Lucky Lupita

Lupita Ny­ong’o is hol­ly­wood’s new It girl.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - OSCAR SPECIAL - By AMY KAUF­MAN

ATHICK, un­re­lent­ing heat per­me­ated the Louisiana sets of 12 Years A Slave – 100-de­gree-plus tem­per­a­tures (37°C) so in­tense they sti­fled breath. The mo­ment a scene wrapped, cast and crew would take refuge in aircon­di­tioned cars parked nearby. One mem­ber of the en­sem­ble, how­ever, stayed out­doors: Lupita Ny­ong’o, a 30year-old new­comer who plays Pat­sey, the favourite slave of a sadis­tic plan­ta­tion mas­ter.

“In that kind of con­di­tion, we all wanted to find even the tini­est com­fort we could get,” re­called Chi­we­tel Ejio­for, the lead ac­tor in the movie about a free North­erner who is ab­ducted and sold into slav­ery in the South. “We were all sit­ting in the SUV, and she’d be stand­ing out­side, just out there in the mode of it.”

Por­tray­ing Pat­sey would be a har­row­ing chal­lenge for even a vet­eran ac­tress – the char­ac­ter is raped, whipped, beaten and as­saulted. But Ny­ong’o ar­rived in Louisiana last sum­mer only weeks af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Yale School of Drama, hav­ing beat out 1,000 other ac­tresses for the part – her first fea­ture film role ever.

To pre­pare, the Kenya na­tive vis­ited Bal­ti­more’s Na­tional Great Blacks in Wax Mu­seum to learn more about slav­ery and had in­tense dis­cus­sions about the char­ac­ter with di­rec­tor Steve McQueen.

“Pat­sey didn’t have the lux­ury of mak­ing her sit­u­a­tion pre­cious, so I felt I owed it to her mem­ory to just roll up my sleeves and do the work,” Ny­ong’o ex­plained. “I wasn’t ever truly rid of Pat­sey. From the mo­ment Steve called me to of­fer me the part to the mo­ment we wrapped – and maybe a few weeks af­ter that – I couldn’t sleep. The place I had to go emo­tion­ally, the in­tim­i­da­tion of work­ing with these ac­tors – there was a lot go­ing on in my head.”

Her ef­forts ap­pear to have paid off. With crit­ics herald­ing her turn in 12 Years A Slave as the movie’s break­out per­for­mance; Ny­ong’o is nom­i­nated in the best ac­tress in a sup­port­ing cat­e­gory of the Os­cars.

“It’s kind of un­prece­dented for one of our grad­u­ates to have this much suc­cess so quickly,” said Ron Van Lieu, chair of the act­ing pro­gramme at Yale. “It took Meryl (Streep) many more years. I think it’s a lit­tle scary.”

If all the at­ten­tion is faz­ing Ny­ong’o, she’s not show­ing it. In the week leading up to the film’s open­ing, she had, in the span of seven days, flown from New York to New Or­leans to Los Angeles, at­tended mul­ti­ple screen­ings and par­tic­i­pated in more than half a dozen Q&A ses­sions.

De­spite the gru­el­ing sched­ule, her face showed no sign of ex­haus­tion over a lunch in­ter­view at a Beverly Hills ho­tel, and she car­ried her­self like an off-duty model. Even her out­fit – a sim­ple sweater-and-shorts com­bi­na­tion – looked like the kind of en­sem­ble that would have her sin­gled out by a street style pho­tog­ra­pher for a fash­ion mag­a­zine.

Ejio­for, a vet­eran ac­tor who has been by her side through­out the pro­mo­tional du­ties, said he has been sur­prised by how tran­quil Ny­ong’o has re­mained amid the flurry of at­ten­tion. “The first time I did a press jun­ket, I was kind of con­fused,” he said. “But you sort of feel like she’s been there 1,000 times be­fore.”

Ny­ong’o says she has never been par­tic­u­larly im­pressed by fame. Her fa­ther, Peter Anyang’ Ny­ong’o, is a prom­i­nent politi­cian in Kenya who of­ten made the head­lines.

A po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor with a PhD from the Univer­sity of Chicago, he has served as a min­is­ter of med­i­cal ser­vices and is now a mem­ber of the Kenyan par­lia­ment. But when Ny­ong’o was a lit­tle girl, her dad was still fight­ing for lo­cal democ­racy and would some­times dis­ap­pear for weeks at a time – in 1989, he was de­tained for 26 days at a govern­ment com­plex and held in a tor­ture cham­ber.

“I grew up in the lime­light and be­ing the child of some­one fa­mous,” she ex­plained. “So my re­la­tion­ship with fame is not be­daz­zled.”

Dur­ing her youth, Ny­ong’o was drawn to per­form­ing, of­ten putting on skits with her five sib­lings at fam­ily gath­er­ings. But she didn’t se­ri­ously con­tem­plate be­com­ing a pro­fes­sional ac­tress.

The people she saw on her TV set – ac­tors on Amer­i­can shows like Full House, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air and Beverly Hills, 90210 – didn’t look like any­one she knew in Africa.

“We watched a lot of ev­ery­one else and very lit­tle of our­selves,” she said. “For that rea­son, it didn’t seem fea­si­ble to want to be an ac­tor, be­cause where the hell would I do it?”

Still, when she at­tended Mas­sachusetts’ Hamp­shire Col­lege – where stu­dents de­sign their own ma­jors – she de­cided to fo­cus on film and African stud­ies. And then one sum­mer back at home, she no­ticed a movie film­ing in her neigh­bour­hood.

It was The Con­stant Gar­dener, the 2005 dra­matic thriller based on John le Carre’s best­selling novel. Through a friend, Ny­ong’o landed a gig as a pro­duc­tion as­sis­tant, at times help­ing ac­tor Ralph Fi­ennes.

“At lunch one day, he asked me what I wanted to do, and when I told him he sighed and said, ‘Lupita, only act if there’s noth­ing else you want to do. It’s un­for­giv­ing,’” she re­mem­bered.

“I was bummed. I re­alised I re­ally had to think about why I wanted to do this, be­cause it can be a very un­sta­ble ca­reer.”

Yet she con­tin­ued to be drawn to cre­ative en­deav­ours. She made a doc­u­men­tary, In My Genes, about Africans with al­binism, and acted in an African MTV drama, Shuga, in­tended to raise aware­ness about AIDS.

In 2009, she was ad­mit­ted to Yale’s pres­ti­gious act­ing pro­gramme, im­me­di­ately im­press­ing in­struc­tor Van Lieu: “She is what we call a nat­u­ral,” he said, “mean­ing that ev­ery­thing she did was in­stinc­tively right.”

Ny­ong’o struck 12 Years A Slave di­rec­tor McQueen too. Af­ter months of au­di­tion­ing hun­dreds of young women, the film­maker said he was be­gin­ning to get “a bit des­per­ate and anx­ious” that he would never find his Pat­sey. When Ny­ong’o flew to meet him in New Or­leans, he thought she might be a mi­rage.

“I said, ‘ Oh my God, is she real?’” he re­mem­bered. And that she was a novice? “Even bet­ter. Naivete you can­not buy. It’s un­der­rated, be­cause it’s what makes you fear­less. That’s what she has, and she has to hold on to that in­no­cence.”

Ny­ong’o, who now lives in Brook­lyn, says she has been keep­ing a jour­nal to track her jour­ney through awards sea­son. And she has been call­ing upon Pat­sey too to re­mind her to stay present as she trav­els from one red car­pet to the next.

“Pat­sey had to be that present, be­cause she had a volatile mas­ter whose whims could change at any time,” said Ny­ong’o.

“In play­ing her, I had to em­ploy that kind of mind-set: Just be here right now. It’s a prin­ci­ple I’ve val­ued since.” – Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tri­bune In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices

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