassbender.
While I was so tempted to get the 411 on her beauty routine because her skin is downright impeccable and perfect, I stayed away from questions on her style and skincare regimen. Instead I wanted to dig into her character and her skill. Far too often, female actors have their talent placed behind their beauty and their style. Not this time!
In advance of today’s release of the film, I spoke with the stunning ingenue about the role, how she prepared for such heart-breaking scenes, and being “effortlessly sensual.”
Amy Elisa Keith: When you first read the script, how did you think you were going to tackle the pinnacle role of Patsey? She’s a slave who is lusted after by her master, which isn’t new, but her personality is new to viewers.
Lupita Nyong’o: Solomon Northup really just gave it all to us and one of the things he says about Patsey is that she had “an air of loftiness that labor or the lash couldn’t get rid of.” For me it was about finding out how to bring that to life because here’s a woman, she’s described as genuine and agile and hardworking. She’s a queen of the field and yet she is the victim of such extreme violence and she wishes for her death at the same time. The complexity of the character really was the clue and then finding ways to make that active and really just following it like a map.
Amy: This is your first film, and it was such a daunting task you’ve said. What do you want for people to take away from your portrayal of Patsey?
Lupita: I just wanted to say one thing I loved working with Steve and watching Steve’s films… he’s not prescriptive. He’s not telling you how to feel about one particular character. What he’s doing is he’s presenting the truth and you are able to engage with it the way in which your particular experience will have you engaged with it. There is a patience to his camera, to his eye so that for example in 12 Years a Slave even just the raping scene where Epps is raping Patsey and watching that I had no experience and watching it and seeing it from a different angle and being conflicted by all sorts of emotions because you see into a tender side of Epps that you really don’t want to see but you can’t deny it’s there. You can’t deny the villain has humanity and that’s something that I really love about having worked in this film with him and for that reason I too. I get more from learning what people are getting from my work and the other people’s work, and I hate to be the one to tell anyone how to come to take in Patsey.
Amy: Do you still have the soap from your character’s pinnacle scene? Sometimes people keep mementos from films…
Lupita: The soap. Oh no. I have mementos. For me my mementos were the corn-husk dolls. I have given them as gifts.
Amy: How did you get through the whipping scene? Talk me through how you shot it visually, after effects, how did you do it?
Lupita: Preparing for Patsey, in general, was preparing for a woman who is in dire straits every time we see her and that was the way her life was. Danger was lurking everywhere and there was a way in which I had to go about it without being precious because it couldn’t have been precious for her. That day she obviously could not have seen it coming and so for me really it was about visualizing it as best as I could and then just being in the moment.
Another thing that was in the script about Patsey was that she was effortlessly sensual and for me like James Baldwin says, he says “to be sensual is to rejoice in the force of life and to be present in everything that one does from the breaking of bread to the effort of loving.” For me Patsey was present and to prepare for that day I just centered myself and I was present.
Amy: I can imagine being on set with amazing actors but with this heavy, grubby task that you have to do every single day. What was it like on set? Do you each go back to your own trailers and stay in character, is it by method acting. Does everyone go out for a drink at night? How do you carry that throughout the time of shooting?
Lupita: I think in my experience is asking the character always kind of dictates to you how you prepare for it, just like avail yourself to the character. With this I definitely knew that I could not possibly be in this all the time or my whole spirit would be completely broken and I was so happy that I was with actors who felt the same way or at least were able to break out of it and we had lots of social time together. In a way it kind of worked for this film because while we’re in set we were extremely present. The culture of this set was interestingly really warm and loving but also really respectful of the material we were working on.
We were in it together.
Amy: Thank you so much Lupita. Congratulations!