At 36, Lupita Nyong’o has scored several important firsts. By winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, she became the first black African to win an Academy Award in any category. This year, she made more history with Jordan Peele’s Us — the horror movie set a record for the highest US opening weekend box office gross for a movie with a black woman as a lead. The Kenyan-Mexican beauty is also the first black actress to have graced the cover of the American edition of Vogue four times.
Her meteoric rise has been unstoppable since her professional stage debut at the age of just 14, when she played the titular female character in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in Nairobi.
After high school in Kenya, Lupita went to the US to take film and theater studies at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Upon finishing her master’s degree program at the Yale School of Drama, she landed her breakthrough role in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. She’s also appeared in major franchises, including the Marvel Cinematic Universe (playing Nakia in Black Panther) and Star Wars (where she voices and performs as Maz Kanata through motion capture).
Just this year, Lupita has racked up critical praise for her turns in Little Monsters — as a teacher who protects students from an outbreak of zombies — and Us, which has earned her early Oscar buzz.
Coming up are starring roles in the long-awaited English-language reboot of John Woo’s 1989 cult masterpiece, The Killer, and in the spy thriller 355, where Lupita joins an international cast that includes Penélope Cruz, Fan Bingbing, Jessica Chastain and Marion Cotillard. She’s also set to produce and star in the film version of Trevor Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime. Before all that, however, she returns as Maz in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in December.
And yet, acting is just one of Lupita’s many facets and talents. She’s a philanthropist; she can rap; aside from English, she speaks Swahili, her native Luo and Spanish (she was born in Mexico City). Lupita will also debut as a writer with a children’s book titled Sulwe, for which she drew on her own experiences growing up to tell the story of a young Kenyan girl with the darkest complexion in her family.
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Everything seems to have moved pretty quickly for you. Have you had time to reflect on all the strides you’ve made in such a short time?
Lupita: I definitely reflect on it, especially on my last birthday. I look back and think about what has come before, what is happening now, what is coming ahead. I don’t really ask those two questions — Why me? Why now? — but I do feel like I’m living in my purpose. I’m living the life that I am supposed to be living, which is a wonderful feeling because I’ve definitely had times in my life when I’ve felt lost. I don’t feel lost right now.
How much do you enjoy assuming different personalities with each new role?
Lupita: My job offers me the opportunity to experience the world through other people’s perspectives… I appreciate that because, like in the film Us, and playing Red in particular, [I was offered] a chance to delve into the darker side of myself, borrow from that, and use it as fuel for this character. I was given permission to do so, and it offers like an exorcism, if you will.
All of us have a duality in us. There’s this shadow self that we suppress, that we ignore, and oftentimes when the shadow self is unattended to, it causes damage. It rears its ugly head and causes destruction. It’s always healthy, as humans, to befriend the darker sides of ourselves. Because to be human is to be both light and dark. I feel very blessed that my job has put the darker sides of myself to good use creatively.
What kind of Lupita are you scared to face?
Lupita: I’m scared to face angry Lupita (laughs). Yeah, there’s a rageful Lupita in there somewhere that I would hate to meet out in the world because she could be quite dangerous.
What makes Lupita angry?
Lupita: Injustice makes me angry — when I feel injustice against myself or people I love; a community that I belong to. Even one that I don’t belong to. Injustice enrages me.
Kenya has a rich tradition of folklore. How much did hearing those stories inspire you to become an actress?
Lupita: I definitely grew up hearing myths of not just my culture but other cultures in Kenya. We definitely had folklore. I remember that those were the things that awakened my imagination first and foremost — the stories I heard from my family members about certain characters.
One of my grandfathers is actually still very much the storyteller in the family. My dad was also really good at making up his own mythologies (laughs) and folklore. His stories were just meandering.
Do you plan to write and direct another documentary to follow up In My Genes?
Lupita: I would love to make more documentaries. Documentaries are a great fertile ground for stories and drama in real life. There are so many cool documentaries coming out right now and lots of people are watching them. They’re becoming very much a part of mainstream popular culture.
What’s next for you?
Lupita: At the moment, I have no interest in directing feature films, but I am interested in producing and writing.
This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of Smile magazine.