Cover Story: Steve McQueen and the Cast of 12 Years a Slave

Movies Features Steve McQueen
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You could argue that 12 Years a Slave is the best film of the year. But an easier argument is that it’s the most important. Steve McQueen’s slavery epic, which opens this weekend, is the most cinematic and meaningful examination of The Great American Shame. And it comes at a time when racial issues are once again in the forefront of the American conversation.

The English director himself is not unaware of the importance of the moment. “Look,” he says, “your country has this wonderful thing, its Constitution, and the right to pursue happiness. It’s kind of quite amazing, quite moving. Right now you have a black President, it’s the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the unfortunate incident of Trayvon Martin which happened quite recently, and the revoking of voting rights. So, you have this kind of perfect storm which has occurred. Within that, I think people are assessing where they are in society now. I hope the film can be a point of discussions for where people have come and where they are going. You’re just hoping that it can cause discussion. Start a spark.”

It seems inevitable that this film will do just that. The real question is, why did it take this moment for a major American film about slavery? Alfre Woodard, who has a small but powerful role in the film, has a theory. “I think it’s shame on the part of the dominant culture,” she says, “and shame on the part of black people who don’t wanna hear it. They feel shame and or anger, and none of us could ever imagine ourselves in that situation. But what Steve does is he gives us the reality, the everyday reality of what it was to live in a slave economy in the same way that we live in a dollar economy. It’s populated and peopled by so many kinds of people and realistically portrayed, so we can imagine ourselves in that place. We never say there are too many Holocaust movies. We never say there are too many gangster movies, too many love stories. But once Roots was done—which wasn’t a film, it was a television event—it was like, okay, we heard that. Late ’70s! That was the late ’70s.”

Michael Fassbender, who played the lead role in McQueen’s previous two films, Hunger and Shame, has a large role in 12 Years as well, in an Oscar-worthy performance as a cruel slavemaster, Epps. Fassbender, too, sees the film’s timing as propitious. “We’ve seen so many films about the Holocaust over the years,” he says, “and rightly so, but not many films about this particular period in history. We’re all Solomon, we’re all Epps, we’re all Ford. We’re all, all of these people. These are our ancestors. This is what our history is. Why would we try to forget it? It’s important. We should know what we’re capable of doing to one another. At the same time we see through Solomon Northup how resilient the human spirit can be. The fact that Solomon keeps his dignity intact at the end of the film is just an incredible example of human greatness.”

Northrup’s true story is almost impossible to believe. He was a free middle-class black man living in New York, but was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South, where he spent the eponymous 12 years before he could get word to his family, prove his identity and be freed. The script is based on his memoir. “He has a fascinating way of looking at the world,” says Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has leapt into the Oscar race himself with his magisterial portrayal of Northrup, “even within the context of all that is happening to him. I was struck by his depth of soul, his unbreakable spirit, his lack of judgment, his lack of hatred. He’s somebody who starts off in a battle for his freedom, but soon realizes that he’s really in a battle for his mind. Anything that is not going to help him, he just cuts loose. Hatred ain’t gonna help him, so he cuts it loose. He’s focused on staying sane, on keeping himself together, on not breaking. He was an extraordinary person. And then to have the wherewithal to write about it in such a poetic, direct and humble way is amazing.”

Northrup was the guide through his own story, for both Ejiofor and McQueen, and he led them to some surprising places. “For me,” says McQueen, “I think that it’s not a black-and-white thing. I think slavery is a bit more complicated than that. It’s an Our thing. It’s not about black people and white people. We’ve gone past that. It’s a much more complex story than that. I always saw it as a dark fairy tale, as a Brother’s Grimm fairy tale. Or Pinocchio, when they sell him into the Circus. It’s a movie where people should be linking arms, instead of being divided. It’s about embracing one’s past in order to go forward.”


Ejiofor felt the gravity of his task from the very beginning, when he first read the script. “This is Solomon’s story,” he says, “this is actually what happened to him. I was struck by the responsibility of that, of telling someone’s story. Of delving into this world and the responsibility of telling a story so deep inside the slave experience. I spoke to Steve and decided to attempt to tell this story. Then, it actually become—rather than a responsibility, it became a privilege. Every day of shooting on this film was a real privilege. To bring Solomon’s story and the other people in the film—their experience—to bring their story to life.”

Fassbender had been in the trenches twice before with McQueen, and was eager to participate in anything he did. “I remember,” he says, “Steve sort of said to me—I think we were doing a junket for Shame or something like that—around that time, ‘Oh, I want to make a movie about slavery,’ and I was like ‘Of course.’ It seemed pretty obvious. Steve always seems to tackle the elephant in the room. So, that was the first I head of what part Steve had me in mind for. I was hoping it would that. So I called him up and as soon as I read the script and of course I was in tears. I found it such a moving story, an incredible story. I couldn’t believe that it was a true story. I’d never heard anything about it before. So, I called him up immediately and said ‘Whatever, whether it’s one day, two days on this job, I just want to be part of it.’ I felt that it was a really important story to tell. Luckily enough, he offered me a part.”

Alfre Woodard had a similar enthusiasm for McQueen’s work. “For me, it was Steve McQueen,” she remembers. “I was so excited in just this way when you say “Oh my God, here is a new filmmaker with a voice and a vision and an artistic ability—“ when I saw Hunger and then Shame and I got a call saying ‘Steve McQueen would like you to be in his film,’ and I said ‘Yes!’ to my agent. And they said ‘Well, we’ll send you a script,’ and I said ‘No, just yes right now!” They said, ‘It’s very small,’ and I said ‘I don’t care what it is, yes!’”

The film is also quite a coming out party for Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Patsy, the prize slave of Fassbender’s plantation. It’s quite a first role for her. “Never in my wildest dreams,” she says, laughing, “did I think that I would be involved with a project of this magnitude right after graduating from drama school, so it’s been a gift. Particularly because when I was in high school, primary school, I wasn’t really good at history. I didn’t really retain information, and one of the things I love about being an actor is you get things outside of yourself outside of your sphere and take them personally. For me, it was a real privilege to take this time with history through this process. With this particular story, I didn’t know that I didn’t know these things about slavery. I’m just glad to be a part of this that will—the knowledge will be spread and retained in a way that would otherwise not be done.”

McQueen’s directorial voice speaks loudly in the film, and he had a huge impact on set as well. “It’s the greatest working experience I’ve had,” says Ejiofor simply..” He’s an amazing man to work with and discover with. Everybody wants to give 100 percent, but it’s great to have a director that articulates that, encourages it, and even demands it. It’s a great force, and when everyone is in that moment, it’s incredible.”

That same commitment to the work also struck Woodard. “You don’t really half-step when you’re around an artist that lives it out fully,” she says. “That’s one of the things I enjoyed about being around Steve. To bring a character’s true reality to the forefront, you have to first start naked. It requires running naked into it. And the director is there to grab you and hold you and make sure your nakedness is appropriate. And that’s what kind of director he is. You can grab whatever comes organically from your homework, your prep work, and give it. The only way to be wrong creatively is not to fully go in that direction. And he’s one of those that you trust. He’s got your back, he’s got the eye, he’s got the sensitivity and he’s got the bravery to want you to play it up to the edge of the glass. And he’ll let you know if it goes over, but he’ll certainly let you know if that glass isn’t full.”

Fassbender has a similar sentiment, but expresses it more directly. “He’s got a bullshit detector,” he laughs. “I think as actors sometimes we have a tendency—I’ll speak for myself—to use tricks or get comfortable in certain ways of going about the work, because the work in certain respects has become very formulaic in the way that it’s been taught. Steve just likes to disintegrate yet. He likes to say, this is a baby form, just over 100 years old. There is no right or wrong, you just need to go do it. When you’re on Steve’s set, you’re encouraged to fail. And then to fail better, as he says himself. It’s exciting. He’s very demanding, but he’s also very nurturing. He’s got an incredible ability to give you the confidence to depend on your instincts and follow them—and not question them.”

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