NEW YORK – Lupita Nyong’o does not so much walk into a room as glide through it.
The 30-year-old actress, who recently rocketed to fame for her portrayal of a physically and sexually abused plantation worker in the film 12 Years a Slave – a role that has earned her Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice awards this year, as well as an Oscar nomination – is easily the most elegant creature in a high-end Midtown hotel bar. Chatting with her over morning tea, a less graceful mortal may find herself fighting the urge to check if there’s a stain on her own shirt, or lint on her pants.
It’s not just Nyong’o’s delicately sculpted face, or her much-celebrated sartorial style, which has been lighting up red carpets. She is dressed pretty casually today, in jeans and a simple black top accessorized with a textured gray scarf. Still, there is a sense of almost aristocratic refinement about her. Nyong’o speaks softly and with perfect diction; she has the posture and poise of a trained dancer (which she is not, she says) and the preternatural composure of a Zen master, even when she giggles.
None of which should be surprising, given Nyong’o’s lineage and training. The daughter of a prominent Kenyan politician, currently a senator for one of its 47 counties, Nyong’o first auditioned for Slave while preparing to graduate from the prestigious Yale School of Drama. Prior to that, she earned a degree in film and African studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and collected diverse credits, ranging from production runner on the 2005 film The Constant Gardener to director of the 2009 video documentary In My Genes to star of the Kenyan TV mini-series Shuga.
Slave, which director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley adapted from Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of having been kidnapped as a free black man in New York and forced into slavery down South, marks Nyong’o’s feature-film debut as an actress. “My manager had gotten the script for another client, Garret Dillahunt,” who also appears in the movie as a white field worker. “She saw this role, Patsey, and thought I’d be good for it,” says Nyong’o.
What followed was a series of “very intense, very challenging” auditions, as anyone who has seen Slave – up for a total of nine Academy Awards, including best film – might expect. Patsey is the property and obsession of a sadistic plantation owner, played by Michael Fassbender, and is consequently loathed by his jealous wife (Sarah Paulson). Over the course of the movie, Nyong’o’s character is raped, cut, humiliated and, in an especially harrowing scene, whipped to within an inch of her life.
“I knew it was going to be emotionally grueling,” Nyong’o says. “Of course, you never really know what you’re in for until you’re actually in it. But I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to work on this meaty material, and to have been part of something so powerful and meaningful.”
McQueen was as instantly taken with Nyong’o as he was with Fassbender, who also starred in the director’s 2011 feature Shame, on their first meeting. “I’ve been very fortunate in my life to have worked with two actors with that sense of hunger and rawness,” says McQueen. “(Nyong’o) has that quality of openness and nakedness; she studies who we are as humans, and can grapple with anything that involves.”
Nyong’o had suffered for her art, or at least in it, before. At 14, she made her professional debut as the doomed heroine of Romeo and Juliet in a production by the Nairobi-based repertory company Phoenix Players. Her roles at drama school included the unfortunate Sonya in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, in a staging directed by Ron Van Lieu, the noted chair of Yale’s acting department.
Theater had played a large role in Nyong’o’s youth in Kenya. “My father used to act in high school. He was in a production of Othello; I don’t know who he played, but it wasn’t Othello. He would talk about it, though, and read Shakespeare to me.” Nyong’o’s mother, currently the managing director of the Africa Cancer Foundation and her own communications company, was also “something of a thespian. We always went to the theater.”
Nyong’o describes her whole family – which includes an older sister and four younger siblings, among them a baby brother attending college in Florida – as “very artistic.” One aunt, who worked as an animator, “also acted in repertory theater, and she would organize all the kids into performing whenever we had get-togethers.”
Still, acting “wasn’t something I saw as an exclusive career path. The industry,” in Kenya, “barely existed.” In her family’s circles, “it was something you did after work, an extracurricular thing. We had lots of politicians and humanitarians and artists around, and performance and storytelling were just very much part of our lives.”
Before attending Yale, Nyong’o says, she acted purely “out of instinct. But instincts can be unreliable – sometimes you’re feeling that hunch, sometimes you’re not. I went (to Yale) to develop technique, something I could count on more than just my whims.”
She also learned flexibility, an asset that surely came in handy when filming her next role: a first-class flight attendant in the action thriller Non-Stop, which teams with her Liam Neeson and Downton Abbey‘s Michelle Dockery, and arrives in theaters Feb. 28. Set on a flight from New York to London, it casts Neeson as an air marshal who receives a text message from a passenger threatening to kill another passenger unless he has $150 million transferred to an offshore account.
The shoot “was as different as it could be” from that for Slave: “One was in a studio, the other on location; one mainly indoors, the other mainly outdoors; one very fluid, the other very technical. It’s been an incredible introduction to this world of film, and I’ve had masters to learn from, and very generous human beings.”
As her profile has risen, Nyong’o has also been initiated into a different, albeit related, world: that of fashion. Posing in an assortment of stunning frocks in vivid hues, the actress has been a regular on Harper’s Bazaar‘s Derek Blasberg’s Best-Dressed List since early fall, says Joyann King, director of digital marketing for Harper’s.
“(Nyong’o)’s able to wear fashion without it wearing her,” says King, who cites the actress’s fondness for a “bevy of primary colors” and her “genuine smile” as consistent standouts on red carpets, and praises her championing of different designers. It was announced recently that Nyong’o and Elizabeth Olsen will represent Miu Miu in the Prada-spawned brand’s 2014 spring campaign.
“It has been a very steep learning curve,” says Nyong’o, who insists that she is the unlikeliest of style icons. “I never purchased (fashion) magazines, was never really aware of the industry. I just liked to wear what I liked to wear, you know? So it’s been a total surprise – but a welcome one, the way I’ve been embraced.”
She credits her “amazing stylist,” Micaela Erlanger, who has also garnered attention for her work with Dockery. “Micaela’s able to take my taste and translate it,” says Nyong’o, who describes that taste as both “classic and modern – sophisticated but with a sense of humor.”
Nyong’o adds she is “learning to appreciate that fashion is art. I know it is, because art is moving, and a few weeks ago, I put on a dress and, for the first time, it moved me to tears. I actually panicked for a moment! It was a couture gown, and I just imagined the number of hands that had put all these beads into place, and it made me cry.” (Nyong’o won’t say who the designer is.)
“I always love to learn new things,” Nyong’o says. “That’s the reason I like being an actor. I want to have a varied human experience, to do things outside of my comfort zone. I want to be uncomfortable – acting is uncomfortable. I’m interested in doing things that terrify me.”
Nyong’o isn’t yet sure what her next adventure will be. “I have some things that I’m reading,” she allows, and she also plans to revisit the stage at some point. “The muscles you flex in theater are muscles that you really need. I must always find a way to get back there. It’s irreplaceable.”
Moving around for different projects likely won’t be an issue for Nyong’o, who notes, “I’m so far away from home that I don’t really feel rooted anywhere. Home is where my family is.” She does speak fondly of her current base, Brooklyn, where she enjoys “an occasional dose of night life,” but says her busy awards-season schedule hasn’t allowed much time for making new friends. (Asked if she’s dating anyone, Nyong’o laughs and says, “I plead the Fifth.”)
The awards ceremonies themselves have been daunting. “I’ve been lucky, because my category” – supporting actress – “usually comes up pretty quickly. But it’s a very odd feeling; it would be one thing to know you’re going to win and prepare for that, but it’s another to know that maybe you’ll win. It’s a wonder I’ve been able to keep everything in my stomach.”
Still, Nyong’o says she’s not nervous about Oscars night – for which she hasn’t yet picked an outfit, she insists.
“I’m just excited that I’ve been nominated, and that I get to go,” she says. “Every step along the way has been a bonus, and this is the ultimate bonus. And what it means is that this film is being seen, and celebrated. That’s the biggest gift, and the most exciting thing of all.”