12 Years a Slave has begun awards season with a strong showing, leading the field in Independent Spirit Awards nominations among other accolades. The film is connecting with audiences as well, having already earned over $33 million in ever-widening release.
One of things that makes 12 Years a Slave one of the year’s best films is the consistent strength of a remarkably varied ensemble cast. A-list actors, Oscar-nominees, veteran character actors, and heretofore unknowns of all shapes, ages, colors, and sizes, throw themselves into their roles with remarkable dedication, many making a great impact with little screentime. It’s a great triumph when an actor is a standout in a cast full of standouts, and Sarah Paulson (TV’s “American Horror Story”) stands out as Mistress Epps, the exceptionally cruel yet tormented wife of brutal slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
In celebration of the film’s success, I recently enjoyed a spirited and insightful conversation with Paulson about building her character and filming 12 Years a Slave. Here’s what she shared with me about being scene partners with Fassbender, preparing for the violence she perpetrated against Epps favorite slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), and the emotional challenges of filming 12 Years a Slave.
Jackson Truax: I know you auditioned for director Steve McQueen by putting yourself on-tape. Concurrently, the film was going into production very quickly after being greenlit. What was the process of your audition, and then very quickly being on-set?
Sarah Paulson: I found out quite quickly that I got it. I had made the tape…on a Thursday in New York City, having gotten…not the full script, just the audition scene. The audition scene was the scene where I eviscerate Michael’s character in front of our slaves… I got the material on a Wednesday night. [My agent] said to me, “This is moving very quickly… In fact, I think there’s an actress he’s already interested in. So if you’re going to do this, if you respond to the material, you need to do it right now…” I went to a random casting director’s office, who was not even affiliated with the project… They didn’t know how to advise me or what to tell me to do… I just went ahead and did it… It went to [Casting Director] Francine Maisler’s office… I got a phone call on Friday from my manager. She said to me, “Steve McQueen is…very intrigued by your tape.” I [thought] “What does that mean? Does that mean that there’s going to be any next step? Or is it just ‘Hey, good job on the tape. We’re still going to cast the other actress.’” I think…Monday morning, I got a call saying “He would like to move forward with you.” I just couldn’t believe it. Then it became a little bit dicey because of dates. Because I was supposed to start “American Horror Story” at the same time I was supposed to be shooting 12 Years a Slave. The dates for 12 Years a Slave were completely locked because Michael [Fassbender] was going to leave to do The Counselor immediately following. And all of my stuff is tied to his character… Also, they were dealing with New Orleans and Hurricane season… It was actually [co-creator] Ryan Murphy who started production on “American Horror Story” second season a week later to help accommodate my schedule.
JT: You’ve said that John Ridley’s screenplay gave you everything you needed in figuring out who Mistress Epps was. But did you do any additional research, either into Mistress Epps specifically, or other women who might have been in a similar position?
Paulson: I did and I didn’t. I read the book… I think what was hard for me in terms of researching too much about her…I was afraid of trying to portray some kind of undercurrent or underbelly of kindness, if I found too much about her that contradicted, or made me think twice, about the way she was depicted in John Ridley’s screenplay and what was needed for this story. I was afraid of trying to do that thing that you often want to do, because you want your character to be liked. Or you want to be liked as a performer… I did think about, when playing her, about what her circumstances were. But I didn’t want to let in too many stories of how difficult it was for women in this time… I certainly took all of the information in. But I was afraid of making her too soft… So I tried to take as much I as could…from the screenplay text… That was, for me, the most helpful thing for me to do.
JT: Your most frequent scene partner was Michael Fassbender, who has rightfully earned a reputation as one of the best actors working today. What did he give you as a scene partner?
Paulson: There is something about Michael, both in this role, and I think in most of his work…something I saw up-close and first-hand. He’s a dangerous actor… There’s always a sense of spontaneity. There’s a great sense of the unknown with him, which I thought was so perfect for Epps. Because he’s like a livewire. He could go off at any moment. You never know what it’s going to be… It kept me leaning forward… It kept me more on my front foot and ready to spring into action, like a cat, at any moment… Depending on whatever curve he threw in my direction, I had to be ready to pounce… I feel like Mistress Epps is a person who is at the ready all the time. Because she lives with Mister Epps and is so acutely aware of what a livewire he is. And that he his dangerous. And that you never know what he’s going to do… I was about as alert as I think I’ve ever been on any set ever for what might be coming my way. It was a great lesson in being completely present and in the moment. And it was Michael’s danger…that helped keep me there. It helped me screw my feet into the ground. Because there’s something about Mistress Epps that I always thought of as kind of immoveable, in both her belief system, and in her heart that I always believe was a bit stoney.
JT: The scene in which you throw the decanter at Patsey’s head stands out as one of the film’s most disturbing. What sort of rehearsal did you do, and what were the biggest challenges in filming it?
Paulson: The biggest challenge of filming it, was just emotionally. For me as a human being, to look at the face of Lupita, of whom I am incredibly fond. And we had a wonderful off-camera relationship. To turn that part of my brain off… And put myself in the mindset of this woman. That I would be so enraged, and so threatened and terrified by her… That my husband was so taken with her purity. And hurled a leaded canter at her face… When’s someone’s coming at you… You always kind of shrink away from it. So you can imagine what it would be like if your task was to throw something at full speed, and with full force, at someone with the intent…of harming someone greatly and hitting them square in the face. I had to resist that part of me that had to pull back my throw… So that was incredibly challenging… The logistics of it…I ended up throwing that decanter into a furry pad that had an X on it, which was supposed to stand-in for Lupita’s face. What I ended up throwing at Lupita was a rubberized, foam cut-up of the decanter. Which also presented difficulties because it was very light at times, zero weight. So I had to find a way to make it look weighted in my hands before I threw it. The first time I threw it, I threw it right at Lupita’s feet. I think I was so afraid of hurting her. It goes against every instinct I have as a person, to throw something at someone’s face. So it was challenging in every respect.
JT: In contrast, you played a couple of scenes where the cruelty of Mistress Epps feels just as real, but you’re either observing or expressing it without a lot of dialogue. What were the challenges of communicating your character in those underplayed moments?
Paulson: To me, those are always the most exciting things to do. I hope I pulled it off. Some of my stuff is unspoken. It’s what’s, hopefully, behind my eyes. Even though I am perpetrating terrible violence, and even though I am really urging my husband to perpetrate terrible violence, that there is something behind my eyes that communicates her own internal turmoil and her own internal incitement to her own bigotry and her own jealously. And those things are always hard to play. Because you never know if it’s going to read… I just tried to have my inner life be as close to the surface as I possibly could have it without it spilling out too much. Because Mistress Epps is certainly not one to reveal what her true heart it. She spends a lot of time covering and communicating only her hardness… I tried to have a laser-like focus as Mistress Epps. It was very important to me that you didn’t see the ripples underneath the surface.
JT: Did you try to get in a certain mental or emotional space and stay in character in that regard through the duration of filming? Or did you have to re-prepare and get yourself to where you needed to be for any given scene?
Paulson: I had to re-prepare myself for what I had to do in any given scene. I know every actor works differently. And I work sometimes differently depending on the part. This was one of those that I couldn’t fit in that head and heart-space that she was existing in when I wasn’t filming. I couldn’t do it. I spent too much time with Lupita going shopping…on our days off to live in some kind of hard-hearted, completely unaware place. I couldn’t exist there. It was too hard on my heart to do that. I had to call it forth when I was ready to shoot it. I couldn’t sustain that outside of when the cameras were rolling… I have done that with other parts… I couldn’t do that with this one.
JT: It’s been said that the set helped create one of the most accurate depictions of the American South during slavery that’s ever been put on film. When you were in those costumes and settings and locations, what did that give you as an actor or add to your performance?
Paulson: The location, the costumes, the hair, the make-up, the underpinnings that I was wearing. All of it lends itself so much to fueling a performance and to coloring things. I also think it was another testament to Steve. We were in one of the most beautiful places in the world. That plantation, we shot at this place called the Felicity Plantation… It was exceedingly hot. But the place was incredibly beautiful. But that’s what it looked like then, too. And all the same horrors were…being perpetrated against those that were enslaved. So it all lent itself incredibly well to telling the story. And certainly as an actor, to be standing in those rooms that people used to walk around… And in the fields where the slaves were picking cotton… It was emotional. It was hard. You could feel the ghosts of the past there. Which I think only helps. I can only speak for myself. But I know it helps me enormously.
JT: You’ve said that being in this movie is the coolest thing that’s ever happened to you. If you were to be nominated for or win an award for your work, or the film won Best Picture, or the cast were recognized in a significant way, what would that mean to you, personally and professionally?
Paulson: Personally, it would be a childhood dream come true. To be recognized by your peers… It makes you feel that you brought something to the table that people appreciate. It just means everything. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t mean the work won’t stand as true or as tall. When that kind of recognition comes…at least for someone like me, who’s wanted to be an actor since I was a tiny person. It just would make me feel like my career choice wasn’t a mistake. And that perhaps I’ll get to stick around for a while.