Sarah Paulson talks about being brutal in ’12 Years a Slave’

Sarah Paulson plays a brutal plantation mistress in "12 Years a Slave." Credit: Getty Images
Sarah Paulson plays a brutal plantation mistress in “12 Years a Slave.”
Credit: Getty Images

Sarah Paulson goes to some impressively dark, violent places in director Steve McQueen’s brutal and arresting “12 Years a Slave” as Mistress Epps, the petty and defensive wife of Michael Fassbender’s malicious plantation owner. And to think, “Michael Fassbender’s wife” sounds like such an appealing job description.

This isn’t what you imagined being married to Michael Fassbender would be like, is it?
It sure isn’t. Every single person asked me when I told them. They were like, “What are you going to do?” And I told them, “I’m doing this movie ’12 Years a Slave.’ I play Michael Fassbender’s wife.” And before I got to the part about what it’s about, they were like, “Wait, wait, wait. Do you get to kiss him?” And I was like, “Ah … it’s not that kind of movie, so unfortunately no.” But from an acting standpoint it’s everything I could’ve hoped for.

It’s remarkable that even with this big of an ensemble you still get a chance to make your impact. What was your route into understanding her?
I didn’t want to judge her, even though I think she behaves despicably and does indefensible things, without question — and I’m not looking to justify her behavior on her behalf. But in terms of an actor trying to find a way into something, I had to figure out the motivating factors. And what was motivating her behavior was her terrible fear that she was about to lose her husband — or had lost her husband — along with the respect in her household, the opinion of her in the community, all of it. So instead I think she just went the only way she knows how, which is in my mind kind of like the way an animal defends its turf.

She does have a considerable amount of power over Master Epps, though.
She does, she does. Because I think she thinks he’s weak, and when she sees his weakness she goes for it. Master Epps is really in love with Patsy [played by Lupita Nyong'o], but he hates himself for it. His own love for her is despicable to him and he knows it can’t be and it’s not right, and my character plays on that fear in him and gets him to act out based on that ill feeling inside of himself. That’s where her power lies.

Have you ever done anything onscreen as violent as what you do in this film?
No, never. Never. And I hope to never again, although I do feel that it was very important for the narrative that it be as strong as that, to really show what was endured. The brutality of it, to me, is absolutely important and imperative to the telling of this story. I just feel that without it, it would lose part of what feels so insanely authentic about the movie.


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