Lupita Nyong’o has a remarkably confident and upbeat take on life. Growing up in the ambitious home environment of one of Kenya’s most important political families, she was always expected to achieve great things.
So when she won the best supporting-actress Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, in 2014, and became the first Kenyan actress to do so, it was merely one step towards fulfilling her destiny.
Now she’s poised to make her mark as the female lead in the superhero blockbuster, Black Panther, her first venture into the Marvel Comics universe. It’s yet one more accomplishment for the sensationally beautiful Nyong’o and part of her ingrained sense of mission to keep setting the bar higher as an actress and socially engaged citizen of the world.
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“I was raised to be confident and determined,” Nyong’o says. “In my family, you were expected to achieve great things. Even though there were times when I worried whether success would come, I always believed that if I worked hard and kept believing in myself that good things would happen to me. Of course, I was hoping to find regular work – I didn’t expect to win an Oscar. But it did give me a tremendous sense of reassurance that it pays to have faith in your abilities.”
Black Panther sees Nyong’o play Nakia, one of the elite group of Wakandan women known as the Dora Milaje assigned to protect King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) aka Black Panther. Together, they defend Wakanda against powerful foes and all all-out battle to prevent their land from being dragged into a potential world war. Nyong’o wears a sexy spandex outfit as part of her superhero debut but defends her character as a feminist “warrior.”
“She’s an independent, strong woman who is someone young women can look up to,” Nyong’o explains. Black Panther last week surged past $1 billion in takings at the global box office and is one of history’s highest-grossing movies.
The 34-year-old Nyong’o (pronounced en-yong-o) gained attention as a model and cover girl for Vogue, InStyle, Marie Claire and Elle magazines before finally making her acting breakthrough in 12 Years a Slave. Her recent work includes the last two Star Wars films. Nyong’o speaks fluent Spanish from her time growing up as an exile in Mexico City along with her family, whose father is a distinguished former senator in the Kenyan Parliament.
This is a very physical role. Was it an added challenge to get ready to play Nakia and take part in a lot of action scenes?
I did some very intensive training and martial-arts work that was necessary to be able to perform all the action scenes. I’d never really put myself through that kind of rigorous physical preparation and I had a lot of fun getting into that. I also loved being part of the bigger spectacle that comes with this kind of movie and I had a lot of fun on the set.
Was it important for you to play this character as a very independent kind of woman who is as tough and determined as Black Panther?
It’s one of the reasons I wanted to play Nakia. We have to have more women presented as strong and forceful individuals. She also gets to work with other dynamic women who share her spirit and sense of mission. It’s encouraging that we are starting to see more films that present us in a positive and empowering way.
You’ve often spoken about being raised to be a high achiever. Has this helped you project yourself in strong female characters like Nakia?
My mother and father both believed that it was important for me and my siblings to grow up with great dreams and high ambitions. We were taught to not only have great self belief, but also to strive to achieve important things in life. I have always felt inspired by their teaching and I want to keep aiming to accomplish as much as I can in life.
Did you grow up imagining that you would one day become an Academy Award-winning actor?
I loved make believe. As a young girl I spent countless hours playing with my Barbies and other dolls and I would invent all kinds of stories for them. That was how I allowed my imagination to run wild and sometimes with my aunt I would put on small shows for my parents. But I didn’t started thinking seriously about acting until I saw The Colour Purple, when I was around the age of eight or nine. It was first time I’d seen someone like me on screen. Whoopi Goldberg had my kind of hair and was dark like me so I thought maybe I could do this for a living.
You spent many of your formative years in Mexico when your father and your family were forced into exile. How difficult a time was that for you?
My father was always very concerned about our welfare. He appreciated the dangers that came with fighting for democracy in Kenya and he did whatever he could to protect us. My father is a man of great principle and he has fought his entire life for justice and doing what is right in the world, even though that fight came with enormous risk. I think when you grow up with that kind of example it teaches you to fight for truth and justice in whatever way you can. He taught me courage and the need to be very fearless when it comes to fighting for justice.
You’ve become known for defending women’s rights and various causes during your career. Has your father inspired you in this regard?
I believe in using the platform my career has given me to be able to speak out on important issues. I remember hearing my father give many speeches when he was campaigning in Kenya. He is a very charismatic speaker and, although I’m not at his level, I appreciate the impact you can have when you use your voice to inspire people and generate awareness. I’m very grateful to have those opportunities.
Apart from your acting work, you’ve gained attention with your fashion sense and you’ve appeared on the covers of Vogue and many other fashion magazines…
I try to have fun with the glamour of it all; getting dressed up for the red carpet, wearing great outfits. I’ve worked a lot in fashion earlier in my career and I love wearing beautiful clothes when I go to premieres or film festivals. I treat it like a performance in itself and clothes are an interesting way of expressing yourself.
You gained recognition as a model before your acting career took off. Today the media often portray you as something of a fashion icon. Are you comfortable with this perception?
I think of fashion as art and I enjoy being part of that. I don’t think of myself as a fashion icon, though. I simply like being able to dress up the way I remember when I was a little girl watching how my mother would also take great care with her appearance and being very attentive to her clothes.
Does fame ever become a distraction for you or play games with your head in any way?
No. I accept it and I make room for it in my life because the attention gives me the chance to get bigger roles and also to have a bigger voice on behalf of causes I want to support. I see fame as something that parallels my acting career and I’ve grown more comfortable with it over the years. I know who I am and I don’t allow the celebrity version of myself to affect my true self. They are simply complements to each other and I have no difficulty separating the two or moving back and forth between my private and public selves. Fame is very powerful and you have to be able to handle it and use it to your advantage, but also make sure it doesn’t distract you from your work and your real goals in life.
What lessons have you learnt from your time in Hollywood?
You have to listen to your inner compass and stay true to your vision of where you want to go. I’m always very conscious of what I expect from myself and how you need to be strong and committed to deal with all the obstacles that you meet along your journey. My father taught me that you must always strive for excellence in life. That’s been my guiding principle and I want to continue in that spirit.