12 Years a Slave, an intense new drama from director Steve McQueen, made its New York premiere on Tuesday October 8th as part of the 51st Annual New York Film Fest at Lincoln Center. The film follows the true life story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in New York, who in 1841 was deceived and sent southward to be sold as a slave. I spoke with two of the actors behind the most sinister figures in this harrowing story. They discussed the sources of their characters’ malevolence.
Paul Dano plays unstable slave driver John Tibeats who abuses his power over Solomon.
Lauren Damon: Tibeats is so spiteful in his actions, did you work out what makes him like this?
Paul Dano: Well you know that’s kind of one of the big things you do to prepare for something is you know, create a personal history for the character. So…I think he was probably somebody who was treated poorly or was made to feel like he had no authority. I don’t think he had a great life and so the only place he could take out his feelings about himself were slaves.
LD: What was the most challenging scene for you?
Dano: I have to do a song in it. That was…that was interesting.
LD: Having to cultivate all this anger for your scenes, did you do anything to come down from that after shooting?
Dano: You know it was pretty hot in those period clothes, in July, in Louisiana so a shower and a cocktail.
Michael Fassbender plays monstrous planter Edwin Epps. Fassbender has previously worked with director McQueen on critical hits Hunger and Shame.
Lauren Damon: Since this is your third film with Steve, do you think you trust him more than any other director now?
Michael Fassbender: Pretty much!
In the film Edwin Epps’s infatuation with his own slave Patsey (played by Lupita Nyong’o) drives him to extreme violence.
LD: Where do you think all that rage that Edwin has comes from?
Fassbender: I think out of confusion. He takes it out mainly on the person that he loves because he can’t process that information. He doesn’t have the intellect to do it. Or the substance as a human being. So he thinks by destroying it, he’ll destroy his emotion towards her and of course that doesn’t work.
NYFF continues through October 13th while 12 Years a Slave opens in theaters on the 18th.