“We were dancing with ghosts,” says Lupita Nyong’o, recalling her gruelling experience of shooting 12 Years a Slave on a former cotton plantation, one of the many sites in Louisiana where whip lashings and lynchings were common for the average slave in the 19th century American south.
She notes that on set, at the height of an unrelenting and oppressive New Orleans summer, “I had sweat dripping from places I didn’t even know sweat could drip”.
Nyong’o’s haunting and brutal portrayal of Patsey caught the attention of Hollywood and has had a profound effect on most who have seen the film.
“Shooting in the same environment where these atrocities occurred helped me do my job, and the extreme weather itself was like a character on its own. It changed my gait; it transformed me and helped me go that extra mile,” Nyong’o explains.
“Picking cotton is something I never thought I’d do in my life and so I was confronted by the resilience and the power of those people who withstood slavery. They were in the fields 18 hours a day. I was having trouble being there for one hour with someone fanning me between takes.”
Directed by Steve McQueen, the film is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free man from upstate New York who was abducted and sold into slavery in the South in 1841. Nyong’o plays a much-abused slave who befriends Northup, the pair finding strength and respite from the dire conditions in their camaraderie, while both remain at the mercy of their sadistic owner (played by Michael Fassbender).
Nyong’o’s haunting and brutal portrayal of Patsey caught the attention of Hollywood and has had a profound effect on most who have seen the film. Recently, in the strongest indication yet that she may well win an Oscar, Nyong’o won the Screen Actors Guild Best Supporting Actress award, as well as the Critics’ Choice Awards. She was also nominated for a Golden Globe, though lost out to Jennifer Lawrence’s popular performance in American Hustle.
Far from the world of oppression and violence, this Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised actress grew up in a sophisticated, upper middle class family in suburban Nairobi. The second of six children, her father is Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, a Kenyan politician, and her mother, Dorothy, is head of public relations for the Africa Cancer Foundation.
“I always wanted to be an actor. I was the kind of child that locked myself in the cupboard and played with Barbies while everyone else was riding bikes. I also liked that I could manipulate my mother’s emotions by acting. One time I was in a skit and I died. My mother cried out for her daughter!” She pretends to grimace. “I was so tickled by that.”
She realised she actually could be an actor when she watched the haunting 1985 The Color Purple. “I was eight years old and I saw people that looked like me, like Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg, and I realised that people did this for a living.” Of course, these days, she is on a first-name basis with Winfrey and other media luminaries.
Getting the role
After an arduous audition process, Nyong’o was cast in 12 Years a Slave immediately after graduating from Yale School of Drama (other alums include Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Patricia Clarkson and Angela Bassett). “I had to do two of the most difficult scenes in the movie where Patsey is sinking deeper and deeper into despair and grief,” she says. “It was really tough.”
The stunning 30-year-old burgeoning movie star – with whom the world was completely unfamiliar only weeks ago – has already established herself as an international style icon. Critics swooned over that red Ralph Lauren gown at the Golden Globes, which was only eclipsed by her aqua Gucci model at the SAG awards.
Now a darling of the fashion world, Miu Miu named her one of the faces for their Spring 2014 collection, with Bella Heathcote, Elle Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen.
Smiles Nyong’o, “I didn’t grow up reading magazines or knowing anything about the world of style, so fashion is very new to me. It was daunting at first but now I’m really enjoying learning about designers and what’s hot and what’s not.”
She has a little laugh to herself. “This is a whole new world for me.” And evidently, one that suits her.