New York Film Fest: '12 Years a Slave' Cast Talks Tapping Into Brutal True Story

Sarah Paulson and Chiwetel Ejiofor at Tuesday's screening
Sarah Paulson and Chiwetel Ejiofor at Tuesday's screening
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Fox Searchlight's 12 Years a Slave doesn't hit theaters until Oct. 18 but screenings at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, where the movie won the Audience Award, have already earned the film a great deal of praise from critics.

But the movie, a true story of free man Solomon Northup's capture and life as a slave in the antebellum South, also features a number of disturbing moments that may be tough for audiences to watch.

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Director Steve McQueen, though, said he couldn't shy away from the dark parts of America's history.

"I don't think you can make a movie about slavery without doing certain things because either you're making a movie about slavery or you're not. And to make a movie about slavery you have to understand why people kept slaves, and therefore one has to demonstrate that," McQueen told The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet before the New York Film Festival screening of the movie.

Producer Bill Pohlad also said that he wasn't concerned about the brutal scenes turning off audiences.

"If you're going to do a movie about slavery with Steve McQueen, the idea is not to exactly back off or be safe about it," Pohlad told THR. "I think that was the whole idea, to have something that's never been done before, to have a director like Steve who's not afraid to present things in a very real, very raw way.

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In telling Northup's story, the director and cast hewed very closely to the former slave's memoir, which provided a detailed basis for the script.

"That was the crucial thing for me was to try to get under his skin and see the world through his eyes," Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northrup, told THR. "And that was the journey of it, and the closer I got to him the more I felt that the rest of the story was sort of taking care of itself."

Lupita Nyong'o, who plays Patsey, a slave with whom Michael Fassbender's plantation owner has his way sexually, also said she relied heavily on the script and the memoir, but she engaged in a bit of unusual research to help her understand the character.

"I also went to the Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore because I wanted to get as much of a three-dimensional experience as I could, and when I first walked in there was a 500-pound bale of cotton and it was taller than me, it was thicker than me and it was wider than me, and that's what Patsey picked every day, and that's all I needed to see," Nyong'o told THR.

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Sarah Paulson, Fassbender's character's wife, said she didn't want to get too much inside Northup's head, though.

"I read the book, but it was a very difficult line to walk because I didn't want to be overly familiar with other people's impressions of who this woman was, because if I was walking around with just Solomon's idea of how horrible I might have been it might have been hard for me to get inside her because I had to play it -- and I didn't want to judge her and wanted to be able to do it with a certain amount of commitment and not be afraid," she explained.

Fassbender, whose experience working with McQueen on Hunger and Shame gave him a good rapport with the director, explained that part of his preparation involved trying to understand the villain he was playing: "Just live with the character, go home with the character, try to know the character and try to bring a real, sort of truth to it."

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