Lupita Nyong'o's exotic name owes to being born in Mexico and raised in Kenya. A graduate of the Yale University School of Drama's Acting program, Lupita Nyong'o cut her teeth in roles like Perdita in The Winter's Tale (at Yale Rep), Sonya in Uncle Vanya, and Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew (a production in which Katherine killed everyone in the end, she told me). After appearing in the MTV miniseries Shuga, Nyong'o made her feature-film debut as Patsey in Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. I spoke with Nyong'o, at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, on behalf of the radio show Celluloid Dreams (90.5 FM in San Jose, CA, and online at http://celluloiddreams.net), the interview airing on October 28, 2013.
Groucho: I think people will be very interested to hear about your research for the film—which you did quite a bit of. Can you talk about what you did to prepare?
Lupita Nyong’o: Mm-hm. Wow. Well, it was great to have both the script and the autobiography, and I scoured those for clues as to who this Patsey was. And in the autobiography, Solomon Northup describes Patsey as having an air of loftiness that neither labor nor lash could rid her of [Ed. "There was an air of loftiness in her movement, that neither labor, nor weariness, nor punishment could destroy"]. And that was really like the guiding statement with which I went about finding Patsey’s character. But other than that, it also gives a backstory as to who Patsey was. She was born in South Carolina to an African-American slave woman and a man from Guinea. And she was sold to the Eppses in her childhood. And she was actually a favorite of Mistress Epps and Master Epps. And she was fed with milk and biscuits and coddled. And it wasn’t until she became of sexual interest to Master Epps that she was sent out into the field. So for me that spoke of a woman who had kind of the Stockholm syndrome where you’re traumatically bonded to the people who cause you the most harm. And then other than that, I did other research. I read accounts from the female perspective. I went to the Blacks in Wax Museum where—to get like a three-dimensional experience—
Groucho: There’s a slave ship re-creation, right?
Lupita Nyong’o: Yes. A lot other things actually. It’s actually like an overview of African-American history. And yes, one of the first things that greeted me when I walked in there was a five-hundred-pound bale of cotton, which Patsey was known to pick every single day. And it was taller than me. And it was wider than me and it was thicker than me. So there I met Patsey’s loftiness. So those were the kinds of things I did, and then of course I went to school for three years to find ways to get into character—techniques to get into character as well. So I spent a lot of time trying to find a physicality or voice—a speech that—so that I could have Patsey be someone other than myself.
G: It’s interesting that that key line that leaps out of the text that you honed in on [is] about her indomitability of spirit—
G: And yet from the viewer’s perspective she seems like, when Solomon meets her, about as close to broken as a human being can get as well.
LN: Mm-hm. Yeah.
G: She is undeniably a victim, and we’re so used to those characters having, for lack of a better word, a "redemptive" moment or they’re allowed to get their revenge or something like that.
G: And we don’t get that release here.
G: So what was it like living in her head? How did you see her psychology of just surviving day to day?
LN: Well, for one thing, her grief and her joy were—lived in her at the same time. And I found this quote from Khalil Gibran that says, “The deeper that sorrow carves itself into your being, the more joy you can contain.” And that was my experience of playing Patsey, and I feel Patsey’s experience of the world—because she was a woman who lived in the moment. She had to live in the moment, in the present, because she had such a volatile master. He could do anything at any point. One minute he’s caressing her, and the next minute he’s punching her in the face. And in the script she was described as being effortlessly sensual. And I found another quote from James Baldwin that says, “To be sensual, I think, is to rejoice in the force of life—of life itself and to be present in everything that one does from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” And that, I feel, was what got Patsey into so much trouble—because she was present because of the very man that was sexually attracted to her. So for me it was always about seeking comfort. She says that in the scene with Platt—she says, “I’ve got no comfort in this world.” And, yeah I feel that that was the thing that governed the things she did—like picking five-hundred pounds of cotton a day just to spare her whipping—unnecessary whipping.
G: Speaking of whipping. One of the most, I would imagine, practically difficult scenes to shoot is the whipping scene, which Steve McQueen chose to shoot in an extended take—
G: So that the audience doesn’t get that feeling of being able to—
G: Yeah. I wonder—because I know actors tend to want to feel as much of the real thing as they can—for the most part, I imagine. What sort of expectations did Steve set for how it would be shot and executed in terms of number of takes and that sort of thing? And then what set of limits did you set as the performer, if any, about—you know, I need to protect myself in shooting something like this?
LN: Well you know, he made it clear before we started shooting that he wanted to get it in one shot. And the wonderful thing about working with Steve is that he doesn’t burden you with too much technical information. What would happen everyday is that we’d come on set and we’d do a rehearsal at 30%. He’d say do it at 30%.
G: Like a fight scene.
LN: Yes, exactly. We’d do a rehearsal, and he and Sean Bobbitt who’ve been working together for thirteen years have a very close working relationship, but they barely speak to each other; they just grunt to each other and they know what’s going on. So they would watch the scene and then work out the camera work around us. So there was kind of a natural flow of events. So for that scene, yeah, we just did it at 30%, and he and Sean had their little discussion about how they were going to capture it. Yes, there was some technicalities involved—for example, I couldn’t actually be whipped. I had to react to the crack of the whip. But I could feel the wind of it as well. So that made it as real as it needed to be. And you know I was actually stripped naked in public and tied to a post—which also—it brought me right into the present moment. There’s no escaping that scene. Yeah. Does that answer your question?
G: It does.
LN: I hope so.
G: Yeah. I hear that in preparing for the character you also drew on a technique involving chakras, is that right? From your acting training.
LN: Ah yes.
G: Can you talk a little bit about that?
LN: Yes. I’m gonna try my best. So at Yale I had a professor called Fay Simpson, who designed a technique called Lucid Body, which is a technique that is about emotional and physical understanding of the actor and using the concept of chakras: energy centers to understand your emotional architecture. And then to be able to take that and kind of adjust it in order to then embody another person’s emotional architecture. Kind of like to build a different emotional architecture. So I drew a lot on that understanding and that technique in preparing for Patsey.
G: The idea being that you’re able to sort of spiritually locate something that the body will then follow and sort of change your movement as well?
LN: Yes, because, you know, our experiences in life—we retain emotional knowledge in our bodies, and it changes our physique, it changes our movement, our posture. And so in triggering those things, you can then express another person’s emotional makeup. And you can figure it out. Like, I can sit here and I can tell things about you.
G: My tension?
LN: Yeah, you know. Exactly. Where we hold tension and stuff is a lot about our emotional memory. So finding character through that emotional memory.
G: Going forward: you’ve already, at such a young age, directed a film.
G: A documentary film. I imagine that you’re probably focused on developing your acting career now. Can you talk a little bit about where you hope to go as you establish your career? How you want to frame your career?
LN: Well, I would like my career to be framed by being part of telling powerful stories—meaningful stories. And finding the mediums through which to do that. Definitely now acting is first and foremost. But I also want to be involved in creating my own acting work and creative production as well. Yeah. Yep. That’s it.
G: All right. Very good. Well, we’re out of time unfortunately but it’s been wonderful talking to you.
LN: Thank you very much.
G: Best of luck with the film.
LN: Thank you.