On the Rise: Lupita Nyong’o, the Awards-Bound Breakout of 12 Years a Slave

Nyong’o may be new to the U.S. screen, but she isn’t new to the industry.

On the Rise: Lupita Nyong'o, the Awards-Bound Breakout of 12 Years a Slave
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

As we surge headlong into Oscar season, the inevitable nuances regarding reception of 12 Years a Slave are finally trickling out, with the initial wave of rapturous reviews being joined by sobering studies questioning the film’s novelty and its appeal to Academy voters. In today’s Links for the Day, we acknowledged both of these issues, which suggest that, while the film may stand alongside Gravity as half of this year’s Oscar power couple, it’s not necessarily the sure thing so many hyperbolically claimed it to be.

I’ve heard people laud and criticize 12 Years a Slave for various reasons, but I certainly haven’t heard a single peep denouncing Lupita Nyong’o’s spectacular performance. There are other actors here whose work lingers like weight on your heart (Pariah’s Adepero Oduye, for instance, isn’t getting nearly enough acclaim for playing a mother stripped of her children), but none cut as deep as Nyong’o, whose turn as the physically and spiritually frayed Patsey isn’t just Oscar-bound; it’s career-making. Here’s your sure thing: this woman is going to be a star.

“Steve McQueen chooses actors he trusts,” 29-year-old Nyong’o says of her 12 Years a Slave director. “He chooses actors because of the work he is confident they can bring, and not because of a name. And because of that, I got this role. He gave me a huge break, and I owe him a lot for that.”

Nyong’o is speaking at New York’s Conrad Hotel, joined by castmates Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, and Alfre Woodard for the 12 Years a Slave press junket. She’s a stunner in person, which, to be honest, is kind of alarming, considering she gets the ultimate de-glam treatment as Patsey, the top-performing slave and deeply abused mistress of Edwin Epps (Fassbender). She may be a bit short for the modeling world she’s otherwise clearly built for, but Nyong’o towers as an actress, as anyone I know who’s seen her in action will attest. The Kenya native and Yale Drama School grad is tear-inducing when she expresses to Ejiofor’s lead character, Solomon Northup, that she’d rather die by his hand than live another day as a slave. Nyong’o reportedly garnered boisterous cheers at a recent Academy screening, where viewers were stunned to learn that the film marked her American acting debut.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I believe that I’d be involved with a project of this magnitude right after graduating from drama school,” Nyong’o says. “So it’s been a gift all around, but particularly because, even when I was in high school, and primary school, I wasn’t really good at history. I didn’t really retain information. And one of the things I love about being an actor is that you get to visit things outside of yourself—outside of your sphere—and take them personally. So for me it was a real privilege to take this type of history personally. And I have learned so much through this process that I would otherwise just not know. And with this particular story, I didn’t know I didn’t know these things about slavery. And I’m just glad to be a part of this for that reason, because the knowledge will be spread and retained in a way that it would otherwise not be.”

Nyong’o may be new to the U.S. screen, but she isn’t new to the industry. Before enrolling in Yale’s acting program, she earned a degree in film and theatre studies from Hampshire College, which led to working on the production crews of such major films as Mira Nair’s The Namesake and Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener. What gave her the acting bug? It might have been working around the likes of Ralph Fiennes and Irrfan Khan, but whatever the source, it propelled her to star in Shuga, a 2009 Kenyan miniseries.

Nyong’o also comes from an illustratious family. Her father, Anyang’, is a politician with a PhD now serving in the Kenyan Senate; her cousin Isis netted a 2012 mention in Forbes as one of Africa’s most powerful women; and her other cousin Tavia is a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Perhaps all that authority rubbed off a bit, as Nyong’o, and Nyong’o alone, recently stepped up to host a special screening of 12 Years a Slave in Sarasota Springs, Solomon Northup’s hometown, where descendants of the subject (whose memoir inspired the film) arrived to acknowledge their ancestor as a group.

“It was just me,” Nyong’o says. “It was incredible to be in a room full of people who had Solomon Northup’s blood coursing through their veins. And they were just people—they’re contemporary, and some of them were meeting for the first time. It felt wonderful to be at their family reunion. One of [Solomon’s] descendants wrote a poem after reading the biography for the first time, and was just talking about his own creative expression thanks to his great, great, great grandfather. And he’d also gone on a quest to find the first publication of the book, and his adolescent daughter had just found a copy in New Orleans, and it was there in the [screening] room. Right there, he gave it to the matriarch of the family: his mother. And it was very touching, but at the same time, it was so real, because as he handed it to his mother, she was on an iPhone talking to somebody. [laughs] And she was like, ‘Wait, what?’ It was very cute. But it was a very special occasion, and they were very welcoming to me, and they were all so excited that their story was going to be shared with a larger audience.”

Such is without doubt the popular sentiment surrounding 12 Years a Slave, and whatever McQueen’s missteps (which we’ve cited around these parts), it is the sort of film that, as they say, “you owe it to yourself to see.” It may just widen the iris when it comes to how you view the world, and it’s laced with visuals that take up permanent residence in your memory. If nothing else, it will introduce you to a thrilling new talent, who already has her I-want-it-but-I’ll-be-gracious awards-season responses down.

“It’s all incredibly overwhelming to hear my name mentioned among other names that I admire so much,” Nyong’o says of her Best Supporting Actress buzz, which may be strong enough to shuffle her ahead of frontrunner and Butler star Oprah Winfrey. “But at the end of the day, Patsey was my gift, and that was my reward. Everything else is welcome, but it’s gravy.”

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

R. Kurt Osenlund

R. Kurt Osenlund is a creative director and account supervisor at Mark Allen & Co. He is the former editor of Out magazine.

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