Before She Was Famous

What Did Lupita Nyong’o’s Classmates at Yale Think of Her?

Hollywood’s It Girl was known at the prestigious drama school as a hard worker with raw talent and an intuitive gift for language, wowing in her audition for Romeo and Juliet.

Jessica Hill/AP

When Lupita Nyong’o’s name was called at the Oscars, the town of New Haven, Connecticut, erupted with joy. Most Oscar acceptance speeches are a boring list of industry executives, agents, and managers, but Nyong’o’s speech for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave was notable for its shout out to her alma mater, the Yale School of Drama, and her class, nicknamed, “The Wilsons.”

While many actresses have toiled on the Hollywood casting circuit for years, the 31-year-old Oscar winner was a full-time student until relatively recently. She graduated in 2012 from the prestigious drama school, and has had one major TV role, in a Kenyan drama produced by MTV, called Shuga.

“It’s sort of an unprecedented experience,” says Ron Van Lieu, the Chair of the Acting Program at the school.

Her relatively quick success was celebrated by her former classmates and teachers at a theater on campus and on online forums.

“All of the Yale School of Drama social media community just lost it,” says Max Gordon Moore, her co-star in a Yale production of The Taming of the Shrew. “We must have crashed 30 servers on Facebook and Twitter. It was intense. I think it would happen just out of school pride, but [it’s] also Lupita—everyone likes her. She gives you a lot to like. She just welcomes it.”

At Yale, Lupita (as the new It Girl, she’s earned first-name only status) was known as a hardworking student who came to the school with raw talent, not having much professional experience as an actor.

Her potential was great enough to beat out 950 applicants to join an exclusive class of 16 people in the acting program, which costs upwards of $27,000 per year in tuition. To get in, Lupita spent a weekend with 32 finalists at the school, meeting with the program directors and teachers, and auditioning. “They get to work with faculty, take classes, meet the students, find out what life is like in New Haven,” says Van Lieu. “There is an interview process. It’s rather like a marriage. We want them to pick us as much as we want us to pick them.”

While many of the students have extensive experience, in Lupita’s case, she was “at the top of the category of what I would call the ‘innately gifted,’” says Van Lieu. “The audition that sticks in my memory was Juliet from Romeo and Juliet. It seemed to me that in spite of her lack of previous training she had an intuitive gift for language. She worked from a completely truthful base. She was fascinating to watch. That is an unteachable thing. That I just want to keep watching you and keep watching you, and keep watching you.”

It’s not surprising to hear that she was the furthest thing from a diva while at the school; her work ethic was uniformly praised. While it’s hard to be a slacker at Yale—an average day can start at 9 a.m. and rehearsals can stretch till 11 at night, six days a week, which can be a “monastic life” says Van Lieu—Lupita often went the extra mile.

Lileana Blain-Cruz, who graduated in the class of 2011, says of Lupita: “In spite of the really long schedule that required a lot out of you just in general, she was really amazing in the rehearsal classes by being able to maintain open and vulnerable and energetic throughout the process.” That same energy that Americans connected with at the Oscars and onscreen in 12 Years is the same energy that carried her and her classmates through long hours of rehearsals.

“It’s really fun in the rehearsal room, too,” says Blain-Cruz, who directed her in The Taming of the Shrew. “She was Kate. We had these crazy intensive fight scenes because her and Petruchio really get into it at the beginning of the play. She would just come in and be like, ‘All right let’s do it again. Yes. This is amazing. Yes. Let’s go and go and go.’ Everything that she approaches, she has that kind of wonder and excitement. Without being condescending about it, it’s almost childlike. That’s wonderful because everything is new and fresh and exciting. There’s no jadedness about her.”

Moore says that even in a school of the most gifted acting students in the country, Lupita stood out right away. “The first thing you notice about Lupita is how stunning she is, of course. But I knew when the class came in, everyone does a monologue for the class on one of the first days as a way of introducing themselves and their work to everybody,” he says. “You could see she was incredibly committed and capable of very delicate feelings and very, very talented.”

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While many Americans only met Lupita during that two-minute long acceptance speech, it was clear she was the new Jennifer Lawrence, the down-to-earth star that everyone wanted to be friends with. That’s not an act, Moore says. “She’s delightful. She really is as nice as she looks. She’s a very good actress but that’s not acting. She’s very gracious and really, really generous with people.”

Her colleagues and friends describe her as being passionate about more than just acting, investing her time on issues personal to he. The Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised performer was involved with AIDS activist groups on campus, particularly AIDS in Africa. “If there was someone notable especially from Africa coming to speak at Yale, which there often was, she’d like to go see that,” says Moore.

“She has concerns beyond that of an actor,” says Van Lieu. “Since she did that TV series Shuga in Kenya, she’s been active and concerned about the AIDS crisis in that country and so on. I think she’s just a real citizen of the world.”

Her former colleagues also paint a picture of a generous, gregarious friend, a girl who loves to dance and hear music, an outgoing and charming person.

“She’s pretty much like how she comes across to everybody. Open, articulate, warm, attentive. She’s funny. She’s got a lovely sense of wit,” says Van Lieu.

Blain-Cruz recalls that for her birthday one year, Lupita invited everyone to an African restaurant in Brooklyn where live bands and DJs played. Instead of being showered with gifts, she gave presents out to her guests. “She passed out these little glasses with this image of a really beautiful woman on it,” says Blaine-Cruz. “‘Here’s to all of you to celebrate life.’ That is the kind of person she is. She gives gifts out on her birthday. She’s like, ‘Come with nothing and here are some gifts for you to take home.’ Who does that?”

When they first heard that she was cast as Patsey, said her former colleagues, they weren’t surprised. Though she was working with heavyweights like Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen, she wasn’t starstruck. For one thing, says Moore, it wasn’t clear that she knew who Fassbender was—“There’s a lot of American celebrities that sometimes can get under her radar,” he says—but was nonetheless intimidated by him. “Then once she met him she was incredibly nervous because he was clearly so gifted. And very imposing I imagine, but I guess he and Steve McQueen made her feel that she was a peer, I think she said and got her to the place where she can look at him like an actor.”

As for her next move, well, the sky’s the limit. Lupita’s since starred in Non-Stop with Liam Neeson, but says Blain-Cruz, “she just has a kind of incredible range.” She noted that there was a Facebook campaign to get her to play Storm in the next X-Men movie. “She could be in a romantic comedy. She could be in anything.”

“I would hope that she spends some time in the theater,” says Van Lieu. “It seems to be right now that possibly everything is about film. I’d love the world to know what an amazing actress on stage she is and how compelling she is.”

“I always wanted to know what she wasn’t good at in school. Because she really picks up stuff so quickly,” says Moore, who quipped. “I know the clown class is hard but that’s hard for everybody.”

Until then, her friends and former colleagues are enjoying watching her rise and rise and rise. “It’s strange and it’s surreal. But if there was someone that I thought everyone should know, she’s one of the people I would think that everyone should know,” says Moore. “As an actor it makes me feel very good about the industry because you want to believe that it values not only talent and beauty but that it values uniqueness. And Lupita is unique, very unique. There’s no one else like her.”