12 Years A Slave Cast Talks Brutality, Heavy Emotions, And Bonding Like War Veterans
Even if you don't live in one of the handful of cities where it has opened so far, it's impossible to avoid talk of 12 Years A Slave. The historical drama, based on an unbelievable true story, crept into the box office top 10 last weekend while playing on just 123 screens, and it's been earning near-endless conversation and talk of awards since it premiered at the Telluride and then the Toronto Film Festivals earlier this year. Directed by Steve McQueen, who previously made Hunger and Shame, it's a look at one of the most painful parts of American history, told with a balance of emotion and careful, unbelievably effective filmmaking.
I spoke to director McQueen in a lengthier conversation that you can read here, but below you can watch my interviews with several of the key cast members. Let's start with Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is mesmerizing in the lead role as Solomon Northup, a free black man living in upstate New York in the pre-Civil War era who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. I asked Ejiofor how you can take such a plainly heroic role-- Northup didn't just survive the titular 12 years of capture, but wrote a memoir about it-- and make it engaging.
Solomon first finds himself on a plantation owned by a man (Benedict Cumberbatch) who makes small but ultimately useless gestures toward treating his slaves as actual humans. From there Solomon winds up at a plantation owned by Michael Fassbender's Edwin Epps, a brutal and relentless man who whips and psychologically torments his slaves in an astonishing number of ways. Not quite as physically violent, but just as vile, is Epps's wife, played by Sarah Paulson; she pays attention when her husband seems particularly fond of one slave, Patsey (played by Lupita Nyong'o), and in one breathtaking scene Paulson's character fires a glass decanter at Patsey's head without even flinching. I asked Paulson how she pulled off that moment, and how she and Nyong'o developed a relationship that made enduring moments like that a little easier.
Patsey's life, as you can imagine, is brutal, but she finds weekly solace with Sabbath teatimes at the home of Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), a former slave who has now become the lady of the house for her former owner. Woodard only has one scene as Mistress Shaw but she uncovers an entire other, alternate identity for slaves, in which they may have easier lives by becoming obedient wives to masters who have raped and tortured them. I spoke to Woodard and Nyong'o about the relationship they establish between Mistress Shaw and Patsey in that brief, surreal scene.
For more on 12 Years A Slave you can read our review, or catch it as it expands into more theaters in the coming weeks.
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