It began in 2013, with 12 Years a Slave, a performance that blew the critics away. As Patsey, a slave who worked alongside lead character, Solomon Northup, in Steve McQueen’s historical drama, Lupita Nyong’o’s breakthrough role met rave reviews. In the three years since, the talented actress, who has a self-proclaimed competitive streak, has not only been a part of one of the biggest franchise films, Star Wars, but has also found time for Broadway with Eclipsed and Disney films with The Jungle Book and Queen of Katwe. With impeccable style, grace and elegance, she has ruled every red carpet she has stepped on and continues to leap through milestones. Sharon Carvalho delves into her journey
Lupita was born in Mexico City, Mexico on the 1st of March 1983 to Kenyan parents, Dorothy and Peter Nyong’o. But before turning one, the family moved back to Kenya, as her father was appointed a professor at the University of Nairobi. Firmly entrenched in an upbringing she described as ‘middle class and suburban’, Lupita’s family enjoyed the arts with gettogethers that included performances by the children in the family and trips to see plays. And it was at the age of 14, when she made her first professional acting debut as Juliet in a production by the Nairobi-based repertory company, Phoenix Players. Through her formative years, Lupita was influenced by the performances of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in ‘The Color Purple’. And after receiving her IB Diploma at St. Mary’s School in Nairobi, she went on to graduate with a degree in film and theatre studies from Hampshire College, Massachusetts. “When I was younger, I was almost too afraid to admit that I wanted to be an actor,” she once said in an interview. “I didn’t know any successful actors in Kenya, so I felt like I could get away with going to college to study film more easily than I could with saying, ‘I want to be an actor.’” So that’s what she did.
As part of the production crew for several films including ‘The Constant Gardener’, ‘The Namesake’ and ‘Where God Left His Shoes’, Lupita soaked up as much as she could about life in front of the camera, citing Ralph Fiennes’ performance in ‘The Constant Gardener’ as one that inspired her to pursue a professional career in acting. And it was her unconventional education at Hampshire College that helped her discover that she had a dream in her, a goal, and that she was self-reliant and self-motivated enough to make it happen. Honing this self-sufficiency, she wrote, directed and produced a documentary ‘In My Genes’, about the discriminatory treatment of Kenya’s albino population, as her final thesis. By the time she was done with it, Lupita was staring down the barrel of the question that plagues all graduates, ‘What next?’. So, with the realisation that she would regret it if she didn’t try it, she bit the bullet and applied to acting schools. Lupita said, “If I got in, I’d take it as a sign that I should pursue acting as a career. If I didn’t get in, I was prepared to figure out some plan B.” And luckily for all of us, she got it. Following in the footsteps of a friend of hers from her days at Phoenix Players, Lupita enrolled in a master’s degree programme in acting at the Yale School of Drama.
Through her time spent at Yale, she appeared in many stage productions, some of which included Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’ and ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and Chekov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’, among others. She even won the Herschel Williams Prize for ‘Acting Students with Outstanding Ability’ during the 2011-12 academic year. But it was learning how to be herself that proved to be the core lesson. “It is in understanding yourself deeply that you can lend yourself to another person’s circumstances and another person’s experience,” she once explained.
Taking these lessons to heart, Lupita found herself with a script in hand and an audition to attend even before she graduated. The role? To play Patsey, a slave, in Steve McQueen’s ’12 Years a Slave’. “I had no expectation of getting the role, it was just too out there for me to think I had a chance. So I approached the audition like a rehearsal. It was my chance to have that role for 10 minutes, and I owned it. Then I got the part and the panic began.” Honing in on the training she received at Yale, Lupita found it hard to be Patsey. “It was very difficult to leave her alone at the end of the day. I don’t think it was ever possible for me to leave her completely on the set. But it was a privilege to be in that place of grief, it was hard, but I just felt so privileged to do it because, at the end of the day, my discomfort and my unease were temporary, and hers was not. And so always remembering that this was true for someone, and I have the privilege of just doing it in an imaginary world, that was a thing that just made it practical.”
Following her flawless performance, critics, viewers and colleagues alike knew she was going to make her mark on the world of film. “It just feels like the entertainment industry exploded into my life. People who seemed so distant all of a sudden were right in front of me and recognising me — before I recognised them!” And by the time Lupita walked the red carpet in front of the Dolby Theatre in 2014, donning a pale blue Prada, the world knew her name. The frenzy hasn’t stopped since then, which is something that took her by surprise, especially since she thought it would all go back to normal after.
As one of only seven black women to have won an Oscar for an acting role, Lupita describes the feeling as exciting and humbling. And while, for most, this might be the pinnacle of success, she is hungry for more. Especially when it comes to challenging herself and trying to make the world a better place. “You gain power and confidence from being willing to go out into the world and see what you can do. You might not always accomplish your goals, but you have to maintain your faith and self-belief.” With great pride in her Kenyan heritage, Lupita joined WildAid as Global Elephant Ambassador. “Brave and dedicated people are giving their lives to protect our elephants,” she said, “They need all of our support.”
Having taken the world of film, fashion and philanthropy by storm, Lupita’s meteoric journey is an enviable one. A showstopper, with a flair for clean lines and bold colours, she has shown the world that no one knows the versatility of the ‘Afro’ quite like she does. And with grace, poise and a firm head over her shoulders, she has dominated the silver screen and the red carpet and has proven that she is a force to be reckoned with.
Photographs by: Getty Images