Fairytale

03.06.14

Does Lupita Nyong’o’s Hollywood Fairytale Have a Happily Ever After?

The princess of awards season is a rare Hollywood case: she won an Oscar for her first film and has nothing lined up next. What do we make of Lupita Nyong’o’s career prospects?

Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win for her performance in 12 Years a Slave was the missing glass slipper that finally fit the Cinderella narrative we’ve all cast her in, right down to the light blue princess dress and tiara-like handmade she wore while accepting her award.

The previously unknown actress, born in Mexico and raised in Kenya, stunned in her first-ever feature film acting performance—earning her invitation to the Oscar ball, winning Best Supporting Actress over America’s Sweethearts Jennifer Lawrence and Julia Roberts, and going home with her Prince Charming. (In this case, Charming’s name is “Oscar.”)

But there’s something I’ve always wondered. What the hell happened to Cinderella after the wedding?

Was she a good princess? Did everyone love her? Was she the most popular princess of all time? Did she do important things? Or did everyone kind of just forget that the whole glass slipper, fairytale romance thing happened and she went and lived kind of anonymously for the rest of her life?

Lupita Nyong’o is an unusual case for Hollywood. The luminous 31-year-old actress who just took home an Academy Award has absolutely nothing to do. Like, nada. Again, 12 Years a Slave was Nyongo’s film debut. Immediately after she shot her small (very small) role in the Liam Neeson airplane disaster flick Non-Stop, in theaters now, but she has nothing new in the pipeline.

There’s always so much talk about “what’s next” after an actor wins an Oscar, particularly Best Supporting Actress, which as often as it awards a Big Hollywood Star, also awards one you never hear from again. For the first time, the answer is, “Nothing.” But also, maybe, “Everything.” The world—at least the world defined as Hollywood views it, which is to say, “Hollywood”—is Lupita’s oyster. 

Compounding the ambiguity over Nyong’o’s future is the fact that there are few actresses, if any, to point to in Hollywood that exactly fit her mold, whose careers we could see her following to a T. But even though we have no barometer for measuring what in the world is next for Lupita Nyong’o, there seems to be a resounding consensus that the one certainty for her career is a happily ever after.

To begin with, we know she can act. That much couldn’t be more clear—she went to Yale School of Drama, and did you even see 12 Years a Slave? But lots of people can act, and lots of people suffer from Hollywood being unable to figure out the best way to utilize those talents. The thing working against Nyong’o is that we only have seen her act in one, very specific capacity.

Sure, she’s in Non-Stop right now, which is no doubt a wildly different genre of film than 12 Years a Slave. “She’s barely in it, but I believe she was a flight attendant!” says Mike Ryan, senior entertainment editor at The Huffington Post. “So she can play other roles. I never once doubted that she was attending that flight.”

But aside from being able to competently walk up and down an airplane aisle, we still have no idea what other shades there are to Nyong’o’s talents. “12 Years of Slave was a really intense character study. It’s a drama through and through,” says Indiewire managing editor Nigel Smith. "There’s no romance, no comedic angle. We know she can play the victim, and she played it beautifully. Whether she has a good comedic sense remains to be determined.”

But that’s where the second thing that Nyong’o has going for comes in. “She’s famous now,” says Ryan. “She’s famous, has nothing lined up, and she’s the hot commodity right now.” The famous thing is a big deal on what should be an obvious level: she can get in doors that were previously closed to her and is being sent scripts that she never would have had access to. And—remember?—she can act, which means that once she’s inside the door, wherever that door is leading, she’s poised to blow casting directors away.

But the nothing-lined-up thing is also a surprise advantage. “Since she’s so new to this,” says Ryan, “there’s no terrible movie that was canned five years ago, like Mannequin 3, or something, that’s going to come out to haunt her. Whatever we see her in next will be because of a very thoughtful strategy.”

The question is: What should that thoughtful strategy be?

So many stars have made catastrophic post-Oscar decisions—Halle Berry and Catwoman, Charlize Theron and Aeon Flux—while others all-too-quickly saw their careers fade to Where Are They Now? status—R.I.P. Cuba Gooding Jr., Mo’Nique—that members of Team Lupita, and there are so many of us, are incredibly nervous.

Aside from being able to competently walk up and down an airplane aisle, we still have no idea what other shades there are to Nyong’o’s talents.

There’s a piece of us, so charmed by her poise and grace and irrefutable talent, that wants her to catapult even farther into the celebrity stratosphere. That piece of us wonders if there’s a place for her in a major franchise or studio film and fantasizes about what that could do for her career—though that piece of us grapples with the reality that such a move could be considered “selling out.” So the news that J. J. Abrams’s new Star Wars film is reportedly looking for a female actress of mixed or black race, apparently to play Obi-Wan Kenobi’s daughter or granddaughter, is both exciting and nerve-wracking.

When the rumor surfaced, Team Lupita was divided, half screaming, “CAST LUPITA!” at Abrams, while others begged, “Run, Lupita, run.” Which contingent should she listen to? “I think it’s easy to sit there and say she shouldn’t do Star Wars,” says Ryan. “But if you’re up for Star Wars, you do Star Wars.” It’s not like starring in the critically reviled prequels hurt the careers or respectability of Natalie Portman or Ewan McGregor.

The Star Wars thing could be an intriguing move, says Smith, since Abrams seems to be going the route of casting strong, up-and-coming actors who are notoriously selective. Girls’ Adam Driver, for example, is reportedly up for a role.  “But what I would love to see her do and what she needs to do is what Rooney Mara did following The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Mara took her franchise, Oscar-minted capital back to indie film, teaming up with Steven Soderbergh and green filmmakers like David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) who have strong roles for women.

“Roles for women in their 30s who look like Lupita are hard to come by in the mainstream,” Smith says, but indie film is where she could really flourish. “I’d love to go to Sundance next year and see her in a Grand Jury prize-winning film.”

In the meantime, she’s a rare Hollywood persona, one with all the popularity of a Jennifer Lawrence, but with none of the Us Weekly icky-ness that comes with it. “Her advantage is that she’s cultivated this really kind of graceful Audrey Hepburn-esque persona in the media,” says Smith. “Even people who hadn’t seen 12 Years were rooting for, and she was on all of these major Best Dressed lists, which is amazing for her first awards season. Right now she really is America’s Sweetheart.”

The morning after winning her Oscar—Cinderella’s meet-cute with her tiny Prince Charming—she stopped by Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show and talked a little bit about her plans for the future. “I’m looking forward to sleeping a little,” she said. Well, that’s a different fairytale.