Exclusive Interview: Lupita Nyong’o on 12 Years a Slave

How she got the role everyone's talking about in 12 Years a Slave, her feature film debut.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Lupita Nyong’o was my wild card pick for 12 Years a Slave. Fox Searchlight offered me the interview before I saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival so I went for it, and I’m so glad I did because she has the standout role. Patsey is a slave that Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) meets when he is sold to the Epps (Michael Fassbender) plantation. Northup is renamed Platt which is how Patsey knows him. I sat down with Nyong’o in Toronto to talk about her first feature film.
 

CraveOnline: I feel like you’re a great discovery in this role of Patsey. Where have you come from and what was your journey to get here?

Lupito Nyong’o: That’s a lofty question. I was raised in Kenya and I always wanted to be an actor from when I was really, really little but the first time I thought it was something that I could make a career of was when I watched The Color Purple. I think I was nine maybe and I saw people that looked like me, Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah. I thought maybe I could do this but it took some time because I really didn’t know anyone around me that was making a living out of just being an actor.

So I came to the U.S. for the first time for undergrad, and I went to Hampshire College. There I studied African Studies and Film Studies. That led me to my first film set on The Constant Gardner back home over some holiday where I was a production runner. I got a glimpse into filmmaking, and I was really interested in both being in front and behind the camera.

When I graduated from undergrad and moved back home, I just went through this crisis of what career path do I want? I admitted to myself that if I didn’t at least try and be an actor, I was going to regret it. So I decided that I was going to apply to the best schools I knew of in America, a place that I had grown to know and love. If I got in then it was a good sign and if I didn’t then I would stick to my other plans.

I auditioned and I got into Yale, so I went and they were the best school years of my life. Shortly before I graduated, my manager got this script for one of her other clients, Garret Dillahunt who is also in the film. He plays Armsby. She saw the role of Patsey, she said, “Oh, i think you’d be good for this.”

We put me on tape in New York and I just so happened to be traveling to L.A. the next week for the Yale showcase there. She had the casting office go in to see my work, they called me in for one of the most grueling auditions I’ve ever done. About two weeks later, I was invited to meet Steve [McQueen] in Louisiana. I went for my third audition in my third state. The next day when I arrived in New Haven I received a call and it was Steve offering me the part.
 

What was so grueling about the audition?

For one thing, the nature of the scenes I was auditioning with. They were the scene where Patsey asks Platt to kill her and the soap scene. Those were very high stakes scenes and to go into an audition with a few days’ worth of looking at the material, you’re in an environment that is a far cry from 1800s Louisiana, florescent lights and overbearing A/C, just sterile white walls.

It was tough to go there, and Francine Maisler, the casting director said, “I’m going to do things to you and ask things of you that are not conventional and that you don’t get every day, but I need to do them because I need to show Steve. That’s what the role entails.” She was like a drill sergeant. We’d do the scene over and over again and she’d hurl different things at me. She’d berate me. It was a challenge. It was an hour long and then I went to audition with Steve and that was even harder.
 

Did he hurl disturbing words at you too?

No, no, no, he was definitely less of that, but I was meeting a man that I had grown to admire in such a short period of time. When I got the audition, I still hadn’t seen his other two films. I knew of him but I hadn’t seen his films, so of course immediately I went and got his films and watched them. I was arrested by his work. He has this patient camera sensibility and he really lets the actors run the show.

I admired him so deeply so quickly, and of course I was intimidated meeting him and auditioning for him. When you have someone with such high integrity and such high standards, you want to meet them. We had discussions between trying the scene, and he was just exercising my range. So that was the challenge there. Of course doing it over and over, that kind of thing, is not exactly a walk in the part.
 

Did seeing Hunger and Shame prepare you for how harrowing the material in 12 Years a Slave was going to be?

I don’t know whether it prepared me but it revealed to me who Steve was as an artist. The fact that he is in pursuit of honesty and of revealing humanity, putting a mirror up to things that we don’t often want to look at about ourselves. I think nothing could prepare me for 12 Years a Slave more than 12 Years a Slave itself. Reading the script and reading the autobiography, and I read the autobiography right before my audition with Steve and after, so during that time period was the first time I was reading the autobiography. That’s when it really sunk in because the thing about Steve’s pictures is that they’re all so specific. That’s what makes them so universal, that they narrow in on the truth of that particular subject matter.