Lupita Nyong’o wants to change the subject. The 30-year-old actress, who landed her starring role in 12 Years a Slave before she even graduated the Yale School of Drama, has let it slip she keeps a journal, but as far as the secrets scrawled in it go, she won’t say. “I don’t want to bring that up,” Nyong’o chirps in her beguiling accent—she’s a theatrically trained, Mexican-born Kenyan living in Brooklyn, after all. But who can worry about confessions marked in a diary when what’s happening to Nyong’o in public is so very enthralling?
“My life changed about three weeks ago,” she says, her fingers wrapped tightly around a mug at a hushed New York City teahouse. “That’s when my schedule went from nil to this.”
This, of course, being the marathon promotional push—its finish line is on Oscar night—for 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen’s brutal account of a freeman’s life after he’s kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film, based on the true story of Solomon Northup, boasts bravura performances from an all-star cast including the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup, McQueen muse Michael Fassbender as a sadistic plantation owner and Sarah Paulson as his equally merciless wife. But it’s Nyong’o who’s racking up award nominations and accolades for her performance as Patsey, the beautiful, damned slave who’s the object of her master’s violent lust, his wife’s rage and the audience’s empathy and affection. It’s the sort of performance that compels strangers to stop Nyong’o just to check that she’s all right.
“Lots of people come up and touch my back and want to give me a hug,” Nyong’o says. “At this point, it’s not too crazy. I let them hug me.”
Audiences aren’t the only ones left in thrall of Nyong’o. “It was like searching for Scarlett O’Hara to find Patsey,” McQueen says. “We saw over 1,000 girls, and Lupita came in at the last hour. We met in New Orleans, and she was just astonishing. I had to cast her in this movie. It was almost as if she came off the page of the book.”
For her part, Nyong’o says she approached the audition thinking she didn’t stand a chance.
“When I learned Steve McQueen was directing and Brad Pitt was producing, I thought, Well, this is huge,” she says. “I had no expectation of getting the role at all; it was just too out there for me to think I had a chance. So I approached the audition like a rehearsal. It was my chance to have that role for 10 minutes, and I owned it. Then I got the part and the panic began.”
Co-stars say Nyong’o had no reason to be anxious. “I know she had some nerves because we would talk about it—we both wanted to do the best job we could—but I never saw it in her work,” Sarah Paulson recalls. “She was always so focused.”
Even when Nyong’o and Paulson were filming scenes that portrayed harrowing acts of violence, the newcomer’s skill was apparent.
“I think people are responding to her performance because through it all, through everything Patsey endures, there is this grain of hope and light in her that has not been squelched,” Paulson says. “It’s heartbreaking to watch her fight for her life. There was no way Lupita wasn’t going to be extraordinary.”
The opinion that Nyong’o is indeed extraordinary—at press time she’d won a Hollywood Film Award and been nominated for a Gotham Award—might weigh heavy on a different type of woman. But for the measured, self-possessed Nyong’o, who grew up in Nairobi with a politician father and a family in the spotlight, fame doesn’t feel entirely unfamiliar.
“When you’re a public figure, people have an ownership of you in a way,” she says. “People would interrupt our dinners all the time to have a moment with my father, and we’d understand because it was their one moment to have with him. I grew up observing that dynamic.”
However, it’s a bit different when the admirers paying their respects are themselves members of rarefied circles.
“Actors will come up to me and they look so familiar—it’s killing me because I can’t remember,” Nyong’o says with a laugh. “I spend all this time trying to place people, and it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s the woman from Luther, not the woman who did my hair last week.’ Some people have watched the film, so they acknowledge me, but I know I’ve never met them. Or I think I haven’t. It’s quite bizarre.”
“Bizarre” is probably an understatement. Nyong’o has said that while she was growing up “it didn’t seem feasible to want to be an actor.” The goal became more tangible when she attended Hampshire College, a small liberal-arts school in western Massachusetts, where she focused on film and African studies, and later Yale’s acting program, which counts among its alumni Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett and Liev Schreiber.
“What validated my three years there was that I was able to put all of that training to work immediately and so relevantly,” she says. “I know I wouldn’t have been able to play Patsey had I not gone through three years of school. I wouldn’t have had the elasticity or the confidence to take it on. I don’t think I would have known I could do it.”
For now, Nyong’o enjoys a quiet life near Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. She’s in a book club, says an ideal night out is a slumber party at her best friend’s house and clams up when asked about her love life. In the coming months, things are bound to change. In February Nyong’o will hit theaters again, in Non-Stop, a thriller also starring Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore, and depending how awards season plays out, by next year she could be a household name.
“I would love to have a career that’s governed by the material; I always want to be part of stories that I feel are worthwhile,” she says when asked about the future. “And they don’t all have to be as heavy as 12 Years a Slave. I do my best work when I feel conviction to say something through the character I play. Always I want to have integrity and not compromise that.”
And if things don’t go quite as planned? Nyong’o says she’s ready to face that possibility.
“That’s one of the concerns when you get lauded for something—can I do it again?” she says. “One thing I learned at school was the value of failure, because once you fail you can get up and do it again.”
Of course, we’ll be seeing more of Nyong’o even if she wins—specifically all those awards that cinematic oracles claim to be in store. It’s a thought that’s crossed her mind.
“I’m definitely forced to think about it, but there’s nothing to do with the thought because it’s totally out of my hands,” Nyong’o says. “I’m really fulfilled right now by the traction this film is getting. It was made to be seen, and that’s what’s happening—America is engaging with it and being moved and changed by it. It’s really rewarding to be a part of that. That’s more important to me than any award.”
Click here to view Lupita Nyong’o’s cover shoot, and watch a behind-the-scenes video from our interview below: