From the Os­cars to Broad­way to a new Tiffany & Co. cam­paign, Lupita Ny­ong’o paves a di­verse path.

VOGUE Australia - - News - By Jane Al­bert.

From the Os­cars to Broad­way to a new Tiffany & Co. cam­paign, Lupita Ny­ong’o paves a di­verse path.


If ever there was an in­flu­en­tial plat­form to make a state­ment and have your mes­sage heard around the world, it is the Academy Awards. Ac­tress Lupita Ny­ong’o is only too aware of the power of that podium, so when she took to the stage to ac­cept the Os­car for best sup­port­ing ac­tress for her ex­tra­or­di­nary per­for­mance as Pat­sey in 12 Years a Slave, she made sure her mes­sage packed a punch. “When I look down at this golden statue, may it re­mind every child that no mat­ter where you are from, your dreams are valid,” she said in a voice full of emo­tion.

That was in 2014. Since then, the girl who was born in Mex­ico City but grew up in East Africa has gone on to re­alise her own dreams, achiev­ing a num­ber of “firsts” as she did so. The first African ac­tress to win the best sup­port­ing Os­car, Ny­ong’o has since been ap­pointed the face of Lancôme – the first black celebrity to rep­re­sent the French lux­ury cos­metic brand. Then there has been Ny­ong’o’s Broad­way de­but this year in the sear­ing pro­duc­tion Eclipsed, the first time an all-fe­male cast, play­wright and di­rec­tor have per­formed to­gether on the Great White Way. And most re­cently star­ring in Grace Cod­ding­ton’s project, the new Leg­endary Style cam­paign for Tiffany & Co., one of the first the revered cre­ative di­rec­tor un­der­took since re­duc­ing her role at US Vogue after nearly 30 years with the mast­head.

At just 33, Ny­ong’o has al­ready achieved a re­mark­able amount, and why not? This strong, pas­sion­ate and well-ed­u­cated woman was born to Kenyan par­ents Dorothy and Peter Anyang’ Ny­ong’o while her fa­ther, a se­na­tor and former po­lit­i­cal sci­ence lec­turer, was work­ing briefly in Mex­ico. The fam­ily re­turned home to Kenya within a year of Ny­ong’o’s birth but Ny­ong’o – who refers to her­self as Mex­i­can-Kenyan – re­turned to Mex­ico City as a teenager to learn Span­ish (one of four lan­guages she speaks flu­ently). She stud­ied film in Mas­sachusetts, at Hamp­shire Col­lege; and later act­ing at the Yale School of Drama.

She quickly caught the eye of the pub­lic with her fea­ture film de­but, 12 Years a Slave, the des­per­ate true story of a free black man who is ab­ducted and sold into slav­ery. The film earned the Academy Award for best pic­ture in ad­di­tion to Ny­ong’o’s win. Her per­for­mance in that film re­sulted in the ac­tress be­ing in­un­dated with of­fers, some of which she no­tably took up, in­clud­ing the role of 1,000-year-old pi­rate queen Maz Kanata in Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens; and pro­vid­ing the voice of wolf mother Rak­sha in The Jun­gle Book. But it came as no sur­prise to those who knew her when she chose the theatre for her next big move.

Speak­ing to Vogue from New York where she was near­ing the end of her Broad­way season of Eclipsed, Ny­ong’o sounded ex­hausted yet elated. “This show has been par­tic­u­larly all­con­sum­ing. It is a very emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally de­mand­ing show,” she says. Writ­ten by writer-ac­tor Danai Gurira, Eclipsed is set dur­ing the Liberian civil war and tells the story of five women en­slaved by a rebel com­man­der who uses and abuses them at will. De­scribed by New York Times re­viewer Charles Ish­er­wood as, “one of the most ra­di­ant young ac­tors to be seen on Broad­way in re­cent sea­sons”, Ny­ong’o earned a pres­ti­gious Tony Award nom­i­na­tion for best ac­tress for her role. Mov­ing to New York for the 15-week season hadn’t gone quite as she’d en­vis­aged. “I thought do­ing a show on Broad­way would pro­vide me with [more down time], that I’d still be in New York in a way that work­ing on a film doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily al­low, that I’d have time. I find days are spent ei­ther tak­ing a bath in Ep­som salts, stretch­ing or watch­ing fluff, which is very tragic,” she says with a laugh.

But her re­turn to theatre, her first love, has been deeply sat­is­fy­ing. “The theatre and stage are a whole lot more fa­mil­iar to me than film, so for me it was like com­ing home. There’s some­thing very thrilling, and also very scary be­cause you are right there, there’s nowhere [to hide].”

Ny­ong’o has never been afraid to speak her mind and when ques­tioned by a jour­nal­ist dur­ing the Eclipse season as to why “such a big star would choose to do such a small play” she took to Lenny Let­ter, Lena Dun­ham and Jenni Kon­ner’s pop­u­lar on­line newslet­ter to ex­plain her move in frank terms.

“This ques­tion felt quite silly,” Ny­ong’o wrote. “I knew there was a sense of what was ex­pected of me, but this play felt so

im­por­tant I had to do it, ex­pec­ta­tions be damned. I think as women, as women of colour, as black women, too of­ten we hear about what we ‘need to do’ … I am proud of my de­ci­sion to take the time to sit with my­self and not get caught up in what oth­ers want for me.”

Which is not to say she hasn’t been in­volved in myr­iad other high-pro­file projects: Ny­ong’o has a lead role in Mira Nair’s lat­est film Queen of Katwe; she has reprised the role of Maz Kanata in the next Star Wars film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; and also fea­tures in the film adap­ta­tion of Mar­vel’s Black Pan­ther.

In be­tween there was the Tiffany & Co. Leg­endary Style cam­paign, fea­tur­ing Ny­ong’o along­side Elle Fan­ning, Christy Turling­ton and Natalie Westling.

“Grace is a very warm per­son, very invit­ing, but at the same time very sure of her­self, so she’s a good per­son to trust with your image,” Ny­ong’o says. “I work well when I’m able to take di­rec­tion. It’s a very ex­cit­ing time for Grace in her ca­reer, and to be able to work with her – I don’t know if you’d call it a dream come true – but it was awe­some.”

Ny­ong’o en­joys the di­ver­sity of the work her suc­cess af­fords her and hopes her choices will con­tinue to in­spire oth­ers to chal­lenge the sta­tus quo. “I look for roles that of­fer me an op­por­tu­nity to in­ves­ti­gate hu­man­ity in a new way, a role that will stretch me, that is ex­cit­ing to me but that also ter­ri­fies me. If there are things about a role I in­stinc­tively un­der­stand and other things I have no idea how to do, that’s a role I will prob­a­bly want to do.”

Lupita Ny­ong’o win­ning best sup­port­ing ac­tress at the 2014 Academy Awards.

Above left: Ny­ong’o for Tif­fany & Co. and, left, on stage in Eclipsed.

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