Lupita Nyong’o On Her Magical Journey from Kenya to ‘12 Years A Slave’ and Possible Oscar Glory

Lupita Nyong’o was plucked from obscurity and is now the frontrunner to win an Oscar for her riveting turn in 12 Years A Slave. The actress opens up about her wild ride.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Who is she?

That was the question on my (and everyone else’s) mind after taking in the first public screening of 12 Years A Slave at last year’s Telluride Film Festival. Yes, Steve McQueen’s gripping film chronicling the real-life odyssey of Solomon Northup, a free man duped into bondage, shackled, and then shipped to the antebellum South, boasted a courageous, dignified turn by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role (an actor who’s been brilliant since Dirty Pretty Things and has finally received a role worthy of his immense talent), a ferocious one by Michael Fassbender as a diabolical slave owner/false prophet, and even a deus ex machina courtesy of a Jesus-like Brad Pitt. But it was the character of Patsey, the prized cotton picker—and chronically abused scapegoat—of Fassbender’s bête noire that audiences couldn’t shake. It’s a performance imbued with anguish and fortitude; a delicate balancing act that might prove elusive to the most seasoned of actresses, let alone a novice. And yet there she was, this unknown force of nature, commanding the screen.

The actress who plays Patsey is Lupita Nyong’o. You should’ve heard of her by now, or perhaps you’ve seen her owning various red carpets this awards season. And if, by some strange fate, you haven’t, her surname is pronounced en-yon-go, and will be on the lips of millions of viewers on the evening of March 2, when it will (probably, hopefully) be called at the Dolby Theatre as winner of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Yes, the 30-year-old Kenyan is having what pop culture connoisseurs often call “a moment,” and she’s loving every minute of it.

“My life is more surreal than not right now,” she says, with a laugh. “The surreal right now is my norm.”

RELATED: Style Icon: The Lupita Nyong’o Lookbook (Photos)

So far, Nyong’o has taken home a slew of critics awards—as well as the SAG Award—for her performance as Patsey, one of the most harrowing turns this year. In an in-depth discussion, the actress opened up about her role, and her own journey from Mexico to Kenya to her current home of Brooklyn, New York.

I’ve got a pretty unorthodox name myself, derived from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Is there a story behind “Lupita?”

Well, it’s not very unique in Mexico, I’ll tell you that! It’s Mexican and is a diminutive of the name “Guadalupe.” I’m from the ethnic group Luo, and in our tradition, it’s customary to name a child after the events of the day. Because I was born in Mexico, my parents thought it fit to give me a Mexican name. But they chose that particular name because my father’s name is “Peter” and in our language, to “luo” means “to follow,” so they thought it was a cool play on words of “I followed Peter to Mexico.”

Ah, I like that. But you grew up in Kenya, right?

We moved to New York—I took my first baby steps in Queens, actually!—and then we moved to Kenya, so all my conscious memory is in Kenya, and then at the age of 16, my parents sent me back to Mexico to learn Spanish.

How’s your Spanish?

Oh, I think I speak enough Spanish to watch—or do— a movie and hold a conversation! I also speak Swahili and Luo, which is my mother tongue.

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Now I’m even more impressed. Growing up in Kenya, did you have actors—or films—that you really looked up to, or admired?

You know growing up, I didn’t really focus or regard actors on TV as “actors”—I related to them more as their characters. I watched The Color Purple, which made a big difference in my life. It opened my mind. When I saw Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, they looked like me, and I thought that this was maybe something that I could do. I loved watching the Julie Andrews movies—The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. I watched them so many times.

One of the great things about this year in film is that there were so many impressive movies featuring mostly-black casts, from 12 Years A Slave to The Butler to Fruitvale Station, so it’s going to, like you with The Color Purple, give younger people role models to look up to and possibly emulate.

It makes a profound difference to have role models, and it’s so easy to take for granted. I grew up with programming from all over the world—including American movies, Mexican soaps, and British shows—and it gave me a lot of perspective, and I was able to relate to humanity in all sorts of different forms. But at the same time, seeing yourself onscreen—people that look like you that are culturally more relevant—is really important. I think it’s dangerous to not have that.

Do you remember your very first acting role in front of an audience of strangers?

I was in a production of Oliver Twist and I was a passerby, and I had five words: “Coming down the street there!” That was in Kenya in Year 7, and I was really excited about my five words. I developed a whole character around my five words. I decided I was going to play it as a man and I borrowed my brother’s suit and my father’s suitcase, and made a whole story about where I was coming from and where I was going. I had to make the most of those five lines!

Such a pro at such a young age, that’s wild. I’m curious why you decided to go to college in the states?

My father went to the University of Chicago, and my mother spent some time studying at NYU, so America wasn’t as far as it was geographically in my mind, and it’s quite common for middle-class Kenyans to seek education abroad. When it came time to go to school, America seemed like a good place because of my interests: performance art, film, and TV. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do, but I knew that was my primary interest—and so did my parents.

I read your first film work was behind-the-scenes, though, working as a PA on the sets of The Constant Gardener and The Namesake.

The production stuff that I did was during the time that I was at school in undergrad, and it ended up being part of my coursework. I went to Hampshire College and they really encourage practicing the things you’re interested in, as well as studying abroad. The Constant Gardener was the first film I worked on, and it was during my first summer holiday when I went back to Kenya. They happened to be shooting in my neighborhood and I finagled my way onto the set. I was interested in the field but I didn’t know how I’d participate in it. At the time, I was shy and nervous about saying I wanted to be an actor because I didn’t know anyone in Kenya who made a living as an actor, so it didn’t seem like a plausible career option. So, I was looking for what else about the film world interested me.

Did you have a sort of light bulb moment when you knew you wanted to be an actor?

I wasn’t wholeheartedly pursuing the acting thing until I verbally admitted to myself that I wanted to be an actor, and that it was my primary interest. That only happened after I moved back to Kenya after Hampshire College. I went back home and I just had a self-reckoning moment of what it is that I wanted to do with my life. I had a very, very vivid image of myself sitting at 60, looking back at my life, and feeling a deep pang of regret that acting hadn’t been a part of it. That’s when I finally declared that I wanted to be an actor, and decided to apply to graduate school for acting training since I felt that I didn’t have full grasp of my instrument. Shortly after I made that decision I got into Yale, and it was a week after I got in that I booked the MTV series Shuga, and ended up having to postpone my arrival at Yale in order to do that show. It’s the power of words that opened things up for me.

And Steve McQueen said he cast you in 12 Years A Slave just three weeks shy of graduating from Yale, which is quite the graduation present. How did you two find each other?

I had a manager already and she received the script for Garret Dillahunt, who she represents—who plays Armsby, the cotton-picker—and she read it, saw the roll of Patsey, and felt I’d be good for it. I put myself on tape in New York, and it was at the same time that we do our Yale Showcase in New York and L.A.—where they invite industry professionals to come and watch short scenes of our work. She invited the casting office to watch it while I was in L.A., and I got called in for an audition with [casting director] Francine Maisler, and two weeks later I was invited down to Louisiana to audition for Steve, so it was three different auditions in three different states. But I did the same two scenes: the scene where Patsey asks Platt to kill her, and the soap scene. I was down in Louisiana for 24 hours—something crazy like that—and the next day after the audition, I flew back to New Haven and I remember I’d just gotten a wrap to lay outside in the sun and take in what had happened, and before I got very far I received a call from an anonymous number and it was Steve offering me the role.

What was the toughest thing, for you, about tackling the role of Patsey? The biggest hurdle?

I knew going into it that the whole experience was going to be very taxing on me emotionally, and it was something that I had to prepare for. Patsey has an undercurrent of grief at all times because these are the circumstances of her life, and that had to be present in me at all times as well. For me, the toughest thing was accepting that this opportunity had been given to me, getting over the self-doubt, and availing myself to Patsey and my cast members; just feeling the intimidation of the situation I was being welcomed into, and trusting that I had what was necessary to play the role.

I want to discuss the whipping sequence, because it destroyed me. And it looks so unflinchingly real. How was it pulled off?

Steve really wanted it to all be in one take. Every day on the set of 12 Years A Slave there was a high vibration of focus, but that day in particular it was acute. It was a technical and performative dance and everyone needed to be on time and in time. Steve just inspires that kind of commitment to things. We did it four times, and the one thing that needed to happen was that I had a headscarf on my head that somehow needed to come off so that I would be completely disrobed for the whipping, and it had been troublesome because it was on really tight and we had to figure out how to get it off without messing up my hair. In the take that ended up in the movie, Michael grabs me by the collar of my dress and the scarf fell off on its own. It was the only time that happened, and it’s the take that’s in the movie. It was unreal… divine intervention!

Patsey’s headspace must have been a difficult place to dwell in. How did you unwind, and separate from that?

I develop rituals for getting in and out of character that I employ on a daily basis, but I wasn’t always successful at letting go of Patsey, because you’re always aware that you have to pick back up with her in the morning. It was hard to leave, but I tried. I had moments of sobbing on my own because something was triggered in the back of my head that reminded me of her situation, and the experience of living in her shoes.

I see you’re also in the upcoming film Non-Stop. Anything else on the horizon?

We shall see! These are exciting, unknown times.

And I read that you live in Brooklyn. Any favorite spots? I’m addicted to the pancakes from that place Five Leaves.

I love visiting BAM and also Madiba, a restaurant I’ve frequented. Brooklyn’s just got such a nice vibe, you know? I love the eclectic people it attracts.

Why did you choose to settle in New York versus L.A.?

It was closer to New Haven. That was really the most practical reason! Aside from the fact that L.A. has weather similar to Nairobi weather, I like New York—it has a charm, and I love that the theater scene is so vibrant. I thrive on theater and like to be in that mix. Also, most of my network from school was moving to New York. My family—my sense of home—in America was my Yale experience, and so I just needed to be closer to that home because I’m so far from my real home.