Lupita Nyong'o is so hot right now – as evidenced by the reception she received at the Golden Globes last night, where the 12 Years A Slave actress shone on the red carpet in a stunning red Ralph Lauren cape dress. Nyong'o lost out to Jennifer Lawrence in the Best Supporting Actress category, but she’s been nominated for the Rising Star Award at the EE BAFTAS, which take place next month.
We caught up with Lupita for our February issue, and couldn’t wait to share the interview with you.
Words: Anna Smith
Being universally acclaimed for your first big-screen role is every actor’s dream. Another one might be working with Brad Pitt, say, or Michael Fassbender. Fresh out of Yale School of Drama, Lupita Nyong’o can tick all three boxes. In fact, after starting out as a production assistant on The Constant Gardener, and just one role – in MTV Network Africa drama series Shuga – she is now on the fast track to A-list status thanks to her extraordinary, harrowing performance in Steve McQueen’s biopic, 12 Years A Slave.
Lupita plays Patsey, a slave both reviled and revered by drunken, adulterous landowner Edwin Epps. That Epps is played by Michael Fassbender (who has cornered the market in moral depravity) offers an indication of the man’s brutality. It says volumes about Lupita’s on-screen presence that she shines brighter than almost anyone else, in a cast that also includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti and the magnificent Chiwetel Ejiofor. Remember when a then-unknown Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone and you just knew it was the start of something big? We’ve got the same feeling about Lupita.
The 30-year-old actress knew, as soon as she saw the script, that she would play Patsey. ‘I had a gut reaction the second I read it,’ she says. ‘I understood Patsey, even though I had no idea how I was going to play her.’ Not least among the challenges she faced was her own lack of acting experience. ‘I had to really manage my ‘Imposter Syndrome’ – those nagging feelings of self-doubt,’ she recalls. In fact, Lupita shows Patsey enduring physical, sexual and psychological abuse with heartbreaking dignity but, like many great actors, she cannot put the actual process into words. ‘It’s hard to explain. Isn’t that the mystery of what we [actors] do? You just have to truthfully believe in those circumstances.’
We are chatting on the set of the ELLE shoot. Poised, polite and soft-spoken, but also resolute in her opinions, Lupita is ambitious but also family-orientated. Born in Mexico, raised in Kenya, she has five siblings. Her father, Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, is a Kenyan politician and democratic campaigner, while her cousin Isis Nyong’o Madison was named one of Africa’s Top 20 Youngest Power Women in 2012 by Forbes. Given her pedigree, it is hardly surprising that Lupita, who decided to become an actress after watching Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of The Color Purple aged five, has created so much noise with her second-ever role.
If Hollywood has been seduced, so too has the fashion world. The actress has revealed a series of pitch-perfect red-carpet looks in the last few months, including a printed Miu Miu dress, a black Veronica Beard jumpsuit and a canary yellow J. Mendel gown. Christopher Kane, Erdem and Kenzo were falling over themselves to dress her for her ELLE shoot. At Paris Fashion Week, she cemented her status with a front-row appearance at the Miu Miu spring/summer 2014 show alongside Lena Dunham (‘The thing about Lena is that her gentleness and her power are not at odds,’ she tells me). It was what is known as ‘a moment’ – the new voice of a generation beside the new face of a generation.
Today Lupita is conspicuous for all the right reasons in a pink Moschino jacket. ‘Fashion is a newer area for me,’ she says. ‘I love clean lines and bold colours, and mixing feminine and masculine silhouettes. Every single thing I’ve tried on by Antonio Berardi is just gold. And Erdem and, of course, Prada and Miu Miu. My stylist, Micaela Erlanger, is magic – she really knows how to translate what I like into brands.’
However, for Lupita, enjoying the trappings of fame doesn’t mean being consumed by them. ‘Fortunately, I lucked out with a very grounded bunch of people around me,’ she says. ‘I’ll always have them, so I’m not too concerned about staying grounded. I don’t Google myself, so I’m not part of the consumption of my public persona. I did once read a few things, and I was like, “OK, I’m done. Done, done, done.”’
For now – ‘I’m in the business of now’ – the focus is on enjoying the moment. Lupita’s sense of humour is rather unexpected, and veers towards British eccentricity. ‘I grew up in Kenya, a former British colony, so I’m well acquainted with sarcasm,’ she says. ‘I’m obsessed with The IT Crowd. It’s like a comedy of manners and Chris O’Dowd is brilliant.’
He is not the only actor she admires. She describes Fassbender, with whom she shared most of her scenes in 12 Years A Slave, as ‘an electrifying human being. He’s magnetic. You’re watching an artist at work. He loves what he does and he’s spontaneous and unpredictable, which is fun.’
In line with her ambitious streak, Lupita has high hopes for the role of women in the film industry – ‘I’d like there to be a time when it doesn’t make news that a woman directed something’ – but despite having started out behind the scenes, for her it is now very much abut acting. She will next be seen in action thriller Non-Stop, opposite Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore and Michelle Dockery. ‘Michelle and I play flight attendants. It’s kind of like Speed in the air – the polar opposite of 12 Years!’ she says with what is unmistakably a grin.
Mark our words, 2014 belongs to Lupita.
12 Years A Slave is out 24 January; Non-Stop is out 28 February