And the winner is... Lupita Nyong’o is collecting award nominations—and plenty of wins—for her poignant turn in 12 Years a Slave.
Acting had been a childhood dream of Lupita Nyong’o’s—one that she never pursued seriously. But when filming of The Constant Gardener serendipitously took place near her home in Kenya, Nyong’o found she couldn’t resist the pull of the cameras. As a production assistant, Nyong’o—who was home on break from Hampshire College—was responsible for the stars of the film, including Ralph Fiennes. “He asked me over lunch one day what I wanted to do, and I very timidly said that I wanted to be an actor,” Nyong’o reveals. “He took a deep sigh and said, ‘If there is anything else you want to do, do that instead. Only act if you think you can’t live without it.’
“It was hard to take that,” the now 30-year-old Nyong’o admits. “He definitely got me thinking about why I wanted to act.” Not one to approach any task halfheartedly, Nyong’o applied to America’s top drama schools and was admitted into the storied program at Yale. She was not the first in her family to travel abroad for higher education; the actress’s father, Kenyan politician Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, earned his master’s and PhD from The University of Chicago.
Just a few weeks before her graduation, Nyong’o received the call every actor dreams of: Director Steve McQueen offered her the gritty part of Patsey in his antebellum film 12 Years a Slave. “My heart froze, and then it sunk immediately,” Nyong’o says of her initial reaction. “I was so excited, but being cast in a movie with such celebrated actors and me, suddenly it didn’t make any sense. I had to work on rebuilding my self-confidence.”
McQueen, however, had no qualms about hiring Nyong’o even before she received her degree: “I’d auditioned a thousand girls already. When I saw her, I couldn’t believe it; she was just amazing,” he says.
Nyong’o may share the screen with heavyweights like Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor, but it is the pivotal role of emotionally and physically tortured slave Patsey—and Nyong’o’s nuanced performance—that is receiving some of the highest praise. “I tried to employ curiosity and a presence; how she had to be so present because she had a volatile master [who might do anything] at any time,” Nyong’o says of playing such a complicated character. Her dedication did not go unnoticed by her director: “She held her ground against Michael Fassbender—and let me tell you, that’s an achievement,” McQueen says. “That was it; she was part of the family.”
There is no doubt that Nyong’o has succeeded: At press time, she was nominated for two dozen awards for her portrayal, including an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a SAG Award. A red-carpet standout, she’s also getting ample attention from the fashion world, having been named a face of Miu Miu’s spring 2014 ad campaign. “It’s a roller-coaster experience,” Nyong’o says of her first awards season.
While playing a character like Patsey may be one of the most difficult roles an actor can tackle, Nyong’o is grateful for the opportunity. “It was so rewarding to inhabit that spirit,” she says. “It was hard… but it was beautiful as well.”