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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In preparing for her first film role as a petite, hard-laboring slave in "12 Years a Slave," actress Lupita Nyong'o sized herself up against 500 pounds of cotton, which her character Patsey picked every day.
The pile "was taller and wider and thicker than me," says Nyong'o. "And I was presented with this woman's loftiness."
Conveying that loftiness proved to be a key to Nyong'o's performance, one that has generated critical acclaim for the Hollywood newcomer and predictions she will earn a best supporting actress Oscar nomination.
The film itself is considered a heavyweight Oscar contender, having won widespread praise for its brutal depiction of pre-Civil War American slavery. "12 Years a Slave" is based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man tricked and sold into slavery who cannot fathom the hell he has landed in on Louisiana plantations. He is played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Patsey has the unfortunate lot of not only being a slave but also the object of love and sexual desire of her master, the cruel and conflicted Edwin Epps played by Michael Fassbender.
As it turned out, Patsey proved to be the big casting challenge for British director Steve McQueen.
"Lupita, that was crazy," McQueen told Reuters at the Toronto Film Festival where the film won the top award. "It was like looking for Scarlett O'Hara, over a thousand women interviewed and finally we got to her. I just couldn't believe it. Wow. She came from Mars."
Nyong'o was born in Mexico 30 years ago (hence the Mexican name Lupita) where her Kenyan father was in political exile, but they moved back to Kenya when she was 1. She was educated in the United States and was graduating from Yale University's School of Drama just as she prepared her first-ever audition tape for McQueen's film.
After a grueling audition with a Hollywood casting director, Nyong'o then auditioned in person for McQueen in Louisiana. He called her the next day.
"He said 'Hello, this is Steve McQueen and I would like to offer you the role of Patsey,'" Nyong'o told Reuters.
"My knees grew weak and I sat on the pavement and I said 'I'd like to accept the role of Patsey,'" she added.
Nyong'o admits to being "very" intimidated by the experience and expectations of her director and fellow cast members and was thinking that any day she would get the call saying there had been a mistake.
But she had six weeks to prepare and set about reading accounts of slavery from the female perspective and visiting museums to get a three-dimensional idea of what life on the plantation was like. She had both a script and an autobiography to learn about Patsey.
"Solomon Northup wrote very specifically about Patsey and he described her having an air of loftiness that neither labor nor lash could rid her of," Nyong'o said.
Patsey is a complex character, lofty yet vulnerable, a woman who looks like a child, a productive superhuman treated like an animal. Many of the film's most wrenching scenes involve Patsey being subjected to unspeakable physical and emotional torture.
"There was an underlying stream of grief at all times even in the lighter scenes," Nyong'o said. "There is a deep pain in Patsey throughout and living in that pain was not easy."
In the week before filming began, Nyong'o found herself daydreaming about Patsey and wondering what she would have done with the very little free time she had.
She conjured up the idea of making corn husk dolls for little girls on the plantation. After Googling to confirm that it was historically accurate, she learned how to do it herself.
"There was always something very childlike about Patsey for me because I know she had been robbed of her childhood by her master taking an early sexual interest in her," Nyong'o said.
She said McQueen used the doll-making to show the part of Patsey that could not be enslaved.
"That was really powerful for me," Nyong'o said. "In playing her, I learned that you don't have to live a day free to know what freedom is."
Editing by Eric Kelsey and Cynthia Osterman