Lapita Nyong’o & Alfre Woodard

Lapita Nyong’o & Alfre Woodard in a scene from ’12 Years A Slave’

*The men of “12 Years a Slave” were featured here on September 26th and as promised, exclusive interviews with two female stars are just as compelling.

As reported then, Michael Fassbender was so impressed with up-and-coming starlet Lapita Nyong’o, he said he had to up his game:

“Lupita came to the set when we were doing the soap scene. I could see she was carrying it all in her body when she arrived. She knew she had to go to a certain place and she was retaining it. She came in there with that information and I could see the hunger of a new student and it made me think, ‘I gotta get my sh-t together here.’”

Fassbender isn’t the only one singing her praises. The Oscar buzz around Nyong’o continues to grow. When The Film Strip sat down to chat with Nyong’o, her beauty and charm lit up the room.

Everyone is talking about your powerful performance. Was it hard for you to leave that character?
Yes. I never fully succeeded in leaving her on set. I tried. I couldn’t sleep throughout the shoot. It was very, very difficult to sleep, not only because of the dark place I had to go but also because of the light it was bringing into me, like working with these amazing people who were so exhilarated. It was a very vibrant time in my life in every respect. I also recognized that I owed it to Patsey’s spirit and everybody else who enjoys their freedom.

What was your mindset going into this role?
It was very difficult to play Patsey but I had to remind myself that that was what I had trained to do and this was the kind of role I was preparing for, the kind of role that I dreamed of with that kind of complexity and importance. This was a real exercise in the things I had trained to do and I had to come to terms with the fact that I had been given the responsibility to bring this real woman back to life and to light. So I had to be humble to that spirit because she existed, you know. I had to be humble and available to be guided by that spirit. I wanted to make her three-dimensional and move beyond just what was in the script.

Patsey’s story is so horrific, do you think people will believe it took place?
I know it’s mind boggling when you see it. You go, ‘I cannot believe this,’ but it’s true and we only know of her because she left her an indelible mark on Solomon. But there are so many other stories we will never hear because the people did not have a Solomon in their lives to tell their stories. So it’s hard to believe but you have to accept it because it’s true. That was a big part in playing her that I couldn’t approach it with a reverence. She was a simple woman trying to get by.  And in that simplicity she did something so great. But I couldn’t sentimentalize Patsey.

The production notes say you were born in Mexico and then your family moved back to Kenya. What was all that about?
My father was a professor of political science and at the time he was also a young politician and he was fighting for democracy in Kenya. After a series of events that included the disappearance of his brother, he fled to Mexico to lay low for a few years and to take on a job as a professor of political science there and I was born there. Then he went back to continue his work in politics and tried to achieve democracy in Kenya.

Having taken on a awe inspiring role yourself, are you surprised at the response?
We hoped for it. When I read the script I felt that this was big. It felt so vital, so necessary, and so powerful. It felt larger than life and it did feel like it was something that was groundbreaking. So in the end I’m relieved that people are receiving it as such.

Veteran actress Alfre Woodard’s screen time is minimal but it packs a punch.

Considering the atrocities of slavery do you think audiences can wrap their heads around your role in this film?
If they ever listened to the old people talk, old, old aunties and great, great aunties, Black people cannot get surprised about how any of us got over. How any of us survived it. That’s what we did. We used our wits and we are the daughters, all of us thriving today and figuring a way around the fact that we don’t get paid the same as men get paid for the same day’s work, figuring out how to use power. How to actually be in control even if we’re not at the head, we figure out how to control it. That’s what sisters do. So they can’t be surprised at all.

And you were a wife to a slave owner?
Yeah, common law. There was a lot of forced rape, but if you could get in a position as a concubine you better take it. That meant you weren’t going to get a lash everyday and out in the sun picking cotton. We can be judgmental all we want to, but you tell me whose going to make that decision not to. It’s not that anybody ever knew slavery would be overturned in their lifetime. It’s 300 years and in 300 years everybody, including indentured white people, tried to figure out a way of how am I going to stay alive and stay out of harm’s way as much as possible and keep my children out of harm’s way as much as possible.

Why do you think there’s an interest now in slave films?
We have 300 years of slave history, longer than we have of not having slavery as Americans. So how are you going to tell stories and not tell some of those stories. Nobody ever says, ‘oh, there’s too many holocaust movies, oh there’s too many World War II movies, there’s too many westerns or gangster movies.’ We tell three movies set in the slave era and everybody’s going, ‘ok, that’s enough.’ That’s nonsense. ‘Django Unchained’ was revenge western. It was not a realistic story. This is a story told firsthand by the man that it happened to and he published it five months after he regained his freedom. You don’t get that firsthand account from anybody unless it’s an astronaut who has gone to the moon and came right back. Even they don’t write their stories right away. So it’s a true gift that we have that Solomon tells us his story and that Steve McQueen creates such a realistic landscape of what it was like to live in a slave economy that we can imagine ourselves there; that we can imagine an evil master, a defiant slave and a weeping mistress of the household. And I defy anyone who says, ‘oh, I would’ve done this, or I would’ve killed…’ No you wouldn’t have! you would’ve found a way to stay alive.

Are you surprised at Brad Pitt’s statement about the film?
No, I’m not because Brad Pitt is that kind of man. He’s an artist but he lives in the real world. He’s engaged with the world and he’s got all these children who have birth places in the world that he and Angelina are dedicated to and they specifically make sure they’re connected to their identities. So for him to support this film that I think not only is a gift to us now, but cinematically it is historic. How masterful Steve McQueen is with filmmaking. They will be talking about this film forever and hopefully it gives a common language for us all to start to understand each other more. As he says, he won’t do anything as important ever again as making sure that this film got made and the story got taken to the public. He will be starring in other stuff and doing glitzy stuff but he’s right. When Peter meets him, he will say, ‘Oh Brad Pitt, you’re the one that produced ‘12 Years a Slave.’

What do you think about the fact it wasn’t an African American who made this film about slavery here?

Steve McQueen is one of those filmmakers that will be talked about and dissected 40 years from now. His parents are from the West Indies although he was brought up in England. But England was the top of the triangle–England, West Africa, the Indies; the slave trade was not just here. This is his story as much as it is ours. It’s as much Benedict Cumberbatch as ours. It is as much Chiwetel’s, an Ibo, as ours. (#12 Years A Slave)

Marie Moore is a syndicated veteran entertainment journalist who reports on film and TV from her New York City base. Contact her at [email protected]