For a feature debut, the role of Patsey in Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slavecouldn't have been more daunting. The film is brutal, an unflinchingly confrontational depiction of America's dark legacy that called for its actors' all. And there's also the pressure of history. With so few films made about slavery, this story was looked to by many to represent it all. But Brooklyn-based actress Lupita Nyong'o rose to the task and then some of playing the 19th-century slave, an object of obsession for her cruel master (Michael Fassbender). Here’s what you need to know about one of cinema’s hottest new talents, the cover star of our new Girls Rule the World issue.
1. SHE IS THE NEW FACE OF MIU MIU
Consistently chic, she joins other rising film talents Elle Fanning, previous Dazed cover star Elizabeth Olsen and Bella Heathcote for the Italian brand’s spring/summer 2014 campaign.
2. SHE IS A DIRECTOR IN HER OWN RIGHT
In 2009, she wrote, directed and produced the documentary In My Genes, about the treatment of Kenya’s albino population. The feature-length film follows eight Kenyans who, lacking skin pigmentation, are marginalised for being white in a black society.
3. SHE GREW UP IN KENYA, BUT WAS BORN IN MEXICO
Nyong'o left Mexico at one, but returned at 16 to learn Spanish ("Lupita" is the Spanish diminutive of "Guadalupe"). “My conscious life has all been in Kenya and it's my point of reference. But going back to Mexico was very formative."
4. SHE'S HOTLY TIPPED FOR AN OSCAR WIN
She’s been pegged as a front-runner for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 12 Years in what’s likely to be the first year three African-American actresses are nominated in the category (Oprah Winfrey for The Butlerand Octavia Spencer for Fruitvale Station are also expected to be vying).
5. WHOOPI GOLDBERG WAS A ROLE MODEL
“The first time I thought I could be an actor was seeing The Color Purple," Nyong'o says. "Whoopi Goldberg looked like me, she had hair like mine, she was dark like me. I’d been starved for images of myself. I’d grown up watching a lot of American TV. There was very little Kenyan material, because we had an autocratic ruler who stifled our creative expression.”
6. SHE STUDIED DRAMA AT YALE
She was just graduating when cast as Patsey, and used the Lucid Body acting method she learned there for the role. “It’s about investigating your emotional make-up through your physicality. We store our emotions in our bodies.”
7. HER FAMILY'S USED TO THE LIMELIGHT
Her father is a prominent politician in Kenya, and her cousin Isis Nyong’o Madison – a media and tech leader and head of African operations for a mobile advertising operator – was named one of Africa's Top 20 Youngest Power Women by Forbes.
8. SHE MODELLED PATSY ON MJ
Nyong'o says the King of Pop was the main inspiration for her performance: “There’s something very Michael Jackson-like about Patsey – the childlike quality he always had. She had her childhood stripped away from her suddenly as soon as she became of sexual age.”
9. HER FAVOURITE FILM IS EVE'S BAYOU
Directed by Kasi Lemmons, this 1997 southern gothic drama is about a girl who seeks help from a voodoo priestess for her father’s infidelity. “It's this magical realism that's just so lush. It's also set in Louisiana. I just love Louisiana.”
10. NEXT UP IS AIRLINE THRILLER NON-STOP
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who was behind the remake of horror House of Wax, Non-Stop also stars Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore and Michelle Dockery. Look out for it in UK cinemas in February.