There must be a self-hatred there too, isn’t there?
Everybody keeps saying that, but I don’t know why he would. Why would he hate himself?
Because when you get right down to it, he’s not different from those people out in the field. Not really. He sees these slaves who are considered chattel, whose lives are worthless to their white owners, and maybe he goes a little further in his cruelty toward them because he resents that he is like them.
He might be an early instance of Stockholm Syndrome. He has bought into it all and just has to keep things status quo. That’s why when Django rides up on a horse, with a gun, speaking out of turn, the first thing Stephen has to do is let those other negroes around there on the plantation who see Django know that they can’t aspire to that. The first thing Stephen wants to do is pull him down off that pedestal: Y’all can’t aspire to be that type of person.
Let’s talk about the look of the character. Django calls you “Snowball.” How did you and Quentin come up with Stephen’s hair and makeup?
I worked on that for over a year and a half, from the time when I read the script. I tried a lot of different skin tones, ages, variations on hair.
The snow white hair, there’s something deceptively genteel about that, too. He almost looks like the cotton in those fields.
Well, yeah! And you know that image we’ve always had of Uncle Ben. People look at him and immediately think of him as subservient. Stephen is the opposite of that, but we’re turning that convention on its head.
If he’s playing the role of an Uncle Tom, best to look the part.
Sure. That definitely helps him. We finally got to about four different looks and started to mix and match different elements. I just wanted him to be like a slave who has never been adulterate. There were no white people mixed into his blood or anything. So I wanted them to make me as dark as possible.
You put darker makeup on to make Stephen blacker?
Yeah, I was trying to be darker and darker. I actually thought I wasn’t dark enough until I actually saw the film and realized it was photographed to be much darker than it looked when I looked in the mirror.
That may be one of the few instances of a black man wearing blackface in a mainstream film.
They did it in Bamboozled, didn’t they?
True. But it’s risky. You talked about playing a hateful character, “the most hated negro in cinematic history,” as you put it. How did you avoid making a misstep that even you might later look back on as too far?
There is no too far. Slavery was an atrocious institution. And an extreme institution. There is no “too far” in that. If you go in there half-way, the black folks will know it. So go all the way, and go as far as you can go to show the institution for how it was. They would know if you’re holding back.