There’s something that Michael Fassbender does in “12 Years a Slave” (our review) that reveals the nature of his character, the unstable, probably psychotic plantation owner Edwin Epps, which wasn’t on the page. Every time Epps is around one of his slaves, he’s touching them—hooking his arm around the neck of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) as if the two of them were best buds, or propping his arm atop another’s head, as if it were a fencepost. The gestures seem casual on the surface, even friendly, but because he is the master and they are slaves, it’s something more threatening and contemptuous, erasing the notion of personal space.
“It’s the difference between me sitting here,” Fassbender said, and then to demonstrate, abruptly moving his position on the couch so that our faces were practically touching, “and me sitting here. It changes the dynamic immediately. It’s his space. He owns it. And he owns them. That’s the way he sees it.”
Fassbender thought a lot about the “space and rhythm and movement” in his performance, and made all sorts of suggestions to his longtime collaborator, director Steve McQueen, about what they could do to make Epps both more human and more of a villain. For one scene, the actor thought he could play “the buffoon,” running around the hog farm like a comic character so that when the audience saw him, we would laugh at him. (Fassbender’s slip in the mud during this scene was real, by the way—see the clip below). Fassbender thought we should see the character at rest.
“I thought, ‘How do you pass the day? Plantation owners must get really bored,’ ” Fassbender said. “That’s not the case for the slaves, but during those long days, in the heat, and the drinking on top of it? So I thought, ‘Maybe I could be bathing my feet in cool water with a shammy on top of my head.’ ” All these “little things,” Fassbender said, gave a previous life to whichever scene we come into, and add meaning. “It’s about the physicality of the character, the work he does, the lack of work, all of those things. That’s what Steve wanted me to bring.”
During a later scene, the actor thought he should be holding something — “like some soft toy” — and then he remembered a little girl on set, who had portrayed a slave earlier in the shoot, whom he had befriended. “I thought, ‘Maybe she could be in this scene, like Epps is priming her now, to be the new Patsey,’ ” Fassbender said, referring to the adult slave girl at the center of his character’s obsessions (played by Lupita Nyong’o).
In order to explain that obsession, Fassbender referred to the relationship between Epps and Patsey as one of love—Epps loves Patsey, he insisted. When we reminded him that Epps repeatedly rapes Patsey, and rape isn’t usually an expression of love but of power, he explained how he came about his understanding of it. “I think the real sort of crux for the character is his love for Patsey, and his inability to handle that,” Fassbender said. “He doesn’t have the equipment or the intellect to process that, or to allow himself to love her, or to express himself. His expression, we see it in the rape scene. In one moment, he’s almost pleading with her, and in the next, that door is shut and he’s beating her. He’s trying to destroy her in the hope of destroying that feeling inside.”
“Look at Heathcliff and Cathy in ‘Wuthering Heights,’ ” Fassbender continued. “Would you consider them to be in love? Do you think she’s in love with him? Don’t you think there can be two people in love where one person is either more in love, or has a higher position of power than the other person? It doesn’t always mean it’s going to be pretty. It doesn’t mean that the feeling isn’t one of love. But it’s just how it manifests itself physically. For me, it’s love, but what you do with it is something else.” Still, he conceded, “She’s not in love with him.”
Because Epps is so dependent on his slaves—not just economically, but emotionally—he opts to spend time with them, even when there’s no reason for it. He calls them into the house to dance in his home, aggravating his wife (played by Sarah Paulson), who throws a glass decanter at Patsey’s face when she sees her husband watching her. During rehearsals at his loft apartment, Fassbender and Paulson discussed the state of the couple’s marriage, and how it could have disintegrated to the point where he’d flaunt his preference for a slave girl in front of everyone, so that information would be underneath their performances.
“Both of us decided that I’d married into her family’s money,” Fassbender said. “And perhaps my character was a driver on her family’s hog farm, that the hog farm is where the money came from, which allowed us to buy the plantation. We talked about how we don’t have any children, and how Patsey was very close with Mrs. Epps at the beginning and worked along beside her, until things developed, when Mr. Epps started to make his feelings known in front of his wife.”
Despite these conversations, Fassbender said that he wanted to keep an element of surprise in his work with the rest of the cast, and not “intellectualize it too much.” And after any horrific scenes, he’d hug Nyong’o and Paulson, and make sure they were okay. “Those relationships between the characters are very much ones of conflict and tension, where you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
Of course, Oscar predictors think they know what’s going to happen next, at least to the film itself—”12 Years a Slave” has already been declared a frontrunner in several races, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor. Fassbender said this sort of prognostication doesn’t affect him, “because there’s nothing I can really do. Sit at home and think about winning a statue? Or being nominated for a statue? This is the film. This is what it is.”
And while it would be nice to be acknowledged by his peers—”I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t true”—he’s more concerned a different kind of judge of his work: his mother. This film, he joked, will be less awkward to show her than “Shame” was. “And she’ll tell me the truth,” he laughed. “She’s the one I’m nervous about.”
“12 Years A Slave” is now playing in limited release and will expand in November.