'12 Years a Slave': Steve McQueen, Cast Talk About the Harrowing True Tale at L.A. Screening

"I was really uncomfortable with having all the makeup on my back -- and I was confronted with the fact that Patsey's wounds were permanent," said actress Lupita Nyong'o at the DGA headquarters in West Hollywood on Monday.
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Lupita Nyong’o

Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave brings to life the true story of a free man who was kidnapped and forced into slavery. Based on the 1853 autobiography by Solomon Northup, the dramatic film will introduce a tragic tale from 160 years ago to a wide audience when it hits theaters on Oct. 18.

The film, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, will also introduce audiences to a new face -- Lupita Nyong'o.

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McQueen, Ejiofor and Nyong'o attended a Los Angeles screening of the buzzy awards film at the DGA headquarters in West Hollywood on Monday night, sharing their experiences on bringing this harrowing story to life.

Newcomer Nyong'o, who plays Patsey, a slave on the plantation where Northup is sent, has already become a hot topic of conversation for her work in the film, her American acting debut. Wearing a light pink long-sleeved Miu Miu dress at the event, the actress spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the physical and emotional transformation that she underwent for the part.

"I was really uncomfortable with having all the makeup on my back -- and I was confronted with the fact that Patsey's wounds were permanent, they were not temporary, and that really grounded me and centered me in a way," the actress told THR as she made her way into the theater.

Nyong'o spent hours reading and researching to find clues to what kind of life Patsey led.

McQueen told THR that is was Nyong'o's role that was the most difficult for him to cast.

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"I felt like Columbo trying to look for clues and trying to look for the right person for the role -- and suddenly out of nowhere she came and she was incredible," the Shame director told THR. McQueen showcased his cast onstage before the show and for a Q&A after moderated by rapper Common.

Another newcomer who is taking the industry by storm, 10-year-old Beasts of the Southern Wild star Quvenzhané Wallis, also stars in the film, and told THR that she had to watch Roots to learn about slavery.

"They don't really talk about slavery at school so I didn't know what it was," Wallis told THR. "If people don't know about it, they can know what it is and how we were treated [by watching the film]."

The film, which opens in limited release on Oct. 18 via Fox Searchlight Pictures, has already made a splash at film festivals, winning Toronto's top audience award. Actress Alfre Woodard tells THR that it will strongly affect audiences when it opens wide.

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"Anybody who comes and sits will be changed, no matter who you are, for the better," she said. "It's deeply personal how people perceive it."

"People want to hug, cry and share stories that they have had," screenwriter John Ridley said. "Either things they know about their own family or their personal experiences about moments they felt [they were] being discriminated [against]."

Ridley told THR that he wanted the audience to know that there were people of color at that time that were free.

"You have to remember that people of color at that time were not allowed to read and write in slave states," Ridley said. "This is about someone who survived the system."