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Lupita Nyong’o on Black Panther, #MeToo and female representation

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Helen Bownass
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Black Panther star and Time’s Up supporter Lupita Nyong’o tells Stylist why change in Hollywood is here to stay and why we’re all responsible.     

“Was she nice?” That’s the question I always get asked after a celebrity interview. That I got asked a lot after interviewing Lupita Nyong’o. It never used to bother me. But now it does. What does it matter if she is, in the words of the Oxford Dictionary, “giving pleasure or satisfaction; pleasant or attractive”? In 2018 surely we should be asking: does she have something to say? Is she brave? Does she care? It’s a big yes to all three for Nyong’o.

I’ve interviewed the 34-year-old before, in 2016 – two years after she’d won an Oscar for her breakout role in 12 Years A Slave and a few months before Queen Of Katwe was released. Last time we met I described her in the article as “reserved”. Reading it back, I’m annoyed with myself: I don’t know if I would have described a man as reserved. Nyong’o simply keeps something back for herself, protects her creativity… Why shouldn’t she?

This time we meet at Prime Meats in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, an old-school, hip neighbourhood. Nyong’o arrives alone – no entourage, no fuss, just a big woolly hat and sunglasses. She has lived in Brooklyn for the last three years, adding it to a list of homes that has also included Mexico City, where she was born (when her father, a Kenyan college professor, was in political exile); Kenya, where she grew up and where her family live now; Massachusetts, where she studied film at Hampshire College; and New Haven, the home of Yale School of Drama.

The past 12 months have been eventful for Nyong’o, as they have for the world at large. She recently added her signature to the Time’s Up movement against sexual harassment and spoke in a Time’s Up T-shirt at the Women’s March in Los Angeles 10 days ago. In October she wrote a piece for The New York Times detailing her experiences with Harvey Weinstein after first meeting him in 2011, which included him asking to give her a massage and wanting to take off his trousers. Nyong’o described retelling the memories as making her feel “sick in the pit of my stomach. I have felt such a flare of rage that the experience I recount below was not a unique incident with me, but rather part of a sinister pattern of behaviour.”

Then, in November, she was compelled to post on Instagram after her hair was digitally altered on a magazine cover. Nyong’o wrote: “I cannot support or condone the omission of what is my native heritage with the intention that they appreciate that there is still a very long way to go to combat the unconscious prejudice against black women’s complexion, hair style and texture.”

But she has also used her voice for happier reasons. Nyong’o has recently revealed she’ll release a children’s book, Sulwe, about a five-year-old Kenyan girl in January 2019 and, of course, there’ll be plenty of acting.

The reason I’m with Nyong’o today is Black Panther, one of the most important releases of the year. Based on the Marvel comic of the same name, it’s about T’Challa (AKA Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman), a young man coming to terms with being king. Nyong’o plays Nakia, who’s one of the Dora Milaje – women skilled in combat who protect the Black Panther – and an undercover spy. Nyong’o is very excited about the release and she’s not the only one. The film is highly anticipated – there are YouTube videos with hundreds of thousands of views showing excited fan reactions to the trailer alone – not least for the fact that it features a cast predominantly made up of actors of colour. Nyong’o posted on Instagram how she was unable to buy tickets for opening night as they’d already sold out. 

“I was shocked, I was delighted and I was frustrated all at once,” she tells me. “People are ready to see it, it’s really something special.” It’s being predicted that the film could be the biggest Marvel movie – a studio famed for making box-office-busting films – ever released. This could be the start of the dawn of a new day that Oprah Winfrey famously spoke about at the Golden Globes three weeks ago.

It feels like we’re stepping into a new world with everything we’ve seen play out in Hollywood. Does it feel that way to you, or are you worried the efforts will die away?

It certainly feels like momentum. We spoke and the people listened and people are really putting action to words. It is super exciting to be a part of that and to see things change systemically within the industry and beyond – Time’s Up is not just about the Hollywood industry, but speaking out for people who don’t have the same kind of platform or voice. I’m encouraged. And ready. So ready for that. I require a new dawn and I think na lot of people are feeling that way – enough is menough, now we march ahead and we get better.

Oprah Winfrey is someone you’ve often talked about admiring. What did her address at the Golden Globes mean to you?

I watched it on my own and found myself standing and clapping at my computer because she captured our sentiment. It was a call to action as much as a declaration of the fact that people are being heard, and it was also gratitude, hope and determination.

And as human beings, all any of us want is to be heard…

Yes! We want our experience validated and that’s what the Time’s Up movement is about. We need to do better and make people accountable. There’s power in numbers; when a group of people decide a certain aspect of our culture is no longer acceptable, there will be change.

You were very honest in sharing your own experiences with Harvey Weinstein. What was the tipping point for publishing that?

I think I explained it in the piece and I did so, so that it was all there. I’m just happy for what has come after it, the people who have spoken after it, and before it of course, and the actions being taken. It’s about us no longer being ashamed by an experience so many of us are having.

You said in the piece you wanted to “combat the shame we go through that keeps us isolated”. Have you thought in practical terms how you want to do that?

Being a part of Time’s Up is my way of contributing. Particularly the 50/50 2020 movement, which is about equipping people with the information they need to ensure that in Hollywood, for example, underrepresented people will be represented 50/50 by 2020.

How do we actually get to that place where it’s 50/50? Depressingly, only 11% of top film directors in 2017 were female…

I don’t know the answer to that question. I have no idea how it changes; I do know that it must. Because if we’re interested in seeing a more equitable representation in front of the screen then that representation must change behind it. Shedding light on our unconscious bias is a start – a lot of the time people are unaware of the fact that they’re discriminating against a certain group. Recognising that there is a problem is number one. And then it’s taking action to change that system.

It leads into an interesting conversation about complicity versus complacency…

Complacency for me sounds really close to apathy, which is dangerous.

And so, if we’ve been complacent about the way women are overlooked, are we complicit in it?

I’d say so, yeah. Being able to recognise the power that you have and using it to exercise the things that you believe in to change [is important]. With Time’s Up we’re recognising how much power we have if we put our heads together to actually change things. Often we’re frustrated by [situations], but we’re doing so in isolation. Being able to have something that we can all rally behind and find solutions for is the way forward. We’ve got to see this to the end, we’ve got to see it to some tangible change. Zero tolerance for sexual harassment would be quite lovely as a starting point.

Let’s talk about Black Panther, another big thing in your life currently. The film’s writer Joe Robert Cole said it was “a historic opportunity” and that “the image of a black hero on this scale is really exciting”. Is that a sentiment you relate to?

I think we are all feeling the unique opportunity this film has given us. It’s very rare we have this kind of fantastical, aspirational experience on screen as members of the darker hue. Cinema is a great place to imagine the world as it is and also the world as it could be – this film is the world as it could be. And for me as an African… Jeez, to see people looking like me at the top of their game is really empowering. I’m so excited kids all over the world are going to get to see [that] it is possible.

Is being in the Marvel world something that has always appealed to you?

My best friend and I see all the movies, but it didn’t occur to me when I was watching them. I always wanted to play an action figure though. When I heard they were going to be making a Black Panther movie I was like, ‘Oh my god, wouldn’t it be dope?’ But I was still very new to this whole world so it didn’t occur to me that one day I would be approached for it.

It’s a film about a young man coming to terms with being a king – how do women fit into that world?

Ryan’s [Coogler, director of Black Panther] vision was very clear when it came to the role women were going to play. He was really interested in moving away from women just being sexual objects and peacocks. I always want to play women who have agency in their own right.

The film explores some interesting points about colonialism. Wakanda [the fictional setting of the film] is flourishing and there’s the sense that in real life had Africa been left alone and not colonised, the same could have happened across the continent. Do you think that’s true?

This image we’ve created together is using our imaginations towards what Africa could have been without the interruption and the overhaul that was colonialism. If the continent was left to its own pace, could it have got to this place? It is a glimpse into what is possible if people are allowed to self-determine.

You said previously that colonialism can cause an identity crisis about one’s own culture. How has that affected you?

It’s the imposition of another culture on your own and the erasure that occurs of your own culture, in pursuit of the things that a new culture offers, demands, insists on… Decolonising The Mind, an essay by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, really had an impact on me when I was in school. I’m from Kenya – I learnt about my colonialists [laughs]. It’s key to understanding the country I’m from and the people I’m from.

There’s a video of you going undercover at last year’s Comic-Con dressed as a Power Ranger. It must have afforded you a privacy that you’re not usually given…

That’s why I loved it. I didn’t have a care in the world. I could be running around, crawling on the ground and nobody batted an eyelid, it was that attitude of ‘[you] do you’. I find ways to grant myself that freedom in my own life. Being undercover: I recommend it.

What’s currently your favourite way to spend time away from Hollywood?

I’m loving reading comic books. I don’t really enjoy reading, but I’m deeply in love with Brian Vaughan’s comic books. They are almost like the happy marriage between poetry, prose and cinema. It’s not overwhelming; my heart doesn’t fall because it’s full of words that I have to take in. I’m very visual so it’s there for me.

People don’t usually admit that they don’t enjoy reading…

I much prefer listening to radio, but I read because my father’s a professor and I’ve been raised to really value the written word. I know it makes me a better person, but it doesn’t come easy to me.

Which podcasts are you listening to at the moment?

I’ve just discovered 2 Dope Queens and it’s hilarious. I was looking for something new to listen to, the name struck me and I thought it was really great.

We’re increasingly used to being told, “If you like this, you’ll like that,” but often, rather than expanding our field of interest, the internet narrows it. Do you think that can be limiting in our discovery of the world?

I rarely look at the things they [Spotify, YouTube and so on] recommend. It’s random [discovery]. If I’m feeling a certain way, I’ll type in the word and hope for the best. I’m repelled by boxes – I don’t like them. I try very hard to be unpredictable. I define myself.

Speaking of unpredictability, you took part in [US TV show] Lip Sync Battle and performed a raunchy version of Whatta Man, which might have surprised some people. What was that experience like?

I think that was unpredictable for people probably who don’t know me, but everyone who knows me wasn’t surprised. I had such a blast. I had been so determined to get on [the show] from the very first time I saw it. It was living with abandon, which is something I really enjoy – throwing caution to the wind.

There’s been talk of you doing a Twittersourced heist movie starring alongside Rihanna with Ava DuVernay directing. Will that ever happen?

Dot dot dot.

You’ve just spent some time filming Little Monsters, an indie zombie comedy that’s out later this year, in Australia…

The film was an exciting and unexpected premise so I really wanted to do it. It was also my first time in Australia and I loved it. I feel like I’ve been lied to all this time because Australia is such an exquisite place that I don’t feel people hype up enough. I grew up watching Australian soaps – Neighbours, Home And Away – but even those don’t really capture it.

Could you imagine yourself living there?

Hell yeah, I was this close. The skies in Australia were the most magnificent skies I have ever seen, with every single kind of cloud you could think of at once. I would spend hours looking up at the sky. It’s nothing and it’s everything. I spend so many of my waking hours making meaning of things and looking at the sky is a chance, an opportunity not to.

Finally, 2017 felt quite hopeless at many points, what do you hope for in 2018?

My hope is for us, for me, to live on purpose. I’m really interested in doing things on purpose and not just because I have to, not just because it’s happening. I feel like 2017 was a lot about feeling overwhelmed; the cart was before the horse and it’s time for the cart to get back.

Black Panther is in cinemas from 13 February.

Images: Thomas Whiteside / Rex Features