With a spate of new passion projects about Africa, Star Wars’ Lupita Nyong’o is using the Force for good
Author Alex Hoyt Photography Yu Tsai
We’re in the penthouse duplex suite of the Dream Downtown, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Once the headquarters of the National Maritime Union, the building was a halfway house before its current iteration as one of New York City’s most opulent hotels. Stylists, groomers, and publicists hustle up and down the spiral staircase to the rooftop balcony, where a Jacuzzi doubles as a skylight. Just as Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Let’s Groove” surges through the speakers, out from her dressing room walks Lupita Nyong’o—People’s Most Beautiful Woman in the World, 2014. She wears gold hoop earrings, a gold cuff bracelet, and a blood-orange Hermès dress. Once cropped short, her hair explodes sideways, like the foliage of a baobab tree. The photographer, Yu Tsai, the creative consultant on America’s Next Top Model, sighs with joy and says what we’re all thinking: “Girl looks good.”
The last few years have been a whirlwind for Nyong’o, who was thrust into celebrity in 2013 with her star-making turn in Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning antebellum epic 12 Years a Slave. At the 2014 Academy Awards, her plunging Carolina-blue Prada gown turned heads, while her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress commanded respect. “When I look down at this golden statue,” she concluded from the dais, “may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.” Since then, the Mexico City–born and Nairobi-raised Nyong’o’s dreams have only been further validated: She’s twice graced the cover of Vogue, become the face of Lancôme, and had Jay-Z name-check her in an aptly titled track, “We Made It.” This month, she stars in the biggest film of the year, J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens. She’s indisputably one of the most in-demand actors of the moment.
But post-photoshoot, in jeans, a gray turtleneck sweater, and a tweed jacket, the 32-year-old carries on like she’s still anonymous. As we step into the mirror-paneled elevator, cast in red ambient light, she laughs. “It’s like we’re in a Justin Bieber video,” she says, as if she weren’t in the same orbit as the pop idol. As we enter the Dream Downtown’s penthouse bar, her boots slap across the black marble floor. To our left, a floor-to-ceiling skyline view beckons uptown, all the way to the Empire State Building. “I need a cozy corner,” she says, and slumps onto a black sofa, where we’re soon sipping chamomile tea and talking about Nyong’o’s unlikely path from her family’s native Kenya to Hampshire College and the Yale School of Drama, where she was still an MFA candidate when McQueen tapped her to play Patsey in 12 Years a Slave—a role that would prove to be life-changing. At the time, Nyong’o’s mother was visiting from Kenya, and the pair were planning a post-Yale graduation trip.
“It was a better trip,” jokes Nyong’o, before recounting the actual film shoot, on various plantations in and around New Orleans, where the actress discovered reminders of the South’s brutal past. “There were these plaques where they’d say which slaves were here and their physical description and how much they were bought for,” Nyong’o recalls. “And these trees with their Spanish moss—you look at these branches, and you know some of them held bodies hanging.” She looks down for a moment and bites her bottom lip. “It’s very present. I welcomed that history. We need to remember how ugly we can be.”
Though the 12 Years a Slave shoot was Nyong’o’s first as an actor, she’d been on a film set before—as a “very green” production assistant for 2005’s The Constant Gardner, starring Ralph Fiennes. She’d traveled back to Nairobi from Hampshire, in Amherst, Massachusetts, for summer vacation, and the next day she saw the film crew in her family’s neighborhood. That night she had dinner with a friend who was in the movie. “I said, ‘I will work for free,’” she recalls, a steely note entering her voice. “I just had to be on the set.”
Not everything came so naturally. Working on a film set on the streets of Nairobi was hectic, especially given her lack of experience. “Life is happening,” she says.
“There are language barriers.” At one point, the first assistant director gave her a message for Fiennes, who had just done a take. “I was on a mission to talk to Ralph, but he was talking to some man. I went up to them, and suddenly the assistant director was white in the face with rage. He said, ‘You never interrupt the director!’ I didn’t even know who the director was!”
Another of her jobs was escorting the English Patient star from his tent to the shoot. “Ralph is a very still man on set,” she says. “It would be very quiet, and that made me uncomfortable. I’d try to make chitchat, asking, ‘What’s your favorite film? Of all the films you’ve been in, which have you enjoyed the most?’ He was so polite, and he responded to me. At one point, though, he just said, ‘Lupita, give me my space.’”
A decade later, it’s a request she’s come to understand. “When an actor lands on a set, there’s a psychological and emotional transformation that needs to happen,” she says, refilling her tea. “I learned from that experience what an actor needs—and to ask for it. You have to calibrate yourself. The time before a camera rolls, the moments before my foot steps on a stage, have to be meditative. I have to withdraw from the world as I know it. It’s about listening quietly to my inner motor.”
In Fiennes, Nyong’o found a mentor, but not a role model. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Nyong’o saw no Hollywood roles for women who looked like her—a complaint for many aspiring female actors of color. She loved The Color Purple, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, but neither was as darkly complected as she was. Only when Alek Wek, the South Sudanese supermodel, gained renown did she find a kindred celebrity. That was the runway, though, not the big screen. “Africa, for me, didn’t exist in movies,” she says, chuckling wistfully. “I just didn’t think it was possible.”
Hollywood certainly never depicted the grim political reality of Kenya under President Daniel arap Moi, a particularly harrowing era for her family. In the late ’70s, her dissident father, Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, was kidnapped and tortured by the regime’s secret police. Her uncle was attacked on a ferry in Mombasa and thrown overboard; only his shoes were ever recovered. After a three-year exile in Mexico City, where Lupita was born, the family returned to Kenya, where her father resumed his underground democratic activism and again found himself harassed and arrested.
Despite her unstable childhood, when Nyong’o left Kenya for Hampshire College, she developed a profound nostalgia for her homeland. “Coming to America opened my eyes to how much of my world I didn’t understand. Many immigrants will say you only really appreciate where you’re from when you’re taken out of it. I became very curious about Africa and African philosophy. I tried to make sense of a dichotomous existence I felt.”
That curiosity is evidenced in an array of projects she’s starring in—and, in some cases, producing—that bring focus to Africans long left offstage and offscreen. Partnering with Brad Pitt, she’s optioned the rights to Chimamanda Adichie’s novel Americanah, about a Nigerian-American immigrant at Princeton who encounters America’s particular brand of racism for the first time and starts a blog about how Africans view African-Americans. Nyong’o is also turning the camera on the slums of Uganda with The Queen of Katwe, in which she plays chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi’s mother. “She’s the mother of five,” Nyong’o marvels, “and I can’t even imagine being the mother of one.” As another breed of mother, the wolf Raksha, she lends her voice to Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. Beyond mere vocal talent, her presence adds credibility to the reboot of the 1967 animated version, which, with King Louie the orangutan channeling Louis Armstrong, feels woefully dated. Nyong’o, for her part, prefers to focus on the film’s lush backdrop. “What Jon’s done with it is beautiful,” she says. “It’s an homage to nature.”
In February, she’ll make her Broadway debut in Eclipsed, the play she starred in at the Public Theater in New York this fall. She plays “The Girl,” one of five captive wives of a rebel soldier in the second Liberian civil war. “She’s filled with ambitions and dreams and possibilities,” Nyong’o says. “And very slowly the truth of her new circumstances blocks out all that light.”
For now, those projects are overshadowed by a bigger, more imminent venture, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Her role as the computer-generated space pirate Maz Kanata, announced in a Vanity Fair photoshoot with Annie Leibovitz, struck her as a rare and thrilling opportunity. “Playing a character who wasn’t restricted by my physical circumstances was definitely on my bucket list,” she says. To prep, she watched Andy Serkis, Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, who she calls “the master.” Though she wasn’t a Star Wars fanatic growing up, she was familiar with the trilogy. “It would come on TV during public holidays, so I associated it with freedom from school. We didn’t have that many TV channels, so everyone was on the same page about R2-D2 and Luke Skywalker.”
Growing up in a country shaped by imperialism and its aftermath, did she find that Darth Vader’s Empire struck close to home? Nyong’o pauses, and takes a sip of her tea. “Star Wars is our world,” she says. “It’s set far, far away, but only so that we can stomach it. The war between good and evil, the dark side and the light—George Lucas got it from what is here on Earth.”