Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave hasn’t even hit theatres yet but it’s already causing a stir not only for its brutal truths about the slave trade, but also for its scarily honest portrayals of the real life characters who played a part in the story of Solomon Northup.
One of the actors responsible for administering some of the more frightening moments in the film is Sarah Paulson, who you will most likely recognize from her recurring roles on Deadwood and American Horror Story, or for her work in films like Mud and Martha Marcy May Marlene.
In 12 Years a Slave, she plays Mistress Epps, the wife of the slave master (played by Michael Fassbender) who owns the plantation where Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) spends most of his years as a slave.
While in Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival, Sarah sat down with us for a 1 on 1 chat about her character, and what it’s like to be a part of the impressive ensemble involved in making the film.
Check it out below.
How did you get involved with the film?
Sarah Paulson: Oh God, I’m an actress who auditions for jobs. I’m not one of the people who’s sitting in my bed with bonbons and 20 scripts on either side of my bed saying, ‘just pick whichever one you want!’ (laughs) So this is one of those movies where I went after the part really hard. I made a tape in New York sent it out and I got a phone call the next day saying ‘Steve really flipped out over your tape.’ I found out that they were going to offer the part to a different actress and Steve offered it to me instead. Although he won’t tell me who it was and believe me, I’ve asked.
What made you go after the part so hard?
Sarah Paulson: It was beautifully written and it was a dangerous character in terms of how I would get inside of it. Also, once I know it was Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel, I just thought, ‘what do I have to do to get into this movie.’ I’ll do anything.
How much did you know about slave narratives before you took the part?
Sarah Paulson: I knew what I think most people know which is, the basics. What you learn in school. I read the book. I’m certainly not a scholar and nor was Mistress Epps, so I didn’t become a scholar. I do this thing sometimes where when you’re playing a person who’s ignorant I like to be ignorant too because I feel like if I have too much information, then it’s in your brain, which can colour some of your choices that will maybe not be helpful.
How do you get inside the head of a character who does less than likable things?
Sarah Paulson: I need to be responsible to what my role is in the story and whose story it is and this is not my story. It’s the story of Solomon and if I try to find a way to make her likable, then Solomon’s story doesn’t get told because that’s not what it was like for him. The only way for me to do it is to find what the real motivation is because people aren’t just terrorizing people for no reason. I had to figure out what was motivating her behaviour and what was motivating it was her terrible embarrassment and her fear. She was being completely usurped by Patsy (a young slave girl played by newcomer Lupita N’yongo) in her husband’s heart and it was more than she could bear.
Did you create a backstory for the character before you began filming?
Sarah Paulson: Yes, Michael and I and Steve talked at length about their backstory and how long they’d been married and how they came to be and what their relationship was like in the beginning and what it shifted to. His alcoholism…it’s all in there. Even though I don’t have a scene where I’m standing in the bathroom saying ‘why are you drunk all the time and why don’t you have sex with me!’ that scene happened. We tried to have all of that underneath.