Keith Staskiewicz
October 18, 2013 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It was the hardest audition Lupita Nyong’o ever had. She was trying out for the role of Patsey, a field slave who is routinely beaten, abused, and violated in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. To test her mettle, Nyong’o was asked to do one scene over and over again. It was an intense one, in which Patsey asks fellow slave Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to take her life. ”It was this downward spiral of despair,” says Nyong’o. ”And it just kept going and going, deeper and deeper. It was devastating.”

Nyong’o, a 30-year-old Kenyan newcomer, ended up triumphing over more than 1,000 other actresses for the part. ”It’s very upsetting, not finding what you need,” says McQueen. ”Then all of a sudden [Lupita] comes in and it’s like, ‘Who’s this? Is this real?’ She just understood the temperature of the character and she had instinct.”

Inspired by Whoopi
Nyong’o was born in Mexico but raised in Nairobi, where her father is a member of the Kenyan senate. She realized at a young age that she wanted to act, after watching another film about the historical struggles of African-Americans, The Color Purple. ”I saw Whoopi Goldberg and she looked like me,” she recalls. ”She had my kind of hair, and that’s when I had the inkling that this was what I wanted to do.”

In 2003, Nyong’o came to the U.S. to attend college in Massachusetts. During that time, she worked on the production teams for The Constant Gardener and The Namesake, and directed a feature documentary, In My Genes, about Kenyans born with albinism.

The actress was weeks away from graduating from the Yale School of Drama when she learned she’d been cast in 12 Years a Slave. ”I remember I was on my way to bask in the sun on the quad when I got the call,” she says. ”My knees just gave in and I sat on the ground.” Her career was only beginning, but in less than six weeks she would be in Louisiana, acting out blistering scenes opposite the formidable likes of Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender.

Finding Patsey’s Strength
12 Years a Slave doesn’t shy away from the brutalities and injustices of the American slave experience, especially when it comes to Patsey, who is trapped between the sexual aggression of her master (Fassbender) and the jealousy of his wife (Sarah Paulson). ”The first time I read the script I was in tears,” says Nyong’o. ”I felt so sorry for her. But I knew that was no way to play her. I had to play her from a place of agency.”

In her downtime on set, the actress fleshed out her character’s interior life. She began making dolls out of corn husks, a hobby for Patsey she pitched to McQueen, who loved the idea and incorporated it into the movie. ”I made one every day,” Nyong’o says. ”And at the end I gave them as gifts to people on set. I did keep for myself my favorite one, which I called the Queen of the Field.”

The cast formed a sort of emotional support system for one another when shooting some of the film’s many emotionally taxing sequences, including the scene from Nyong’o’s audition — or another in which Solomon is forced to whip Patsey. ”That was a hard day, but everyone made it easier,” says the actress. ”I’m going to be forever affected by walking in that woman’s shoes.”

Nyong’o has a small part in next year’s Liam Neeson thriller Non-Stop, but as for the awards talk that is already brewing for her, she’s trying not to get ahead of herself. ”I don’t know if I’m ready,” she says. ”How do you prepare for winning the lottery? I’m taking it day by day.”

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