sarah paulson 12 years a slave

Sarah Paulson as the cruel Mary Epps in “12 Years a Slave”

*Actors who play villains on screen often talk about finding the character’s motivation, or a personal justification for the character’s malevolent actions in order to add dimension to the role.

Sarah Paulson wanted to take that approach with her character Mary Epps in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.” She plays the insanely ratchet wife of evil slave owner Edwin Epps, and is responsible for some of the film’s most vile displays of emotional and physical infliction of pain.

Sarah Paulson as Mary Epps and Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, a slave on the Epps plantation, in "12 Years a Slave"

Sarah Paulson as Mary Epps and Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a slave on the Epps plantation, in “12 Years a Slave”

Such a character can easily be played over-the-top and on one note – and Paulson wanted to make sure she avoided that trap by at least attempting to understand Mistress Epps’ actions.

“Steve said something to me very early on. He said, ‘I don’t want you to apologize for her,’ in terms of how I was approaching going there in my mind,” Paulson explained at a recent press conference. “I didn’t want to think about the result of it, how cruel she was going to be perceived as. And I, personally, Sarah, [was] thinking how am I going to be able to find my way into a woman who behaves this way. And the only way that I could do that was to figure out why she behaved that way and to try to understand the motivation.”

Paulson said she managed to come up with some reasons for Mistress Epps’ behavior, and used them to enhance her portrayal. Below, the actress lets us in on the specific reasons she invented.

“12 Years a Slave” is in select theaters now and opens nationwide on Nov. 1. Watch a trailer below.