For Lupita Nyong’o, the years immediately following her Best Supporting Actress Oscar win for “12 Years a Slave” were charged with concerns about her Hollywood viability. Her next two roles had her playing computer-generated alien Maz Kanata in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and voicing white wolf Raksha in “The Jungle Book” — as opposed to a live-action film that, as Vulture noted, “lets her live in her own black skin.”
The actress’ future became something of a battleground for pundits, with debates over the significance of her skin color, and whether or not she was being fetishized by the mainstream media. But for Nyong’o, this popular narrative wasn’t one that she lived.
“That initial year, everything was a first for me,” she said. “Red carpets were a first. Interviews, press junkets were a first. All of it. And I really wanted to absorb and take it in for what it was. Everything was special, to a point where I almost grew numb to the newness. But now, things are more familiar.”
Nyong’o falls into the camp of actors who prefer not to read their own press; she focuses her attention on the 6.2 million fans who follow her Instagram. “It’s not an act, but I definitely curate my Instagram,” she said. “Like all social media, I think all of us are just sharing mainly our best lives. People aren’t seeing me when my spirits are dampened, or when I’m upset about something. These are realities that we all have to contend with, even if we don’t put them on public display.”
She does however, quite clearly, recall the public tumult that followed her 2014 Oscar win. Asked what her expectations for herself were, she said: “Yeah, that’s a whole book. But what I will say is this: I never thought my first film would lead me all the way to the Academy Awards,” further clarifying that the Oscars were mostly a mystery to her growing up in Kenya, and she didn’t understand their significance until she was pursuing her MFA at Yale Drama School. It was soon after she graduated that she landed the role of Patsey in “12 Years a Slave.”
“What I was hoping for, coming out of drama school, was just a job,” Nyong’o said. “I was hoping to make it as an actor without having to wait tables. If I could do that, then I was doing well, I thought. In school, they teach you how to prepare for failure. But they don’t teach you how to prepare for success. I think success is just as stressful as failure, and your body registers both the same.”
Nyong’o didn’t have an agent before booking “12 Years a Slave.” She found one, only to realize that she also needed a raft of professionals to handle her affairs. “Before I knew it, I needed a publicist, and then I needed a lawyer, then I needed a business manager,” she said. “All those things I had to figure out along the way.” She had to adhere to a strict budget while on the press tour: “I was counting my dollars. I didn’t have money to my name. I was like, ‘Ooh, can I get room service tonight? Or, actually, maybe I should instead walk across the street and pick up some groceries. I had to grow into this new kinosphere that I was given.”
Part of that was determining what she wanted next. Her first step was learning to tune out the new voices in her orbit. “I had to really take the time to figure out what I wanted next, because winning an Oscar is supposed to represent the pinnacle of one’s career, and for me, it was the first thing out of the gate,” Nyong’o said. “I really had to understand what I was in it for. Was it about sustaining that level of accolade, or something else?”
Among those she did listen to were her “12 Years” director Steve McQueen, who she described as a staunch ally. “There are no words to thank him for his mentorship, and I mean, he really did take me under his wing, and gave me endless advice,” Nyong’o said, up to and including her hair styles and nail polish, as well as who she worked with.
“He was a voice that I trusted,” she said, adding that co-stars Alfre Woodard and Sarah Paulson, and producer Brad Pitt, were also sources of guidance. “To me, at the time, they were all seasoned in the ways of the business, and so just hearing their perspective was very helpful. But I feel like I’m growing into it all, because things are more familiar now.”
She decided to dedicate the year after her Oscar win to recommitting to her craft. For her, roles as a computer-generated character in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and providing voice for an animated character in “Jungle Book” were very personal, even strategic. As she said, both projects allowed her to continue to work without being seen.
“That was very important to me, because I really wanted to, first of all, reinvestigate what it means to be an actor,” said the actress. “My role in ’12 Years’ was so much about the currency of my character’s body. And then, the publicity for the film began, and suddenly it was about the currency of my own body, in a different way. It was about fashion, and it was about redefinitions of beauty, or whatever people were saying. I just wanted a moment to myself, to be kind of invisible, and reclaim control of my body you could say, which both films offered.”
She also acknowledged that, at the time, the kind of roles she wanted to play hadn’t been written. The demographics of industry writers didn’t include many who looked like her, or even considered roles for someone who did. Knowing that, she became entrepreneurial. “Really, it was about getting involved with projects from the ground up, I learned,” Nyong’o said.
This included acquiring rights to celebrated Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel “Americanah” (which she began pursuing before “12 Years a Slave”) and attaching herself to star in the film adaptation of “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah’s autobiography, “Born a Crime.”
“Often, for women, the challenge is that there are not very many fully realized characters we’re choosing from,” she said. “I certainly didn’t have the pick of the litter, given where the industry was when I got in. It was about recognizing that fact, and then figuring out how I was going to play my role in it.”
She also had the luxury of time. In addition to her Oscar win, signing a contract to become the new face for high-end beauty brand Lancôme gave her a certain amount of freedom.
“I was so fortunate to have the luxury of choice, which so few actors have,” she said. “And I decided to exercise that, and actually be selective even at a time when everyone was saying, ‘It’s now or never, so seize the moment!’ I realized that I want to have longevity. I wasn’t going to do what was exciting for everyone else; I was going to do what pleased me, so I decided to take my time.”
In addition to “The Force Awakens” and “Jungle Book,” Nyong’o appeared in Disney’s biographical “Queen of Katwe” and rapper Jay-Z’s 2017 music video, “MaNyfaCedGod.” And then came “Black Panther.” It might have appeared to be the role that she (and her fans) had waited for — Lupita Nyong’o 2.0! — but the actress said, really, it was business as usual.
“I think, in this industry, there are often two narratives going on simultaneously around a person or a project,” she said. “There’s the narrative that the audience is consuming in the order in which things are announced, and then there’s the actual progression of things which they don’t know about. There were lots of projects that I was always in conversations for, but not everything is announced, and certainly not always in the order that they happen.”
Prior to being considered for the role of Nakia, the butt-kicking warrior and T’Challa’s strong-willed love interest in “Black Panther,” Nyong’o said she’d simply informed her reps that she was interested in an action project. “I wanted to be in a fantasy-adventure film, and I met with different heads of studios,” she said. “They would ask me, ‘What do you have an appetite for?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I have an appetite for action.’ I put my intentions out, and they manifest.”
That’s also what brought her to her next film, “Us,” directed by Jordan Peele. “I also wanted to do horror, so I put it out there, and then Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ came up, and the timing was just right. I wanted to do a comedy, and there was ‘Little Monsters,’ all the way from Australia. Look, I’m very fortunate that I get to choose. But I want to have a varied career. I want to always be jumping into new boxes. However, these were all projects that I signed up for before ‘Black Panther’ was out, so I can’t really say that it was because of ‘Black Panther’ that I got these other roles.”
Nyong’o’s slate also includes the mysterious Ava DuVernay project that began as a meme, with Rihanna attached. There’s also Simon Kinberg’s all-female international spy thriller “355,” in which she’s joined by fellow Oscar nominees/winners Jessica Chastain, Penélope Cruz, and Marion Cotillard. And finally there’s Hong Kong master John Woo’s much-anticipated English-language remake of his bloody hitman masterpiece, “The Killer.” A film that originally starred Chow Yun-fat, Woo’s decision to flip both the gender and race of the lead, as well as his interest in her for the part, was quite a surprise.
“Listen, I did not see it coming, either,” she said. “I mean, I knew of John Woo, but I hadn’t seen ‘The Killer.’ So I received the script and read it without really looking at his work in great depth, which is typically how I approach these things. And I really liked the story, and his revised take on it.”
Nyong’o described Woo as a man with a “quiet compassion” and “a keen eye,” who watched her hands move as she spoke during their first meeting. (He also hadn’t seen “Black Panther” when he hired her for the film.) This will be Woo’s first film with a female protagonist, a fact that tickled the actress.
“For me, the director determines whether I take a project or not,” Nyong’o said. “It all stems from there. If the director has a vision and approach that I believe in, then everything else is secondary. Because, at the end of the day, it’s trusting in his or her overall vision. They determine the culture of the film, and the promise of the experience.”
Nyong’o is also a director; in 2009, before she entered drama school, she directed “In My Genes,” a documentary on albinism in Kenya. She plans to go behind the camera again at some point, but it won’t be for fiction. “I don’t care for that level of control,” she said. “You have to care about everybody, and I only want to care about one character at a time. But directing documentary is something that still appeals to me. I love what you discover when you just let people be. I love the drama of real life and trying to create a cinematic narrative around that.”
She paused to reflect, and then said, “Yeah, that’s something I would definitely like to get back to. But fiction, no thanks.”
Her interests were nurtured by what she described as an “unconventional” upbringing, with parents who were very supportive of her natural artistic abilities, unlike the typical experiences of children of African parents who choose their career paths, with the maths and sciences as preferred options.
“My parents were very supportive,” Nyong’o said. “My mom and dad went above and beyond to try to facilitate my interests. They put me in poetry competitions. They ferried me to and from rehearsals to various things I was interested in. They were really supportive. And, yeah, in that regard, I realize my upbringing was very unconventional as a child of Kenyan parents. I was very fortunate.”
At just 35, she’s mapped out what that future looks like. “I love what Sidney Poitier was able to do, in terms of how he was entering new frontiers all the time,” she said. “He’s definitely an actor whose career I truly admire.” She also named Rachel Weisz (“I love how surprising she can be”) and Cate Blanchett (“She’s a badass and you can’t put her in a box”) as actresses whose careers she’d love to emulate.
She’s also interested in TV; “Americanah” is seeking a home as a limited series, with her “Black Panther” co-star (and acclaimed playwright) Danai Gurira scripting, and Pitt’s Plan B producing. She also plans to return to the stage, although she said starring in Gurira’s “Eclipsed” on Broadway in 2016 was intense enough to leave her ambivalent.
“It took so much out of me, and I have such a deep respect for theater actors, especially those that are on shows that run for that long,” she said, noting that “Eclipsed” ran nightly shows for 15 weeks. “You do these long productions, and it’s a lot of work. Very taxing. It’s been two years, but I’m still recovering. Although I’m now starting to feel that urge again, especially whenever I go to the theater to catch a show; I feel that yearning to get on stage again.”
For all her success, Nyong’o acknowledges that the privileges she enjoys today could just as suddenly be taken away.
“Yes, it all could come to an end, and when that happens, I want to be okay with it,” she said. “I really don’t take it for granted, you know? There are enough examples around me of actors who are struggling, and so I like to approach life with childlike wonder, and I don’t ever want to lose that, because I know that I’m very fortunate.”
After a brief reflective pause, she said, “Yeah. Even the things that are arduous and not fun at all, I choose to be grateful for them.”