Divalicious Interview: Lupita Nyong’o!

The dramatic screen adaption of 12 Years a Slave, the true account of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1800s, is no easy film to watch. But it’s worth sitting through for the powerfully moving performance of Lupita Nyong’o, who plays tortured slave woman Patsey.

Solomon devotes a large portion of his autobiographic tale to Patsey, who was the sexual obsession of their cruel slave master. In this demanding role, Lupita brings grace and dignity to the courageous woman who suffered these injustices, and touched Solomon’s heart. The DivaGals spoke with Lupita to get her first-hand account of bringing Patsey’s story to life.

The DivaGals: Tell me about Patsey in your own words.

Lupita Nyong’o: She’s a slave woman on the plantation where Solomon spent most of his 12 years, and she left an indelible mark on him because of how genial, agile and pleasant-tempered she was. He describes her as having “an air of loftiness that neither labor nor lash could rid her of.” At the same time, she’s also the involuntary mistress of their tyrannical slave master. She’s this incredible human being that was able to be so alive and vibrant at one time, and so sorrowful and in grief at another. She was an intriguing an extremely and moving individual.

The Diva Gals: This role is not easy to watch. How did you prepare yourself for the scenes of violence and sexual victimization?

LN: I’m fortunate to have had the time to prepare and research, and get to the point of allowing so much pain and grief into my being. One thing that was extremely helpful to playing Patsey was to remember that this was true. Patsey didn’t have the privilege to sentimentalize her pain, or to opt out of it. I couldn’t do it either in playing her. It was my responsibility and my honor to do her story justice, and to try and play her with dignity and agency. That’s what helped me when I thought I couldn’t do it, that I was so lucky to bring her story to life.

The Diva Gals: Do we know what happened to Patsey?

LN: When I was researching the role, I was on the lookout for information about Patsey, but there was really nothing about her, except the fact that she left this mark on Solomon. Almost nobody got away from those conditions. I’m so glad Solomon wrote this story the same year he was released, because now Patsey’s story lives on. She is a representative of so many other silenced women.

The DivaGals: What do you hope people learn from this film and take away from it?

LN: I hope that people recognize themselves in this; that they see the potential for human cruelty, and they recognize it in themselves, as well as the resilience of the human spirit. I think it’s in accepting and recognizing both those things that we change the course of our lives. This film was made with a lot of love and a lot of passion. So far it’s being received with that just as much. I hope that we can continue in that vein, and that people will go into the cinema with an open heart and have an individual experience.

12 Years a Slave is currently playing in theaters nationwide.

Photo credit: Fox Searchlight