In director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, Lupita Nyong'o plays the tortured yet miraculously whimsical slave Patsey. She is the object of the sadistic affections of her master, played by Michael Fassbender, and is beaten alongside Platt (a.k.a. Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor). Originally from Kenya, Nyong’o graduated from Hampshire College, and was cast in the film fresh out of Yale’s School of Drama. Rolling Stone spoke with Nyong’o about researching the character, giving Patsey a crafty side and her feeling that the legacy of slavery still needs to be addressed.
What did you do to get into this part? It's so intense.
The first thing was of course doing the research. Solomon Northup's book gave so many clues about who this woman is. There's a line where he says, "Patsey had an air of loftiness that neither labor nor lash could rid her of." And on the other end of Patsey is her wish to die. My research took me first to the Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore. When I walked in the door, the first thing I saw was a 500-pound bale of cotton, and it was taller than me and it was thicker than me and I felt like Patsey's loftiness was staring me in the face. Patsey's a woman who was fighting through her pain, not wallowing in it, even when she asks to die.
What did that feel like to play?
Well it’s not fiction. What she went through was real, and so I have to roll up my sleeves and do it and it's going to cost me something. But I have the privilege of walking away every day, and she did not. So it feels weighty but it also feels like service. I owed it to the woman who lived this life to tell her story with agency and dignity.
Someone in this plight can so easily be pitied. But for the people who lived these lives, because the abuse was their norm, they had to get on with it. It was a constant battle for self-preservation, even for Solomon. That's what his story is about. It's about trying to preserve his soul, his spirit, and so it was for everyone else. And even within the confines of slavery, she still has agency of her own life, despite the fact she's someone else's property. And so for me, discovering or coming up with the idea of making the cornhusk dolls was an externalization of that part of her that couldn't be enslaved.
You thought of making the dolls?
Yeah, a few days before we started shooting. I was just daydreaming about Patsey. The slaves did have some time to themselves on Sunday, although that was the day that they had to do all their chores to prepare for the rest of the week, but in the moment to herself, what would she do? And so she had these incredible nimble fingers to pick 500 pounds of cotton a day, and I thought, maybe she has that kind of artistic sensibility. So I thought it would be cool if she made cornhusk dolls. The next day I met up with Steve and we were talking about the role and I offered it, and he loved the idea and immediately got the art department to supply me with cornhusk.
What was the most harrowing scene for you to shoot?
The hardest scene, and it took me totally by surprise, was the scene right after the whipping, where her wounds were being attended to. I was like oh I just get to lie down, and they attend to these wounds, and I react. We did shoot the whipping scene before that, and so I was like, this will be easier than everything else I've just done. But in that moment when Patsey looks up at Solomon, at Platt, it just broke my heart.
I understand you were costumed in the actual clothes of the slaves?
The costume designer is just a genius, and she gave me the clothes and she informed me that they were real from real women who were once slaves, and the detail, the patchwork of them, these were clothes that had been worn and re-worn and torn and re-sewn, so it was just a whole tapestry of history that I was draped with. It took me there, you know, that's the power of costume and setting, that they help you do your work.
As a Kenyan, how does it feel to look at American history one-step removed?
I think for me, I felt so privileged to have the opportunity to take this history personally. I would never have engaged with slavery in this kind of intimate way if I didn't have this story to tell. People don't really talk about slavery. So I think that's the brilliance of this film – it's bringing this history into the present, because it needs to be dealt with.