Finding Humanity in a Slave Owner – Michael Fassbender in “12 Years a Slave”
Posted October 14, 2013 | By Barbara Chai
Michael Fassbender has played real-life figures such as the Irish nationalist Bobby Sands (“Hunger”) and Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (“A Dangerous Method”). But in “12 Years a Slave,” the actor is tasked with portraying a far less sympathetic character: Edwin Epps, a plantation owner who drinks and subjects his slaves to daily lashings if they fail to pick enough cotton.
“Epps is so unhinged. He’s falling apart at the seams in a lot of ways,” Mr. Fassbender, 36 years old, said. “I tried to just find the human being in there, as opposed to the evil slave owner.”
The movie is based on an 1853 book by Solomon Northup (played on-screen by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery, who spends 10 of his 12 years in captivity on the Epps plantation. There, Solomon’s fate is intertwined with that of Patsey, a hardworking young woman caught between the lustful eye of Epps and his jealous wife.
Mr. Fassbender, who will soon reprise his role as Magneto in “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” spoke with the Journal about Epps’s buffoonish qualities, nailing a Southern accent and his third collaboration with Steve McQueen, who directed him in “Hunger” and 2011’s “Shame.”. Edited excerpts follow.
What were your first impressions of Edwin Epps when you read the script?
It was a character that was going to require a lot of input, a lot of work, a lot of prep to really dismantle him in a way that you can find the humanity there. When I say that, I mean the fact that he has these feelings of inadequacy around Solomon, that he has these feelings of love toward Patsey, and they’re both slaves that are supposed to be subservient to him and below him as a human being—he can’t really process that information. He’s a victim of his times as much as Solomon is, in a way.
What parts of his character did you play up?
There’s this buffoon quality to him that I wanted to bring out when I could, so that the audience would kind of laugh at him. And then you could see the power that this buffoon has over other human beings and the devastation that he could unleash.
Like when he is drunk and chasing Solomon?
Totally. So the preamble to that is [Epps is] lying there with the chamois on his head and feet bathing in a cool bucket. So when the audience first see him it’s like a snigger. Then he’s chasing [Solomon] around—again, it’s a little bit like Laurel and Hardy, him slipping in the pig pen.
In Solomon Northup’s book, he writes of Epps: “His manners are repulsive and coarse and his language gives speedy and unequivocal evidence that he has never enjoyed the advantages of an education.”
That sentence in itself says so much about him. Epps can see in Solomon’s face that he thinks this about him. Solomon’s got more intellect than Epps will ever have, or even have a grasp of. Epps doesn’t even understand that.
Epps cites the Gospel of Luke as justification for beating disobeying servants. His religious language is a big part of his righteousness.
Righteousness and lack of intelligence together, that is lethal. Tim Monich, a really good dialect coach who I’d been working with, sent me various tapes from the area, various Louisiana accents. Then it’s just a matter of repetition and working with the script an awful lot.
Your character whips and rapes Patsey. How do you get through scenes like that?
On the day, it’s easier than watching it, because you’ve got so much to do in the work. You’re not a passenger, you’re driving, so you need to be involved. [The whipping] was a difficult scene to film, but there were a lot of technical aspects that allowed you to take away that emotional element. That was a certain point where we were at such a high trust level as actors together anyway, that we were all kind of interconnected. The rape scene was difficult, I think maybe that was just a bit more difficult for me, which is kind of bizarre because they’re both hideous. It’s upsetting at the time but you sort of have a good hug before, certainly after, and we’re all looking out for each other. That allows you to go to those places.
This is your third film with Steve McQueen, who is known for work that challenges audiences. Is it the same for his actors?
It’s always been the same energy, which is one of total commitment and absolute focus and lots of love. A very safe, loving environment to create and to fail in. To, as he says, fail better.
Source | The Wall Street Journal