Tuesday, October 29, 2013

In Character: the Cast of 12 Years a Slave

Part of what makes Steve McQueen’s new film, 12 Years a Slave, so great is its eclectic cast. Throughout the film, familiar faces pop in and out of scenes for brief periods of time, proving that it isn’t the amount of screentime that matters to an actor, but rather, what they do with the time they’re given. From superstars to virtual unknowns, here’s a breakdown of the talented people who help make 12 Years a Slave one of the very best films of the year.

Bryan Batt
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Judge Turner
Notable Roles: Funny People, Ugly Betty, Parkland
Best Role: Who can forget Batt’s heartbreaking turn as Mad Men’s Sal? Ever since his untimely departure, I’ve always secretly hoped Sal would make it back to Madison Ave. Sadly, I think Sal is gone baby gone.

Liza J. Bennett
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Mistress Ford
Notable Roles: Royal Pains, Common Law, Person of Interest
Best Role: Bennett is responsible for one of the most gut wrenching moments of 12 Years a Slave, when she tells a traumatized worker that her “children will soon be forgotten.” I’ve never seen Bennett in anything else, but given her work in McQueen’s film, she deserves to be a big, big star.

Marcus Lyle Brown
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Jasper
Notable Roles: Eve’s Bayou, The Shield, Stolen, Treme, Drop Dead Diva, The Host
Best Role: Brown has popped up memorably in a number of things over the years, but I’ll never forget him saying “Yes sir!” to Billy Bob Thornton after Thornton calls him a racial slur in Monster’s Ball. There’s so much patronizing defiance in those two words. It’s actually quite jarring.

Bill Camp
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Radburn
Notable Roles: Public Enemies, Lawless, Damages, Lincoln
Best Role: Easy, as Van in Compliance. A dim witted man tricked into doing a very, very bad thing.

Chris Chalk
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Clemens
Notable Roles: Then She Found Me, Homeland, Being Flynn, The Newsroom
Best Role: I enjoy what Chalk does with his underwritten character, Gary Cooper, on The Newsroom, but his brief arc on a slave ship in 12 Years a Slave was fascinating. From quiet leader to ecstatic “Massa, Massa” house slave, it made for one of the film’s most disheartening moments.

Benedict Cumberbatch
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Ford
Notable Roles: The Whistleblower, Sherlock, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, War Horse, The Fifth Estate
Best Role: Cumberbatch’s die-hard fans, which have aptly titled themselves “Cumberbitches,” would be better at choosing the actor’s best role, as I haven’t seen them all (including Sherlock). So, as it stands now, I suppose I’m most taken with his beyond-creepy turn in Atonement. He played that part with utter conviction. Props for his flawless American accent in 12 Years a Slave, though. Dude has a killer voice.

Paul Dano
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Tibeats
Notable Roles: L.I.E., The Girl Next Door, Taking Lives, Little Miss Sunshine, Meek’s Cutoff

Garret Dillahunt
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Armsby
Notable Roles: The Road, No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James…, Winter’s Bone
Best Role: Dillahunt is a master of slimy deception, my favorite incarnation of which was as Francis Wolcott (and/or Jack McCall…) in HBO’s Deadwood.

Chiwetel Ejiofor
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Solomon Northup
Notable Roles: Dirty Pretty Things, Kinky Boots, Children of Men, Talk to Me, Redbelt
Best Role: That would be Solomon Northup. Give the man an Oscar. Period.

Michael Fassbender
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Edwin Epps
Notable Roles: Hunger, Fish Tank, Inglourious Basterds, Jane Eyre, Prometheus, The Counselor
Best Role: Michael Fassbender is the finest actor of his generation. I love him in everything, but his performance in Shame is one of the best film acting performances I have ever seen.

Paul Giamatti
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Freeman
Notable Roles: American Splendor, Cinderella Man, The Illusionist, John Adams, Win Win
Best Role: Tough, tough call. But I suppose I most drawn to his desperation in Sideways.

Anwan Glover
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Cape
Notable Roles: Treme, LUV
Best Role: Gotta be as Slim Charles on The Wire. Remember when he took out Cheese? Wow.

Dwight Henry
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Uncle Abram
Notable Roles: None, other than…
Best Role: Wink in Beasts of the Southern Wild, his only other screen credit. What amazing work that was.

Taran Killam
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Hamilton
Notable Roles: MADtv, Just Married, Scrubs, The Heat
Best Role: His impersonations on Saturday Night Live are currently some of the best things that show has going for it.

Marc Macaulay
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Captain
Notable Roles: Passenger 57, Bad Boys, Wild Things, Burn Notice, Conviction
Best Role: Macaulay has been in the game for a long time, and it’s damn near impossible to pick a favorite performance. Though his delivery of the line, “I’m just gonna have the boys here kick the shit out of you,” made for one of Killer Joe’s more darkly humorous moments.

John McConnell
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Jonus Ray
Notable Roles: Interview with the Vampire, Roseanne, Monster’s Ball, The Ladykillers
Best Role: I love McConnell’s work as DJ Jeffy Jeff on HBO’s Treme. This dude is New Orleans.

Scoot McNairy
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Brown
Notable Roles: In Search of a Midnight Kiss, Monsters, The Off Hours, Argo, Promised Land
Best Role: Another tough call, but I’ll go with McNairy’s in-over-his-head turn in Killing Them Softly. Poor bastard.

Lupita Nyong’o
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Patsey
Notable Roles: None
Best Role: Perhaps 12 Years a Slave’s biggest shock was the power of mostly unknown actress Lupita Nyong’o. Her devastating work as Patsey is justly earning Oscar talk. That would be one damn well deserved award.

Adepero Oduye
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Eliza
Notable Roles: Half Nelson, The Coolest White Boy Ever
Best Role: If you thought Oduye was great as Eliza (which, of course, she was) then you’ll be floored by her work in Pariah. It’s a perfect performance.

Sarah Paulson
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Mrs. Epps
Notable Roles: Deadwood, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Game Change, Mud
Best Role: Paulson is one of those actresses who keeps getting better and better. Her work as Mrs. Epps is the best film performance I’ve seen from her yet, but overall, Lana Winters from American Horror Story: Asylum has to be her finest.

Brad Pitt
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Bass
Notable Roles: Se7en, Fight Club, Ocean’s Eleven, Babel, Burn After Reading, The Tree of Life
Best Role: My favorite Brad Pitt performance...? Tough call. I’ll go with his quietly unnerving work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He’s utterly flawless in that film.

Quvenzhané Wallis
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Margaret Northup
Notable Roles: None, other than…
Best Role: Beasts of the Southern Wild, a role that made her the youngest Best Actress nominee ever.

Michael K. Williams
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Robert
Notable Roles: Gone Baby Gone, The Road, Life During Wartime, Boardwalk Empire
Best Role: “The farmer in the dell/The farmer in the dell/Heigh-ho, the derry-o/The farmer in the dell.”

Alfre Woodard
Role in 12 Years a Slave: Mistress Shaw
Notable Roles: Cross Creek, St. Elsewhere, Down in the Delta, Passion Fish, Primal Fear
Best Role: She’s so good in everything, but her stern mother in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn might be her best. 


  1. Man, I have to commend Francine Maisler for her work in casting that film. There should be a casting Oscar. I would pick her for the award as well as a posthumous special Oscar for Marion Dougherty. Right now for this film (which is #1 of the year so far), I have Chiwetel Ejiofor for Best Actor, Michael Fassbender for Best Supporting Actor, and Lupita Nyong'o as Best Supporting Actress.

    1. Hell yeah man, she is fantastic at what she does. She's responsible for some of the best casts assembled for recent films and TV shows. I agree that there should be a casting Oscar. It's such a difficult damn job.

      Sorry I haven't had a chance to read your review yet. Been super busy. Will scope it tomorrow.

  2. Watch Sherlock!!!!!!! But then again, his performance in Atonement got him that gig. #Cumberbitch4eva
    Paul Dano, man.

    Can't wait to see this film.

    1. Gah I know!! You are certainly one dedicated Cumberbitch, my friend. Wear it with pride.

  3. Amazing list! I had no idea all these great actors were in the film. Pitt is just so good in everything and I love your choice for Paulson's best. I hope she breaks into important, acclaimed movies with this one.

    1. Thanks! Paulson is so good in every AHS. She really excels there. But wow, she is such a mesmerizing bitch in this film.

  4. Why did I know you were going to choose Atonement for him? (Not that I'm complaining; as you said, he is really creepy in that.) Oh, and wait until you see him in August: Osage County.

    Totally love the kickass ensemble cast McQueen got for this. If he has another ensemble piece planned for the near future, he's gonna have one hell of a time trying to top this one.

    1. I'm glad to be hearing good things about August: Osage County. Given the trailer, it looks like it could go either way.

      Once you put 12 Years a Slave into context with McQueen's other films (which were smaller in every regard, namely the size of cast), it really makes me appreciate 12 Years all that much more.

  5. I knew this had a great cast, but I didn't know how great. I love seeing familiar faces from The Wire crop up on film. Also nice to see Adepero Oduye hanging in there after her breakthrough. I wish Pariah had received more attention last year. Can't wait until this film drifts into my neck of the woods.

    1. Yeah man, killer cast here. I was really glad Pariah won the John Cassavetes Indie Spirit Award, but I too wish that film garnered more acclaim. Oduye was exceptional in that film.

  6. Oh man you really need to see Sherlock. I thought 12 Years a Slave was great and in a strange way it's McQueen's most "crowd pleasing" film.

    1. Yeah I know what you mean about 12 Years a Slave. It's his most accessible, for sure. I really do need to see Sherlock.

  7. The cast was phenomenal. I would honestly be fine with a numerous acting nominations for this film (except Adepero, I think I she struggled with her lines).

    1. Hell yeah man. Multiple noms would be perfectly fine with me.

      I thought Adepero was sensational.

  8. Camp, Dillahunt, Henry, McNairy, and Oduye (REALLY need to watch Pariah) are in this too?! What a cast! And I totally blanked on Quvenzhane Wallis. Can't wait to see this!

    I know I'm repeating what's already been said, but you really should watch Sherlock man!

    1. Clearly I cannot ignore Sherlock any longer. I love all these people whose tastes I value pushing me to watch it. I'll get on it soon.

      Hope you get to see 12 Year soon!

  9. I agree with your comment on Liza J Bennett's performance as Mistress Ford. As she entered, it seemed she thought of the two slaves as lost dogs. "Two of 'em. You got two of 'em". Immediately after, with the words of "This one's cryin'. Why is this one cryin'?" she let us know by her expression that she was concerned, yet she had said 'this one' as if they were less than human. After hearing that the slave had lost her children, Mistress Ford's compassion for the plight of this poor woman was, we thought, obvious. Even saying under her breath, "poor, poor woman". With the statement that some food and rest would help, we continued to think she was almost putting herself in the slave's place. And then WHAM! "Your children will soon be forgotten". No feeling... as if the slave were truly no more than a starving dog. One that some food from a bowl and some sleep would take away all the dog's suffering. I don't know about others, but my heart stopped with those last words. To me, those few seconds set the tone for the movie even more than the previous scenes. I commend Bennett and look forward to seeing more of her work.

    1. I love this comment. I agree with everything you said. At first, you think Bennett is going to be a sort of humble savior (much in the way of her husband) and then, as you said, WHAM!, she drops that line and we're left feeling utterly hopeless.

      I don't have as much time for television as I do for film, but I definitely need to check out some of Bennett's work on TV. While I'm doing that, I'm sure she'll be landing more great film roles!

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I really do appreciate it.