Alfre Woodard on Playing a Plantation Mistress in ’12 Years a Slave’

Lupita Nyong’o (L) and Alfre Woodard In “12 Years A Slave”

*Alfre Woodard’s character in “12 Years a Slave” is brief (one scene), but unforgettable.

The veteran actress plays Mistress Harriet Shaw, a formerly enslaved woman who rises through the Southern caste system to become the wife of a wealthy plantation owner.

“She is a woman who, like all women during this period, whether they were field slaves, house slaves, white mistresses of households, whoever they were, women had a very tough road to hoe,” Woodard told NPR. “And you get to see how little actual power they had in the society. But they all figured out a way to use the personal power they had as women to make their lives livable.”

Mistress Shaw’s plantation sits next to the plantation that eventually lands free-born Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) after he is sold into slavery.

Alfre Woodard attends the Center for Reproductive Rights 2013 Gala at Jazz at Lincoln Center on October 29, 2013 in New York City

Alfre Woodard attends the Center for Reproductive Rights 2013 Gala at Jazz at Lincoln Center on October 29, 2013 in New York City

“12 Years a Slave” marks Woodard’s first time working with director Steve McQueen (“Hunger,” “Shame”) who she had admired long before his people called her people for the role.

Below, the actress recounts how she said yes to the part before even knowing what part she would play.

“12 Years a Slave” is in select theaters now and opens nationwide on Nov. 1. Watch a trailer below.

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