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Interview: Lupita Nyong'o on 12 Years, Non-Stop and Her Future

On Lupita Nyong'o's Instagram account she captioned this one:

Yes, a chocolate BAFTA will do quite nicely, thank you!

A golden BAFTA woulda been better but what can you do?

Recently it came to me in a flash: Lupita Nyong'o is the new Jessica Chastain!  Think about it: classically trained movie actress in her early 30s goes from complete unknown to everyone's favorite in the blink of an eye in a critically acclaimed movie (movies plural in Chastain's case) and proves herself a complete and utter natural at celebrity, red carpets, fashion, and social media. 

Of course I didn't know all this when I first sat down with Lupita in the fall in the first rush of acclaim for Twelve Years a Slave, a meeting I shamefully neglected to tell you about until now. Looking over the transcript it occurs to me that the past few months have been so eventful that pieces of our conversation barely make sense. We're conversing as if she isn't a huge celebrity. But the right role at the right time can permanently change things for an actor. [More...]

She nabbed her now Oscar-stamped role from three auditions in three different states -- the hardest part of the auditions, apart from the harrowing emotional content, she tells me with that gorgeous smile, was trying to summon a sweaty plantation from the 1800s while "fresh out of traffic, with flourescent lights and overbearing A.C.".  In a roundabout way we have Garrett Dillahunt, who plays that traitor field-hand, to thank for her breakthrough; his manager is also hers which is how she got the script and an audition.

The rest is history so we'll jump ahead past the predictive 'you're going to get a lot of attention for this' and her utter graciousness while hearing then still fresh compliments about her debut performance. One assumes it all sounds like white noise now post an Oscar nomination!  

Nathaniel R: Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson seem so nice in person but onscreen they treat you horrifically. How did you deal with that on set? 

LUPITA: We recognized that these were the roles we were hired to do and we had to do them to the utmost to do the story justice. We never ever, I never ever talked to Michael or Sarah about how we were going to go about doing this. I had one rehearsal with Michael and one rehearsal with Chitewel but they were very short.

We had a very good camaraderie on set, and I think it was important because we needed to - we were in it together and we understood that. That we needed each other to tell the story. So it was very loving. We broke bread together. We definitely had a ritual, before and after scenes, of making nice, without saying anything, we just like hold the gaze and say 'Yes. Here we go.'

For something like the whipping scene, which is the penultimate emotional climax of the film, how would you even access that much pain? You probably don't want to give away your secrets but obviously they weren't whipping you!

 Yeah, there are certain things about acting that are just mysterious. You train, you rehearse, you practice... and then you let go. You have faith that the work has been done, and that was one of those moments. I could really only prepare for everything until the whipping, but *I*, Lupita, was literally stripped naked in public and then tied to a post and that was enough.

You went to Yale School of Drama which has famous alumni like Meryl Streep...

 We call her "The Streep" at Yale. 

Oh do you?

"The Streep"

So your first big job out of school you're already working with and meeting such big names. Do you ever get starstruck?

For me I don't think I get starstruck. I guess I'm in awe of people's talent, but I recognize that they're human beings. So yeah, acting is something that I do and they do too, and I recognize the greatness in their ability. But I know that I am more than an actor, and so are they. So that's what guides me when I meet a new actor. I have an impression of them from their work but I also know that I know them not at all as a person.

What I did, when I got cast in this, I watched movies that everyone was in, and I watched interviews that everyone was in to get a sense of who they are, and I remember in an interview Michael mentioned that he doesn't like to talk about things, he doesn't like to belabor the how, he just wants to do it, so I knew with Michael [mutters, charmingly] 'Don't try and talk about things.' And I got that feeling, too, from Chitewel and that's the wonderful thing about working with actors who share the same work ethic as you is that we're there, we're hired to do our jobs and the only way it gets done is if we all stick to our jobs and come in ready to play, talk and listen. 

You were a production assistant on The Constant Gardener several years ago. Was that your first film set?

Yeah, that was my first film set. 

Were you already studying acting?

No, no, no. I was an undergrad, I was doing African and film studies, I wasn't yet ready. But I always had the bug, ever since I was a little child. The first time I thought I could do this was watching The Color Purple.

Lupita is a flight attendant in the thriller Non-Stop (opening 2/28)

Your next film is the action thriller Non-Stop [Opening Oscar Weekend!]. That has to feel like artistic whiplash.

Oh yeah, it was, but it was just what the doctor ordered. I needed to do something in a totally different genre after 12 Years a Slave and Non-Stop was so much fun, working with Liam and Julianne Moore and Michelle Dockery who plays my side [correcting herself] - I'm her sidekick, she's not my sidekick, I'm her sidekick! It was a joyful set. Even if it was about a terror attack, it was still a lighter emotional place for me to have to be every day.

What do you hope to, what kind of roles do you hope to play?

My sweet spot is definitely drama but I hope to have a dynamic, versatile career. [Excited] I am a geek for fantasy and action so I definitely want to be a superhero or a super villain, you know?!? Something otherworldly! I  also want to do comedy. I figure I'd make a good straight man with a fool. [Laughter]


Related: more on Lupita, more on 12 Years a Slave, the Supporting Actress Race


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Reader Comments (15)

Love her. I hope she wins the Oscar.

I could definitely see her playing a Grace Jones-esque superhero/villain so I hope that dream of hers comes true. :)

February 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

"The Streep" ha, nice.

AMPAS, please don't fu*k this one up

February 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRyan s

she's soooo stunning

People, Lupita is winning the Oscar. yes, they're nuts for Lawrence but more importantly they like to spread the wealth. Just look at Streep

February 19, 2014 | Unregistered Commentertommy Z

love the EW cover but it's pretty ballsy to have that online while voting is still underway... didn't they do an Oscar cover with Clooney and Viola... we all know how that went... :(

February 19, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterkarl

Philip H -- Lupita should play Grace Jones in a biopic. But I struggle at who is the correct choice for director.

February 19, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I want her to win, but I want her to have a long career even more! I hope we start seeing her name in more casting announcements soon.

February 19, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

Lupita's fluent in Spanish. Almodovar should consider her as his first muse of color.

February 19, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

If we can't have Angela Basset, maybe Lupita will whip up that powerhouse Storm from Massacre of Mutants, mohawk and all, in future installments of the first class X-Men series. I love that character so much, I wish a fearless actress (and better writing) would do her justice!

I can only wish her career takes off and she lands the right roles to fulfill the potential she's shown. Especially because award attention = red carpet and Lupita belongs there!

February 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen Sandiego

I wish her all the best (and I solemnly request her to wear that green Dior gown everywhere).

February 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Sorry to be the desendent voice but i am feeling more and more that the hype for this performance is ott and can't overcome what i saw on screen,she is solid in the film and v sympathetic but i found her lacking in her big scenes,i much preferred the scene with Alfre and the lifted finger when she drinks,i do prefer her to win the oscar over Jennifer,i still do feel that the hype over her and Lawrence has overshadowed other great supporting roles Scanlan,Ncholson,Paulson and Johansson to name a few.

February 20, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermrripley

Yeah, looking at that picture of her in Non-Stop, I am now DYING for anything where Grace Jones plays her mother or sister or some relative of some sort. Have Lee Daniels direct - it'll probably be a horrible movie, but he would make sure the two of them would be unquestionably FABULOUS!

February 20, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Eat a meal, you two.

February 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVal

Great interview! So glad she took the plunge into acting when she was ready and is reaping the rewards for her brave choice to go after what she wants.

Wait - Neeson, Moore, Nyong'o, I actually have to see "Non-Stop"? More surprisingly, do I WANT to see it? I think I might.

February 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

I'm so TORN! I personally think Lawrence was best among the nominees, but I want Lupita to win. Or maybe I don't want her to win, so there will be no backlash and she can become the first true box office lead of her race and gender.

February 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

I really hope that there are many directors,writers and actors who want to work with her! It´s their fault if her career doesn´t explode...

February 20, 2014 | Unregistered Commentertherealmike

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