Lupita Nyong’o can remember running around as Ralph Fiennes’s assistant when he was shooting a film in Kenya. Now she’s the female star of the hottest movie of the year.
The actress — who was born in Mexico but raised in the U.S., where she studied acting at the Yale School of Drama — was visiting relatives and managed to get herself hired as Fiennes’s runner on the award-winning The Constant Gardener.
Now she appears alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt in director Steve McQueen’s masterpiece 12 Years A Slave, which was premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last week.
‘I bumped into Ralph on the street in Telluride after he’d seen the film and he was saying: “Was that you?!”,’ Lupita (pictured left) told me.
The movie, set in pre-Civil War America, charts the real-life story of Solomon Northup (Ejiofor, giving the screen performance of his life), a musician and free black man with a family in Saratoga, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery.
After being carted around the South, he’s forcibly sent to a plantation where other slaves include Patsey, played by Lupita, a star cotton picker, but of more value as the woman who satisfies the ‘predilections and peculiarities’ of the estate’s brutal owner Edwin Epps — a powerful Fassbender.
There’s not a false note in the film as it takes you into the darkest corners of America’s past.
This is the antithesis of the trashy, treacly Color Purple spew. Rather, 12 Years A Slave is the movie I’ve been waiting a lifetime to see because it confronts what was the American nightmare, long before there was any hope of an American dream.
There are several extraordinary scenes, but the landmark moment everyone will be talking about occurs when the master whips Patsey, then when it becomes too much he forces Solomon to take over lashing her.
It will make instant cinema history because of its rawness. Even if you shield your eyes you will still hear the strikes on bare flesh.
‘Man does what he wants with his property,’ the master argues, as though that makes the beating OK.
‘Chiwetel was gentle with me,’ Lupita told me when we chatted in Telluride, an old silver mining town high up in the San Juan mountains in Colorado. ‘So was Michael,’ she added.
‘They were both concerned about what I was going through because they had to do these brutal things,’ Lupita explained.
Chiwetel underwent his own beatings and tortures. In one scene he is suspended by his feet.
‘I was feeling the pain and the degradation,’ he told me.
Later, he told a public panel that he had used that pain to help channel Solomon’s journey.
During the same discussion, Steve McQueen, who directed Fassbender in previous movies Hunger and Shame, said that actors are like athletes.
He continued that he’s not interested in working with movie stars, ‘only artists’.
Certainly, the artists in 12 Years A Slave are athletes of Olympic stature.
The movie is being screened at the Toronto International Film Festival tomorrow and for the Accenture gala at the BFI London Film Festival on October 18.
It is set to open in the UK in January, and it’s going to be a force to reckon with this awards season.
As we bid each other farewell, Lupita told me how she’d needed something lighter for her next film.
‘I wanted a comedy or a thriller, so I made a film with Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore and your Lady Mary and we both play air stewardesses,’ she said, referring to Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery who is also appearing in the movie Non-Stop.
‘It’s very different,’ Lupita added with a laugh.
Two glasses of wine at high altitude in Telluride made me feel as though I’d knocked back two bottles, which can surely be the only reason I challenged Michael Fassbender to a dance-off .
We were chatting away pleasantly enough at a Fox Searchlight party, when the actor started grooving to a Proclaimers song in a dopey way and I suggested that white men had no clue how to shake it. I whipped my jacket off, threw it to the ground and said I could do better.
Big mistake. On several fronts, really. First, I should not have broken my usual iron-discipline no-booze rule when I’m in work mode, even late on a Saturday night — and especially when the air’s so dangerously thin.
And second, in truth, the rhythm takes a little while to travel down to my feet and I can only really move to soul music from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties.
So, yes, swivel-hipped Fassbender (right) whupped me on the dance floor. I’m sure he’ll drink to that.
But we’re planning a re-match next year. I’m hiring a dance instructor. And I’ll be stone cold sober.
The actresses at the centre of the fabulous lesbian drama Blue Is The Warmest Colour said they had managed to shoot the film’s controversial love scenes by ‘abandoning ourselves’.
Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos shared the Palm d’Or prize at Cannes with director Abdellatif Kechiche when the top award was handed out by Cannes jury president Steven Spielberg.
Adele, who plays a teen who falls for a fine arts student played by Lea, said that making the film ‘was a question of trust’ with the film-maker and ‘abandoning ourselves to the love and the passion’.
Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos shared the Palm d¿Or prize at Cannes with director Abdellatif Kechiche when the top award was handed out by Cannes jury president Steven Spielberg
‘The use of the flesh is so important. We went our own way because we didn’t want to be choreographed,’ Adele explained in Telluride during a discussion organised by the festival and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Lea added that working with Kechiche meant ‘giving everything — my body, my soul — and it meant that I was totally involved’.
They told me and others this in Telluride, which is totally at odds with what must surely be a bogus interview with the actresses that has appeared all over the internet, suggesting that they were unhappy with director Kechiche’s process.
‘It was a great collaboration,’ Adele told me herself.
Blue Is The Warmest Colour is being shown in Toronto, where I am now, and British cinema-goers will be able to see it at the BFI London Film Festival on October 14.
The film then goes on limited release in key cities around the country on November 15.
The British Board of Film Classification told me yesterday that the film had yet to be submitted for a rating.
WATCH OUT FOR
Hugh Jackman, who plays a father turned vigilante after his daughter and her best friend are snatched off a quiet suburban street in new film Prisoners.
It’s a parent’s worst nightmare and director Denis Villeneuve pumps up the tension to heart-stopping levels.
I’m not giving any clues away here because it’s better to come to it fresh. All I will say is that at one point I jumped so high I nearly landed in the lap of the very kind lady on my left.
Viola Davis, Maria Bello and Terrence Howard are the other parents.
Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano and Melissa Leo are also in the cast of this superior thriller, which was one of the surprise pictures at Telluride. Just make sure you pay full attention when you watch it.
Agata Trzebuchowska, a newcomer, and veteran actress Agata Kulesza, who star in Pawel Pawlikowski’s superb drama Ida set in Sixties Poland.
It’s about a nun about to take her vows who discovers some amazing news from a long-lost aunt about what happened to their family during the war.
Together this odd couple go in search of a shattering truth.
The BFI London Film Festival will screen it on October 10.
David Hockney, who pops up to provide some delicious observations in Tim’s Vermeer, a riveting documentary film about obsession made by the team of Teller and Penn Jillette.
Tim is Tim Jenison, a U.S. inventor who argues that classical painter Johannes Vermeer created his work using optical devices.
Jenison decides to recreate the exact circumstances, right down to the paint, furniture and vase Vermeer used to paint The Music Lesson. It’s enormously engrossing.