With the courage of her convictions and a healthy dose of self-belief, Lupita Nyong’o is the most modern of role models
Words: Helen Bownass
If acting doesn’t work out for Lupita Nyong’o (unlikely, wildly unlikely) she’d do well to consider a career as a life coach. She has a sense of self that is dazzling. She knows who she is, why she is doing what she is doing and what she wants to achieve. Even the way she walks is refined: shoulders back, slow and steady. Meeting her and listening to her is to want to untangle your own knotted limbs, hush your chaotic mind and focus on finding peace and purpose.
It is this, it must be, that has enabled the 33-year-old to go from an utter unknown to one of the most talked-about actresses in Hollywood in the space of three years, without collapsing under the weight of expectation as both an actor and figurehead. She is polite, slightly reserved and a deep thinker – she pauses a lot during our chat to consider how she will answer. She seems like a proper grown-up, although her patterned floral shirt, indigo jeans and embroidered slippers are totally fresh. Her restraint can probably also be attributed to the fact we’re meeting at a New York photo studio a few hours before Nyong’o goes on stage during Eclipsed on Broadway. The play is set in the Liberian Civil War in 2003 and tells the story of its brutal effects on women; on stage she is a tour de force.
When I walk past the play’s home, the John Golden Theatre, earlier in the day I see a group of four excited teenage African- American girls, videoing themselves as they walk along the street, first past neighbouring show The Colour Purple starring Jennifer Hudson, then Eclipsed. Their buzz is palpable, it’s as brilliant as if Beyoncé herself was walking past them. I tell Lupita later and she smiles, widely, “That’s lovely”. She understands their fever, she is just as thrilled. Consumed even. “Eclipsed is a very all-encompassing world, but it’s what I manifested so I’m very happy to be in that world,” she explains of the play that has made history as the first all-black, all-female Broadway show. “This was a play that I had my eyes on since I understudied it at drama school and it stayed with me. I just pursued it until it happened.” Lupita is evidently someone who makes things happen.
And currently everything is happening. As well as her ongoing work as ambassador for Lancôme, later this year sees the release of The Queen Of Katwe, in which she plays the mother of a young female Ugandan chess champion. She is also working on the highly anticipated film version of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, which she will co-produce with Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B. And all she will say on the subject is: “We’ve not started filming it yet. We’re in the process of writing and creating it, but stay tuned.”
But first there is The Jungle Book, a CGI adaptation directed by Jon Favreau, in which Nyong’o voices Raksha, a wolf who adopts young Mowgli (the only ‘real’ character, played by debut actor 10-year-old Neel Sethi). Taking cues from Disney’s classic 1967 animation, this version is wonderful. A slice of your childhood reimagined in a modern and creative way – with Nyong’o’s strong-minded, fiercely maternal mother wolf joining a motion-capture cast that includes Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.
Nyong’o’s huge success is made all the more remarkable by the fact that, until now, she has only appeared in two major films. Last year’s blockbusting Star Wars: The Force Awakens – where she played CGI goggle-wearing space pirate Maz Kanata – and 12 Years A Slave. Her portrayal of Patsey, a slave in a Louisiana cotton plantation alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, was utterly raw and totally mesmerising, winning her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2014. And, it seemed, instant adoration from the acting community, luxury brands and audiences around the world – not something that happens every day.
That was a moment in a life that already had something of a filmic quality to it. Nyong’o was born in Mexico City while her family was in political exile – her father is a college professor-turned-politician, her mother the managing director of the Africa Cancer Foundation – before the family moved back to Nairobi, Kenya. One of six children, Nyong’o returned to Mexico to live with her elder sister and learn Spanish (she also speaks Swahili) aged 16, followed by enrolment in the forward-thinking Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts (she studied African and film studies) and Yale School of Drama – where she is now on an alumni list that includes Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver. It’s also where she auditioned (her first) for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave.
Mindfully aware. Lauded actor. Global nomad. The force, if you will excuse the pun, is most definitely strong with this one.
The Jungle Book is, at its heart, a coming-of-age story. When do you feel like you came of age?
I got to play Juliet when I was 14 in Kenya in Romeo And Juliet and in the world of performance that was my coming into my role as an actor. I came alive on that stage.
And off stage?
Hmm, that’s an interesting question… it’s definitely happened [laughs]. I feel like a woman. I feel I’ve become a woman in waves, I lived on my own at 16; that was major coming of age. But I feel like that trip taught me how much of a woman I was not.
You won an Oscar in the infancy of your career, did you have any fear about where you’d go next?
It was dizzying winning an Oscar for the first feature film that I did and I was very nervous about what happened next. It was a challenge for me to get back to performing without it being about my body [when 12 Years A Slave was a very physical role]. But what keeps me engaged and excited is to do the unknown, and The Jungle Book was one of those things; I’d never done voiceover before but I'd always wanted to, and with a director I trust. It was about finding newness in the kind of projects I got involved in.
Do you like scaring yourself?
Yes. I think I always have. Maybe it developed when I was a teenager, that feeling of being terrified to death but going for it, it’s thrilling.
How easy is it to embody a character that’s a voiceover?
It’s a very different experience to film, because often it’s just you and the director in a [sound] booth. I did some research about wolf packs and they’re very orderly societies, so it was really cool to learn the ways in which the organisation of the society mirrors human orders in many ways.
We’re now a couple of months on from this year’s Oscars, do you think that anything has changed since the #OscarsSoWhite debate?
I would like to think the number of voices raised by the issue are not forgotten. But for me, I feel like the responsibility is shared and so definitely with the choices I make, I want to bring about the kind of world and entertainment that I wish to see.
How involved do you want to get in that commentary?
Only as involved as I have been.
You speak very honestly publicly [Lupita’s speech on beauty at the Black Women in Hollywood luncheon in 2015 has over 3.2 million views on YouTube and included this: “I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God was that I would wake up lighterskinned. Every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I had been the day before.”]. Does that candour come easily?
It does cost me a lot [emotionally] to speak my mind. It is an effort and so I only like to speak when I have something to say.
Do you find that more people are coming to you for advice or asking for your opinions on the world now?
Yes. A lot of it is people wanting a validation for the thing they’re interested in, I get that a lot with people who are going into acting. I feel the best advice is just by example.
You’ve said that Oprah was a huge role model for you growing up and now you are becoming a role model yourself. Is it strange or empowering that you can have that influence?
It’s something that moves me but I don’t feel burdened by it. I embrace it, and, at the same time, the way in which it has occurred is by me pursuing what I think it is that I’m supposed to be pursuing. I feel at peace with myself.
I think a lot of people struggle with what they should be pursuing to bring them peace. How were you able to do that?
I have a mother who is very supportive and also very involved in fostering good psychological health and we went away on holiday and she created a space for me to be able to have time to myself to think about what it was I wanted to do. I used the book Map For Life [by Glen Allen McQuirk] and worked it out on paper. I wrote everything that was in my heart and it helped, because when you’re able to externalise, you can sort through the lies and the truth. Because we tell ourselves lots of lies.
Do you still use that method now?
Yes, I do a lot of writing – sometimes it’s just on a napkin. The most important thing is the exercise, not where it goes.
Is your mum also the one person who can be relied upon to tell you the truth?
Oh yeah, that is my mother, my mother tells you the truth [laughs].
How important is it for you now to have your own space?
It’s vital. I make sure I spend time with myself every morning.
What makes you angry?
The subject matter of Eclipsed is the way in which women’s bodies were used against them during times of war and that bothers me.
Is that something you feel you can do more to help prevent?
I feel like I’m doing quite some. I think that entertainment is something that opens people’s hearts in a way that watching the news may not. It is a great opportunity for people to be engaged on an emotional level with the issue and hopefully from that more action can be sparked. That’s the power of actors today.
Is it important to you to stay updated with the news generally?
I don’t own a TV, but I do get my news in other ways. I have friends who are avid news readers, they give me the summary. They’re like human news apps, they’re the best kind.
A lot of your female peers have gone down the directing/producing route. Is that something you see yourself doing?
On Americanah I’m co-producer and I’ve directed a documentary in the past [In My Genes, a 2009 documentary about albinism in Kenya] and so I can see myself doing that. I’m not particularly interested in directing fiction. Can you see why there is a need for women to generate such iniatives to create opportunities that don’t exist? It’s not so much need, for me I think I’m driven by the story. Americanah was something I was so drawn to and I had vision for it, you know?
Eclipsed has an all-female cast and crew, was that why you were drawn to it?
No, that happened very organically, it just so happened that every single creative person that came on board was female. But I think it’s got a lot to do with the nature of the show, a show about women should be created by women.
Do you think that the female touch brings something different?
I do know that I feel the strength of the sisterhood that has been formed, on stage and off stage with these women. I’ve been very lucky to work with [female] directors who I believe in fiercely – Liesl Tommy with Eclipsed and Mira Nair with The Queen Of Katwe – but also there are male directors who are very interested in the female voice like Steve McQueen and Jon Favreau. For me the sex of the director is not as important as the vision and the understanding of how a woman is portrayed.
Does New York feel like home now [Lupita currently lives in Brooklyn]?
It does; I’ve made a home for myself here. I grew up in a family that travelled a lot and so being away from home feels very natural to me. But I do have all my family back home in Kenya so I will always feel drawn to my motherland.
With a politician father, your family has often been in the spotlight, but has your success changed their lives now?
Maybe it has. I mean it still fascinates them to encounter me in random places. My mother was in Abu Dhabi and there was a magazine with me on it and she was like, “Oh my god”. That’s lovely and we all share in that.
What are you most grateful to your family for?
My family are not just my nuclear family but my extended family [aunts, uncles, parents’ friends], I’ve been very shaped by those people, we’re very close-knit. My understanding of the world was first and foremost through my experiences with all those people.
Was it important for you to create a similar family unit in New York?
Most definitely. I like continuity.
The word continuity is an interesting choice – it surprises me you’d say that…
You spend so much of your life travelling. You pick people up as you go along. My parents have friends who they’ve had since before we were born and those friends have now become my parents when I travel. I have adopted their friends and they’ve adopted me so now I wish that for myself. My mother has this group they call the ‘mom squad’ and all the women who bring me up and share news about what’s going on in my life together were a support group for her when everything [winning the Oscar] was happening. I think I’ve inherited that, you hold on to people for a long time. I like to gather my friends together.
And what do you love to do together?
Have them all over for dinner. I’d cook a whole fish with kale and rice. There’d be a lot of talking with good music.
Culturally, what have you seen or listened to recently that has really moved you?
Hamilton [a sell-out Broadway hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton, an impoverished immigrant who became a Founding Father of the USA] changed my life. I’ve watched it three times and I can’t wait to see it again. I also watched Amir Sulaiman, a poet, perform – he moved my cells, he’s very powerful.
I know reading is also important to you. Which books have recently had an impact?
Leymah Gbowee’s autobiography Mighty Be Our Powers, Zadie Smith’s The Embassy Of Cambodia and James Lipton’s An Exaltation Of Larks bring a logophile like me great joy.
And you enjoy listening to podcasts, right?
I love This American Life. I love the storytelling and the fact that it’s critical storytelling, and you get a new perspective on things that you maybe never really thought deeply about. I’d say I have a curious spirit.
The Jungle Book is in cinemas on 15 April