Lupita Nyong'o: The power awakens

The Oscar winner on Star Wars, identity and the power of representation

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It’s not uncommon to hear someone who is particularly smart, talented or unstoppable described as a ‘force’ – as in, someone of incredible strength, power or intensity. A remover of obstacles, so to speak. The entire Star Wars franchise is based around the idea of using such energy for good or evil and what happens when we grapple with it, lose it, summon it. May the force be with you, and all of that. 

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all images: Kai Z Feng

If anyone understands this fictitious power, it’s Lupita Nyong’o, a woman from Kenya who was told she was the opposite of what would work in Hollywood, and then rose to first win an Oscar, and next a high-profile part in a £20 billion blockbuster franchise. 

When we meet for dinner to discuss life and her latest role in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, the newest instalment in arguably the world’s biggest and most iconic film series of all time, I have high expectations. This is a woman whose progress my social network has celebrated as if she’s one of our own. A person who appears as regularly in my social-media feeds as my old schoolmates and closest friends: when she won her Oscar for 12 Years A Slave in March last year, nearly every person I know celebrated it on Facebook. When she twirled on the Cannes red carpet resplendent in emerald Gucci pleats, the image filled my Instagram with effusive captions, such as ‛Yaaaaassss’, ‘Life made!’ and the ultimate sign of approval: praise-hand emojis. And when she became Lancôme’s first-ever black ambassador, my peers retweeted the historic news with wild abandon. She had become the fun-loving, affable, fiercely admired, imaginary new addition to my global network of girlfriends – when, just two years ago, we had never even heard her name. 

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But the woman who is sharing a leather banquette with me now is all controlled, coolly polite professionalism, regarding me with the tiniest hint of wariness – one more celebrity in New York, one more writer prepared to analyse her. She is, indeed, a force. But a somewhat impenetrable one to start with. One who sets a timer with an alarm to make sure our interview doesn’t run over the agreed 90 minutes. 

‘I grew up the child of a politician, and [it] influenced how I interacted with the idea of my public persona. You learn your public persona is not your only persona,’ she later tells me, once we’ve bonded over shared fries. It just takes her a little while to get there. I can’t blame her. I’m not always the most open book, either, and I’m not even famous. Lupita hasn’t always been globally known, but she has grown up the child of privilege and prominence. Born into political exile 32 years ago in Mexico City to a college professor-turned-politician, Peter, and his wife, Dorothy (who is now the managing director and head of public relations at the Africa Cancer Foundation), she then grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, as the middle-class second child of six. Lupita and I spent our formative years on opposite sides of the Atlantic (I was born in Germany, and then raised in Virginia), but consumed a lot of the same pop culture, like Disney films and, yes, Star Wars.

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She watched Return Of The Jedi on school public holidays. ‘It was a big deal when it came on television, becausethere were, like, two stations and the programming would normally start at four and end at 11. But during public holidays you’d get TV all day. And Star Wars was a part of that.’

Long before 12 Years A Slave was a twinkle in Steve McQueen’s eye, Lupita dreamt of one day following her aunt into the theatre. ‘She was a stage actress and really the one who shepherded me onto the stage. I loved playing make-believe and I was basically one of these children who had a wild imagination and didn’t necessarily think logically. For a very long time I thought that a television was a display of a little village with little people in the TV performing these things, and no one could tell me otherwise. I really enjoyed that thought,’ she says. 

But eventually, like many little girls all over the world, she began to realise a lot of the people she saw in her TV made her feel lesser than them. ‘If you turn on the television and you are not represented there, you become invisible to yourself. And there was very little of myself that I saw on TV, or in the movies that I was watching, or in magazines that were lying around in salons or the house. And so these are subconscious things. Yes, Western beauty standards are things that affect the entire world. And then what happens? You’re a society that doesn’t value darker skin.’

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She remembers one popular commercial as being especially damaging. ‘There was an ad that ran on TV about a woman dressed for a job interview and she got turned down. And then she used a specific cream and you see her skin get lighter and she gets the job. So that’s the message you are absorbing,’ she says.

The messaging played out in Lupita’s real-life  interactions as well. ‘I tried out for roles for TV spots and  things like that, and I remember hearing the words, “You are too dark for television,” so you hear those things;  you are not walking around thinking you’re beautiful.’

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There’s a very grown-up seriousness to Lupita that seems to run counter to the girlish, playful, ingénue I’m used to seeing on talk shows and Instagram. And this surprises me, mostly because I’ve come to associate her with those smiling selfies and fun anecdotes on late-show appearances. She’s the foil to the goofy, cool girls who are Hollywood’s most popular right now – the Jennifer Lawrences and the Amy Schumers – with all their viral red-carpet blunders and TMI. 

‘You need the yin and the yang,’ she explains. But the more I listen to Lupita talk, I realise it’s less about a gravity of spirit, and more about self-preservation. Her inarguable beauty may be effortless, but she’s had to work hard to protect her sense of self. It’s why she tends to speak in earnest, inspirational sound bites, like her now-famous Oscar-night speech, because Lupita knows what it’s like to be the little girl who is now reading this magazine and looking up to her. 

And it’s here, during this moment, that she and I begin to feel less like subject and interviewer, and more like two women who both grew up with a deep need to challenge the world to go against type.

It wasn’t until Lupita’s parents sent her back to Mexico when she was 16 to learn Spanish, living with her then-19-year-old sister, that she began to appreciate her own beauty and develop the thick skin that would help to her navigate Hollywood. ‘It was less like a homecoming than a homegoing. It felt like I was going to learn something about who I was.’ 

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They lived in Taxco, an ethnically homogenous small town, where she went to school. ‘I definitely remember crying a lot in the beginning because I missed my home, my friends and I didn’t know the language. And it was isolating. So isolating.’ 

She began to get catcalled on the street for the first time, which made the already emotionally fraught experience of coming of age in a foreign place even more complicated. ‘The attention on the street was shell-shocking. We were an oddity. People would stop and take pictures of us just because we are black. And it was a time during that tricky adolescent phase when you’re coming into yourself and you’re trying to pave your own way, but you’re insecure about where you lie. It devastated me,’ she says. ‘Sometimes you just don’t want to stand out.’ 

She eventually met a photographer through a mutual friend while out at a festival in a local town square. He asked to photograph her. ‘And nobody had ever asked that of me before. So of course I was like, “Ah, OK.” And I went a few weeks later and was photographed by him.’ 

In a way, the event was transformative. And as she talks me through that first shoot, our interview almost becomes therapy, with Lupita having epiphanies and drawing parallels between now and then. ‘There are many ways a photographer can pump up your spirits. And that was so therapeutic. I really wish every girl could have that opportunity to have that experience. So that was the first time I felt beautiful, that I felt worth a photograph. It’s not something I’ve fully unpacked yet, fully investigated. It’s crazy, now that I’m talking about it; it’s the camera that boosted my confidence, but it is the gaze that kind of shook it and disoriented it.’ 

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She stops eating her seared salmon, as if she’s thinking about how to phrase what she’s going to say next. ‘I don’t think being conspicuous is a state we’re supposed to live in, or at least not permanently. I wish there were a dial we could turn up and down. And in a sense I can, by making very deliberate choices about what I do and when and how, and with whom. But I do think my time in Mexico, now that I’m thinking about it, really prepared me for all of this,’ she says alluding to her current fame. ‘I was very conspicuous. But I had to get on with my life. I had to get to school even if all the construction workers were calling my name – and it is Mexican, so it was very easy for them to remember. I walked to school for 25 minutes and all [the way] I’d hear, “Hola, Lupita Morenita [brown girl].” Yeah, it was a really small town.’ 

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For the record, Lupita seems to have a certain degree of anonymity in the restaurant. With the exception of our waitress, no one even seems to recognise her. And she admits that she takes the subway without too many interruptions. But New York has always been a city that prides itself on being above the superfans and the star-struck. That doesn’t negate the fact that Lupita has reached a level of first-name-only fame in less than two years that most actresses take decades to achieve. She lets out a long, sing-songy sigh when I say this. ‘I think what I’ve learnt is I’m only a celebrity when I encounter someone who thinks of me that way. Otherwise I’m not. It’s the moments when I’m not in that zone and it happens to me, and I’m like, “Ah, I wasn’t ready!"' The release of Star Wars will only deepen her popularity, and she gets genuinely giddy at the idea of being inducted into the sci-fi club. ‘The film hasn’t been released yet, so I’ve only had a light orientation in that. But I was at [Disney’s D23 expo] recently where I was on stage with Harrison Ford and the excitement was just so high. And for me, it was just so cool. I can be geekish. I can be a dork. It feels like I’ve been at the best party.’ 

The film was her first experience playing  a CGI-animated character, something she had been curious to do after watching and admiring similar roles played by Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s also, interestingly, an opportunity for her to transcend race or gender altogether. Maz, her character, is beyond any debates about skin tone. ‘The opportunity to play a CGI character for me was the opportunity to not be limited by my physical circumstances. I could experience being bigger or smaller, something totally different to who I am. And of course it’s in a galaxy far, far away.’  

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She’ll play another animated character, Raksha, in The Jungle Book, the second of three Disney films she’s made in the past year. In the third, the Mira Nair-directed Queen Of Katwe, she plays the mother to real-life Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi. 

But it’s her role producing and starring in the film adaptation of bestselling and Beyoncé-sampled novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah that is the purest example of Lupita as Force with a capital F. 

‘Americanah is something I went after before anyone knew who I was,’ she says. ‛I read the book and said,
“I have to do this.”’ So she got in touch with Chimamanda through a friend. And now, as an Oscar winner, she’s making the film with a little help from Brad Pitt, who is producing the movie through his company Plan B. 

Lupita sees this as an opportunity to make the stories that were missing from her own childhood. ‘I felt like I had never read a book nor experienced a story that so richly and adequately described and expressed what it’s like to be an African elsewhere. So I felt such a strong relationship to it. And what I loved about it was that it’s unapologetically a love story. That, too, was so refreshing, the fact that these two Nigerians, these two people forced apart by circumstances and into these worlds in which they don’t necessarily belong, go looking for home and end up finding it in each other. And within that story you’re confronted with all of these interesting social questions such as, “What’s the difference between being an African in America and an African-American?” And you just feel seen. There’s a power in that,’ she says. ‘I remember reading it and thinking, “I’d love to see this story played on screen, and I want to play that role.”’

That two of her upcoming film projects are centred around African characters isn’t intentional, but Lupita does admit it’s important. ‘[My work] is not limited to Africa, but Africa is my first paradigm so it’s something I feel a little starved for. Now that I have some small platform, I want to use it to tell those stories.’ Much like her part in bringing the play Eclipsed, about four captive wives of a rebel soldier in the second Liberian Civil War, from being a pipe dream at Yale (she understudied for it as a student) to a full-blown New York reality (she made her off-Broadway debut in October): ‘I get my mind fixed on something and I find a way to do it.’ Early press for the production has already been glowing, with a recent The New York Times article calling it a ‛feminist reading’ of the African country’s internal conflict. The Guardian, meanwhile, described Lupita’s performance as ‘immediate and devastating’.

To chart Lupita’s career is to watch a woman quietly and elegantly raze her way through obstacles to score a string of record-setting firsts. ‘I know being an African woman on a Hollywood platform is not something you see every day, and I feel how special that is and I respect it. And I signed up for it. I wouldn’t trade it,’ she says. ‘I definitely don’t think it should be left up to me to represent an entire continent in this industry. And that’s not the case. But someone has to go first, and if one of those people is me, than yes please.’ May the force be with her. 

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens is in cinemas 17 December

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