We can already close the book on this year's most striking debut performance because it most definitely belongs to Lupita Nyong'o. As the character Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, Nyong'o delivers a performance that will shake you to your core. You will watch this Hollywood newcomer tackle some of the most difficult scenes you've ever had to watch in a movie, and she does so with such an incredible sense of peace, spirituality and heartache. She plays a broken girl -- a slave forced to endure unspeakable horrors at the hands of a man whose grisly obsession with her grows more disturbing by the minute.
The setting is Master Epps' (Michael Fassbender) plantation, and the scene in question occurs during the latter stages of the film. Epps' addiction to Patsey has reached delirious, rage-induced levels, much to the chagrin of Epps' stone-cold bitter wife (Sarah Paulson). Unable to clean herself at this point because even the bare necessities are being held from her, Patsey sneaks off for a bar of soap, only to return to an Epps who is violently angry at the fact she had gone missing. As punishment, Epps strips Patsey naked, ties her to a post and we watch as the minutes inch by while this girl is whipped till there's barely any life left in her.
"I don't remember how many times we did it. That's a blur. I think my brain was like, 'Okay, you don't need to remember that kind of detail,'" Nyong'o recalled when we sat down following the film's Toronto International Film Festival premiere. No other scene in a movie this year had an impact on me the way this scene did. It's so difficult to watch and so brilliantly acted that it'll quite simply leave you speechless.
When I sat down with Nyong'o to talk about her performance and the film, I wanted to dedicate part of our conversation to this scene specifically. "It was my second week on set when we shot [that scene], and thank goodness it wasn't week one," Nyong'o continued. "Patsy was described as being effortlessly sensual in the book, and in the script. I thought about that for a very long time -- what does that mean to be effortlessly sensual? And then I found this quote from James Baldwin's book The Fire Next Time, and he 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.' So for me, Patsy was present. That was a guiding principle for doing this role because she had this volatile master and she never knew what would happen with him. She had to be living in the moment in a way I wish all of us could live."
Nyong'o went on to describe the various rituals all the actors performed in order to get into character, and while she wouldn't divulge her own, she did admit to it involving "several conversations with Patsey." For this scene, though -- one of at least three that feature Patsey in the most abusive and upsetting situations -- it was practically impossible to prepare.
"So in getting ready for that scene -- I mean, how does someone get ready to be whipped? All I could do was be present in that moment," she admits. "And the humiliation and the heartbreak on that day was real, because I was literally stripped naked in front of I don't know how many people and tied to a post. It was all very real and immediate, and all I did was be present. The heartbreak from there… was just a matter of course."
12 Years a Slave arrives in limited release this weekend. You can read my review of the film here, and we'll have more with Nyong'o in the coming days as 12 Years a Slave gears up for what will most certainly be a major run at the Oscars.
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