The role of a lifetime comes early for Lupita Nyong’o, who stars in the critically acclaimed movie adaptation of 12 Years a Slave. The memoir written by Solomon Northup, a freeman in New York State, chronicles his 12-year experience as a slave after he was captured by two White men and taken to Louisiana.
Nyong’o portrays Patsey, a grand slave woman who endured emotional and sexual abuse by her cruel slave owner. The Kenyan-bred beauty was selected for the role out of more than 1,000 women just three weeks shy of graduation from Yale’s School of Drama.
On the set, she was surrounded by heavy hitters in cinema including lead actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard and director, Steve McQueen, but delivered an Oscar-worthy performance of her own in her very first movie role. Despite her newness, she pushed ahead and let go to give her character justice in one of the most challenging experiences of her life. That performance has garnered talks of an Oscar nomination.
“Playing Patsey was definitely emotionally taxing, and it required and demanded that I go to a very sorrowful place, a place of grief, and to allow myself to be in that state for an extended period of time,” Nyong’o says. “It was an honor and a privilege to do it because I given the opportunity, the responsibility to bring this woman’s story back to life.
I wanted to honor that character, to try and bring that out that this is a woman in a dire situation in spite of all the darkness in her life, there’s a light that no one can seem to put out, not even this master who’s so bent on doing that.”
The 30-year-old admits that before taking the role, she was ignorant of the complexities of slavery in America. “I didn’t know that I didn’t know these things about slavery until I was working with this project and reading that book,” she says. “It (the film) gives you a real detailed and personal glance into what life was like in the institution of slavery. “
She says that slavery is a collective experience that brings about a shame in the perpetrator, the slave and their descendants, and even those who aren’t direct descendants. “Slavery is something that is all too often swept under the carpet. The shame doesn’t even belong to us, but we still experience it because we’re a part of the African race. If it happened to one, it happened to all. We carry that burden.”
To prepare for the role, she read books with women slave narratives, and took a classmate’s advice and visited the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, known for its artifacts on slavery. Her preparation and total experience during filming made for an unforgettable history lesson.
“I will never be the same,” Nyong’o says. “This information is indelibly printed in me, and I’m so happy that this film is available now to do the same for others—to bring the time and history to the present because it’s really not that far in the past.”
Only few actors are lucky enough to land such a notable project, but more than the acclaim that’s come with it, Nyong’o values the depth of the film. “It’s been an incredible journey to be able to start my career with such meaningful work,” she says. “Obviously the bar has been set very high, and I don’t know where one goes from there, but I know that it has been a once in a lifetime opportunity and experience, and I’m enjoying every minute that I have of it.”
Nyong’o encourages everyone to see 12 Years a Slave when it’s released on October 18. “If they’ve heard the buzz, they check that at the door and allow themselves to have a personal experience with this film,” she says, “because this film is a film that was made with such love and so much passion, and it’s best experienced with an open heart.”