Academy Award-win­ning ac­tor Lupita Ny­ong’o talks about her rise to star­dom



Lupita Ny­ong’o is hav­ing a busy day on set, but has made time to chat de­spite her hec­tic sched­ule. It’s clear to see why so many are in­spired by her Su­per­woman-like work ethic, an ad­mirable trait she says she learned from her fa­ther. “[He] is just so faith­ful to his prin­ci­ples, and sac­ri­fices a lot for the good of his com­mu­nity, our na­tion,” Ny­ong’o as­serts with a clear sense of pride in her voice. “And I saw him work, I saw him just so com­mit­ted, and that’s def­i­nitely some­thing I as­pire to be. Just hard-work­ing—maybe to a fault.”

Since tak­ing Hol­ly­wood by storm back in 2013 for her break­through role in 12 Years A Slave— which she was cast for prior to grad­u­at­ing from the Yale School of Drama—Ny­ong’o’s star has been on a steady rise. The awards and ac­co­lades she’s re­ceived for that per­for­mance alone, in­clud­ing win­ning the Academy Award for Best Per­for­mance by an Ac­tress in a Sup­port­ing Role the fol­low­ing year, is the type of recog­ni­tion many sea­soned ac­tors have only ever strived for. Sim­ply put, there are few peo­ple who are des­tined for this type of great­ness, and Ny­ong’o is cer­tainly one of them.

Though some may look at her prompt suc­cess as a bout of luck, the 34-year-old al­ways knew in her heart that act­ing is what she was meant to do. “It was the dream,” she says. “It wouldn’t leave me alone. I feel like I had to hon­our it and try it out.” She even re­mem­bers the ex­act mo­ment she re­al­ized her true calling. “I was per­form­ing for my fam­ily and ex­tended fam­ily at an event, and I was play­ing a boy who ate a poi­sonous egg in the for­est and died,” Ny­ong’o shares, laugh­ing softly as she re­calls the nos­tal­gic mo­ment. “I re­mem­ber my mom gasp­ing dra­mat­i­cally at my demise, and I loved that feel­ing of be­ing able to af­fect her that way—and that made me want to be an ac­tor.”

But it’s one thing to have the tal­ent, and quite an­other to have the mo­ti­va­tion to make the dream a re­al­ity. Ny­ong’o had both. De­spite the naysay­ers in Ny­ong’o’s ex­tended fam­ily, who sug­gested she may be bet­ter off hav­ing an “in­ter­est in busi­ness and medicine and math­e­mat­ics”—and also never see­ing any­one in her fam­ily’s home­town of Kisumu, Kenya, make it as a pro­fes­sional ac­tor—her benev­o­lent par­ents, Peter Anyang’ Ny­ong’o and Dorothy Ny­ong’o, never dis­cred­ited their daugh­ter’s artis­tic abil­i­ties. “I wouldn’t have been able to defy what was ex­pected of me had I not had that kind of sup­port—so I re­ally do thank my par­ents,” she says. “My par­ents are phe­nom­e­nal in that way. What­ever [my sib­lings and I] showed in­ter­est in, they would ed­u­cate them­selves, and avail them­selves to those in­ter­ests.

“[My mother] didn’t know what an ac­tor needed but she would find things,” Ny­ong’o con­tin­ues. “Dif­fer­ent clubs, dif­fer­ent com­pe­ti­tions, po­etry com­pe­ti­tions, de­bat­ing. And it was all be­cause of her, you know? She took the time to try and find things that would hone that in­ter­est that I had.”

Be­ing raised by such a com­pas­sion­ate and un­der­stand­ing woman is per­haps why Ny­ong’o’s en­dear­ing hu­mil­ity is so in­nate, de­spite her grow­ing star­dom. “Her self­less­ness just as­tounds me,” she says of her mother. “Very hum­ble and well-mean­ing.”

The Academy award-win­ner’s lat­est film, Black Pan­ther, which is set to re­lease in Fe­bru­ary 2018, al­ready has au­di­ences buzzing on­line and is poised to be a box of­fice hit. And with an all-star cast in­clud­ing Chad­wick Bose­man, Michael B. Jor­dan, and film vet­er­ans For­est Whi­taker and An­gela Bassett, who could re­ally ar­gue oth­er­wise?

While au­di­ences have only seen snip­pets of the film through var­i­ous re­leased trail­ers, it’s clear that what Marvel is cre­at­ing with this movie will be noth­ing short of ground­break­ing. Fea­tur­ing a pri­mar­ily black cast and the first African-Amer­i­can di­rec­tor in the his­tory of the Marvel Cin­e­matic Uni­verse, Ryan Coogler, Black Pan

ther has the po­ten­tial to shat­ter the cliché nar­ra­tive of the “tra­di­tional” su­per­hero, in terms of ap­pear­ance and na­tional ori­gin.

“What we have in store for the world is re­ally spe­cial,” Ny­ong’o says of the up­com­ing pro­duc­tion. “I think we’re see­ing a world, an as­pi­ra­tional world, that we haven’t seen be­fore, and it’s ex­tremely in­spir­ing. It’s putting for­ward a nar­ra­tive of an African coun­try that is self-de­ter­min­ing and that is ex­tremely pow­er­ful and ad­vanced.” She also pre­dicts that the film will have ma­jor so­ci­etal in­flu­ence. “I think all too of­ten we re­ally don’t have that kind of cul­tural event—global cul­tural event with that sto­ry­line,” she ex­plains. “So I think it’s go­ing to be a shift. I think it’s

“What we have in store for the world is re­ally spe­cial. I think we’re see­ing a world, an as­pi­ra­tional world, that we haven’t seen be­fore, and it’s ex­tremely in­spir­ing.”

go­ing to be some­thing that will in­form a lot of pop­u­lar cul­ture go­ing for­ward.”

There have also been re­ports cir­cu­lat­ing that Ny­ong’o will ap­pear in the Char­lie’s An­gels re­boot along­side Kris­ten Stewart, as well as a forth­com­ing per­for­mance in

Star Wars: Episode IX. How­ever, she’s keep­ing mum on the de­tails for now, but says movie­go­ers should stay tuned.

Ear­lier this year, Twit­ter users thought up a plot for a movie star­ring Ny­ong’o and Ri­hanna—all prompted af­ter a photo of the two stars sit­ting side by side at Miu Miu’s 2014 Paris Fash­ion Week run­way show went vi­ral. And to all our luck, En­ter­tain­ment Weekly re­ported back in May that Net­flix has se­cured a deal for the film project af­ter ne­go­ti­a­tions dur­ing the 2017 Cannes Film Fes­ti­val.

The ac­tress says she was left in­spired by the In­ter­net-driven ini­tia­tive. “The pas­sion of the pub­lic was so pal­pa­ble and I def­i­nitely joined in on the fun on­line,” she says. “But what was so beau­ti­ful about that en­tire phe­nom­e­non was the peo­ple were speak­ing up about the kind of work they wanted to see, and it can­not be de­nied.”

The con­ver­sa­tion also turned to who would di­rect and pen the movie. “They didn’t just pop­u­late who they wanted to see in front of the cam­era, but they also went as far as to say who they wanted to see be­hind it,” she adds, in ref­er­ence to Ava DuVer­nay re­port­edly be­ing asked to di­rect and Issa Rae to write the script. “It speaks to the con­ver­sa­tions of cul­tural in­clu­sion and di­ver­sity…That is ex­tremely pow­er­ful.”

Out­side of the big screen, Ny­ong’o has made quite the mark on the fash­ion in­dus­try by ap­pear­ing on the cov­ers of ma­jor mag­a­zines like Vogue, InStyle, Elle and Glam­our, to name a few, and rul­ing the red car­pet in haute cou­ture, whether at the Met Gala or twirling for the cam­eras in a baby blue Prada gown at the Os­cars. Even when she’s pho­tographed just out and about, the star some­how al­ways man­ages to look ex­quis­ite. When asked to choose her most mem­o­rable look, Ny­ong’o is just as stumped as the rest of us would be, and jokes that it’s “like pick­ing a favourite child.”

“Oh man, I could not pos­si­bly pick one,” she laughs. “I’ve re­ally en­joyed my in­tro­duc­tion to the red-car­pet world, and I’ve had some re­ally fun and mem­o­rable mo­ments in the past.”

There’s no ques­tion that Ny­ong’o has so­lid­i­fied her place in Hol­ly­wood as an icon. And much like her par­ents are to her, Ny­ong’o is seen as a role model for up-and­com­ers. Her ad­vice to them? Be cer­tain that act­ing is your true pas­sion, then be com­pletely de­voted to the craft.

“I asked my­self the ques­tions, ‘ Would I be an ac­tor if it did not put food on my ta­ble? Would I be an ac­tor if I wasn’t mak­ing it?’ My an­swers were ‘Yes!’ One way or an­other, I still wanted to do it,” she shares. “Know­ing that made it a lot eas­ier for me to pur­sue. It’s a com­mit­ment to your own dream, and no­body else can dream for you.”

“It’s a com­mit­ment to your own dream, and no­body else can dream for you.”

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