After Very Visible Roles, Lupita Nyong'o Looks To Disappear Into Character

Apr 23, 2016
Originally published on April 24, 2016 5:38 am

Lupita Nyong'o lives in a sunny apartment high above the East River in Brooklyn. Black-and-white photos of African wildlife hang on orange accent walls, near a collection of pretty blue pottery. The actress just earned rave reviews for her Broadway debut, in the play Eclipsed. She's also featured in the biggest movie in theaters now, The Jungle Book. It's possible you heard about her last little film: Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Nyong'o was born in Mexico City; her Kenyan parents were teaching university there. She grew up in Nairobi, studied drama at Yale and won an Oscar for her first film, 12 Years A Slave, the very day after her 31st birthday.

"It was a very discombobulating thing, to go from being completely unknown to winning an Academy Award," N'yongo says frankly. She's wearing a daisy-printed black dress, curled up barefoot on her couch. (Guests are politely requested to remove their shoes upon entering her apartment.)

When Nyong'o accepted her Best Supporting Actress Oscar, she thanked the real person her character was based upon, from Solomon Northup's memoir, Twelve Years A Slave, published in 1853. Patsey, an enslaved young woman, endured horrific violence and endless labor in the cotton fields of Louisiana.

"It doesn't escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else's," she said in her speech to the Academy, composed and compassionate, her dark skin set off by a blue pastel Prada gown.

That 2014 appearance helped make Nyong'o a celebrated beauty. She appeared on a raft of magazine covers, including People's Most Beautiful issue, and was named a face of Lancôme. But that kind of attention ended up giving Nyong'o pause.

"12 Years A Slave is a lot about the economy of Patsey's body," she observed. "And then, also, the exposure the film gave me was a lot about my body."

So it's not entirely by accident that you don't see Lupita Nyong'o's body or her lovely face in the two giant movies she starred in right after 12 Years A Slave. In The Jungle Book, she's a voice. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, she's an alien, altered entirely by CGI. I wondered if that was because of Hollywood's limited starring roles for women who look like her. Nyong'o said no.

"I think subconsciously I was excited by work ... that was not about my body," she says. In fact, she says, playing a thousand year old creature in Star Wars was something of a relief. "It wasn't about my skin or my body or its economy, whether we're talking about slavery or we're talking about fashion or about celebrity," she says. "When Star Wars came about, it excited me because I got to get back to acting in a way that was free of that body, and I got to inhabit a different body."

Plus, obviously, it was Star Wars. Similarly, in The Jungle Book Nyong'o got to experiment with voice acting in a classic Disney remake, as the main character's adoptive wolf mother. "I like to disappear into character," she says, smiling. "I like to let go of my ego and just work on material. I like to be in service of character."

Pascale Armand, Lupita Nyong'o and Saycon Sengbloh in a scene from Eclipsed, now on Broadway.
Joan Marcus

That's also why Lupita Nyong'o has returned to her roots as a stage actress. At Yale, she served as an understudy for Eclipsed, a play set among captured women during the second civil war in Liberia. It never left her. She used her fame to bring Eclipsed to Broadway, and stars in it as well.

"Ms. Nyong'o, simply superb, illuminates her character's conflicted feelings with pinpoint clarity," raved Charles Isherwood, chief drama critic of The New York Times in March, when the play opened. He went on to call Nyong'o "one of the most radiant young actors to be seen on Broadway in recent seasons."

Isherwood told NPR that the movie stars he sees on Broadway usually pick commercially-friendly revivals, not challenging, contemporary dramas. "To see a young actor bringing a play like this to Broadway is really frankly not something I've seen before," he said. "It's unprecedented, I think."
So what are Nyong'o's plans after Eclipsed closes in mid June?

"I really, really need to do a comedy," Nyong'o laughs.

Lupita Nyong'o's next movie is not a comedy, but it's already in the can. The Queen of Katwe comes out in September, also from Disney and directed by Mira Nair. It's another true story: Nyong'o will play the mother of a teenaged female Ugandan chess champion.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The biggest movie in theaters now, "The Jungle Book," stars an actress who's also making her Broadway debut. Lupita Nyong'o became famous for winning an Oscar right out of drama school for the movie "12 Years A Slave." NPR's Neda Ulaby visited her in Brooklyn to talk about the challenges she set for herself since then.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Lupita Nyong'o lives high above the East River in a sunny apartment - orange walls, black and white photos of African wildlife and a collection of pretty blue pottery. She was born in Mexico to Kenyan parents teaching university there. They went back to Nairobi when she was a baby. Nyong'o studied drama at Yale, then did "12 Years A Slave" and won an Oscar the day after her 31st birthday.

LUPITA NYONG'O: It was a very discombobulating thing to go from being completely unknown to winning an Academy Award. It was dizzying.

ULABY: Nyong'o played a young woman named Patsey in the movie, who endures horrible violence on top of punishing work in the fields.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

NYONG'O: (As Patsey) Five-hundred pounds of cotton, day in, day out, more than any man here.

ULABY: Patsey was based on a real person, who Nyong'o acknowledged in her Oscar acceptance speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2014 ACADEMY AWARDS)

NYONG'O: It doesn't escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else's. And so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance.

ULABY: Nyong'o - serene and starry-eyed. Her dark skin set off by a blue pastel gown became a celebrated international beauty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When it comes to fashion, you're one to watch. Everyone's been looking at you nonstop.

ULABY: Twirling on the world's fanciest red carpets, like the Met Gala's in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NYONG'O: And I call it the taxi dress.

ULABY: She was one of People Magazine's most beautiful, a face of Lancome. But all of that ended up giving Nyong'o pause.

NYONG'O: You know, "12 Years A Slave" is a lot about the economy of Patsey's body. And then also the exposure the film gave me was a lot about my body.

ULABY: You do not see Lupita Nyongo's body or her beautiful face in the two giant movies she did next. In "The Jungle Book," she's a voice. In "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," she's a CGI alien. I wondered if that's because of Hollywood's starring roles for women who look like her. But Nyong'o said no.

NYONG'O: I think subconsciously I was excited by work that was not about my body.

ULABY: And after all, she said, how often do you get to be in "Star Wars?"

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STARWARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS")

NYONG'O: (As Maz Kanata) Han Solo.

ULABY: Playing a thousand-year-old creature who runs a rough space cantina.

NYONG'O: It wasn't about, you know, my skin or my body or its economy, whether we're talking about slavery or we're talking about fashion. When "Star Wars" came about, it excited me because I got to get back to acting in a way that was free of that body, and I got to inhabit a different body.

ULABY: Similarly, in "The Jungle Book," Nyong'o got to try out voice acting in a classic Disney remake. She says it meant a lot for the first time to play a mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JUNGLE BOOK")

NYONG'O: (As Raksha) You're mine.

ULABY: Lupita Nyong'o plays a maternal wolf who adopts a human baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JUNGLE BOOK")

NYONG'O: (As Raksha) You will always be my son.

I like to disappear into character. I like to let go of my ego and just work on the material. I like to be in service of character.

ULABY: That's also why Lupita Nyong'o decided to return to her roots on stage. As a drama student, she was an understudy for a heartbreaking play set during civil war in Liberia. It never left her. She used her fame to bring the play, called "Eclipsed," to Broadway. And she stars in it as a teenager captured with other women for sex.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ECLIPSED")

NYONG'O: (As The Girl) How long you've been here for?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Long time - long, long time. They no let me go. They've been keeping me for years.

NYONG'O: (As The Girl) Since you was how old?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Young.

ULABY: The New York Times called Nyong'o's performance simply superb. Its critic, Charles Isherwood, sees lots of movie stars on Broadway, but he says they usually pick revivals or obviously commercial shows, not such challenging ones.

CHARLES ISHERWOOD: To see a young actor bringing a play like this to Broadway is really, frankly, not something I've seen before. It's unprecedented, I think.

ULABY: So what do you do when you've just played someone who's 15, someone who's 1000 and a cartoon wolf?

NYONG'O: Like now, after doing "Eclipsed," I really, really need to do a comedy.

ULABY: Nyong'o's next movie is not a comedy, but it's already in the can. It comes out in September from Disney. Lupita Nyong'o will play the mother of a female Ugandan chess champion. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.