Interview: A powerful debut for actress in '12 Years a Slave'

Interview • Lupita Nyong'o talks about auditioning for and working on the film.
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When Lupita Nyong'o was growing up in Kenya, she studied the history of slavery in America, but "we spent less time learning about slavery then we did about the Holocaust. I didn't know how much I didn't know about slavery."

The movie "12 Years a Slave," in which Nyong'o co-stars, is already showing Americans how much they didn't know about Southern slavery before the Civil War. The movie, which opened last month in bigger cities, arrives in Salt Lake City on Friday.

The movie is based on an antebellum memoir by Solomon Northup (played by the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black in New York state who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., and enslaved on a series of Louisiana plantations.

Nyong'o plays Patsey, a young woman Northup encounters at one plantation, a slave who's also the sexual favorite of the plantation's owner (played by Michael Fassbender).

It's all pretty big stuff for a Yale alumna who was born in Mexico (her father, a Kenyan politician and professor, spent some time in self-exile) and is starring in her first Hollywood movie.

Nyong'o was just graduating from Yale when her manager received John Ridley's script for "12 Years a Slave" for another of the manager's clients — actor Garret Dillahunt, who plays a poor white laborer in the film. Nyong'o taped an audition, and "the next week, I was in L.A."

"It was one of the hardest auditions of my life," she said, adding that she had to perform two of Patsey's most intense scenes from the film. "The challenge of the audition is that you have to do it from nowhere, before you've had time to think about the character."

A week or so later, she was summoned to Louisiana to audition again, for the film's director, British filmmaker Steve McQueen — whose past films include the Irish Republican Army prison film "Hunger" and the sexual-addiction drama "Shame," both starring Fassbender.

Then Nyong'o flew back to New Haven, Conn., and waited for news.

"They made me wait, but not too long," Nyong'o said. "I got into my apartment and was going to go lie in the sun. I got a phone call from a number I didn't recognize." When she was told she got the part, she said, "my knees gave in, I sat on the pavement."

Nyong'o spent five weeks in Louisiana, three of them shooting her part of the film and the rest acclimatizing to the location and to her fellow actors — most of whom have more experience in movies.

"My first and only rehearsal with Michael [Fassbender], he turned to me after and said, 'You are my peer,' " she said. "It was so important for me to hear that. It moved me so much."

Playing such an intense role required Nyong'o to try to keep a firm line between her character and her off-camera moments.

"I tried to leave Patsey when Steve said 'Cut,' but I couldn't always do it," she said. "The success was in the trying, to leave her on the set. … We didn't have a very Method way of doing this. It would have been really unhealthy."

America's history of slavery is a tough topic to raise, Nyong'o said, because "I think there's a lot of shame, guilt and embarrassment on so many levels. I don't think there's any way to move on [without facing it]. At the end of the day, the wound is still there."

Nyong'o — who is being talked about for a supporting-actress Oscar nomination, in a film touted as a Best Picture favorite — encourages everyone to see the movie, no matter how tough the subject matter.

"I hope they don't shy away from it, because they say it's hard to watch," she said. "The power of the film is that it gives us a common ground, a way to speak about the time. … It is such a document of truth, told with beauty and love."

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'12 Years a Slave'

The movie "12 Years a Slave" opens in Salt Lake City theaters on Friday, Nov. 8.