Field slave Patsey sits humming to herself making cornhusk dolls, her long fingers trembling slightly as she braids the fibres, the raised scar tissue on her cheek the result of a jealous outburst from her master’s wife. The scene, one of many moments in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave that Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o performs with devastating veracity, was Nyong’o’s own idea.
“There was something childlike to me about Patsey,” the 30-year-old says when we meet at a small café in Brooklyn. “(The dollmaking) was going to be my secret, just something I would know as an actor that she did. But then the next day I was talking to Steve and I mentioned it, and immediately he got the art department to supply me with cornhusks. I made one every other day and in the end I was able to give them out as gifts.”
British director McQueen had auditioned over a thousand girls for the role, but when he met Nyong’o, he knew he had found his Patsey. “She was striking,” he remembers. “Then the audition happened and she was even more striking.” The reason for his reaction is immediately obvious today: when Nyong’o, wrapped in a thick marigold-coloured scarf, enters the room, it’s with the easy gait of a model accustomed to matching grace to her height. Her presence is calming in its total absence of nervous energy. She sits with perfect posture, her chin resting on her hands, her large eyes attentive and warm.
Already the recipient of nine critics awards and nominated for both a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for the role, her feature debut, Nyong’o has made a similar impression on the rest of the world. An Oscar nomination is surely on the cards. To all this, she laughs brightly. “I’m pleasantly surprised.” 12 Years a Slave, the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, opened stateside the same year right-wingers raised a Confederate flag in front of the White House and a Florida jury acquitted a man for killing a black teen. Few films have felt as urgent, and its instant acclaim perhaps indicates that Americans are finally ready for honest stories about their history, even if they require outsiders to tell them.
Due to an abiding anxiety over what may come of openly talking about slavery, there has long been a deafening silence on the subject in the US mainstream, broken only by films like 2011's The Help, which functions mainly as a reminder that some white people were “good”. Such hamfisted priorities lead to songs like country star Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist”, in which Paisley negotiates “southern pride” and urges that we “let bygones be bygones”, while LL Cool J raps, “If you don't judge my gold chains, I'll forget the iron chains.”
“My public image is part of me but it is not me. I have no illusions about it ever being me”
12 Years a Slave makes no such concessions. While the male protagonist's experience depicts slavery as a trafficking machine, Patsey's reveals slavery as a pathology in the minds of white plantation owners. Slavery is the story of abused bodies, and Nyong’o ensures Patsey’s body, repeatedly abused by her owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), radiates with integrity even at its most violated. We do not consume Patsey, we bear witness. It’s the first commercially successful treatment of the subject in years that isn’t designed with the tastes of white audiences in mind. And it’s a testament to the gains that can be made through understanding history instead of hiding it.
A newcomer but not an ingénue, Nyong’o harbours no delusions about celebrity. “I cannot live in my public image,” she says. “It is part of me but it is not me. I have no illusions about it ever being me.” This grounded perspective owes itself in large part to her father, political-science professor Peter Anyang' Nyong'o, who organised for democracy in Kenya but found himself exiled in Mexico, where Nyong’o was born in 1983. The family eventually returned to their home country, where political turbulence led to Peter being regularly detained without charge, sometimes for months at a time. Her parents sheltered their children from the stakes, but Nyong’o learned early on that the person captured on camera was a distortion. (Her father is now a Kenyan senator.)
Her mother, meanwhile, taught her how to be a woman. “She instilled in me that you don’t have to apologise for being a woman. There’s no apology in my femininity.” This attitude inspires the bodily awareness that makes Nyong’o such an efficient actor: the graceful arc of her arm in the deflating song and dance Epps demands in the dead of night, the nimble patience with which she picks 500lbs of cotton a day, the stillness with which she suffers rape at that same master’s hands, and her plea for a single bar of soap, which precedes a brutal whipping that mists the air with her blood.
Nyong’o describes acting in McQueen’s film as “designing the physical manifestation of Patsey’s emotional architecture.” An appreciative consciousness of her body informs not only her acting style but her life. “My mantra is Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’. I live by that song, and one of the things he says in it is ‘enjoy your body’.” Which is why she pursues dance, exercise, anything that challenges her physically. “(As an actor) you’re in constant conversation with your body. In keeping it responsive you’ll keep it sharp.”
“Acting is a reminder that everything is so temporary. There’s no illusion of security that other jobs may have. You’re always starting again. You have to have the eyes of a child”
Storytelling came naturally to Nyong’o; as a child not yet old enough to attend school, she wove detailed stories of life as a student – who her friends were, what she ate for lunch. “My mother was just like, ‘This girl is destined to be a performer.’” But watching The Color Purple introduced her to the possibility of acting in an entirely new way. “I liked to do it, but I didn’t know it was a vocation, not until I saw The Color Purple and saw people like me onscreen. Especially Whoopi Goldberg, because shortly after that I saw Sister Act and it was the same woman! It occurred to me that this was something that people do.” She began putting on plays, and played Juliet in a Kenyan repertory theatre production of Romeo & Juliet at 14.
Her desire to join the movie industry grew, but she lacked the courage to articulate it as a goal. When she heard that the Ralph Fiennes movie The Constant Gardener (2005) would be filming near her town in Kenya she joined the set as a production assistant. One day, Fiennes asked her what she wanted to do with her life. “I very timidly told him I wanted to be an actor. He took a deep breath and said, ‘Lupita. If there’s anything else you want to do besides acting, do that. Only act if you feel you can’t live without it.’ And that was not what I wanted to hear. It gave me pause.”
She went on to graduate in film and theatre studies at Hampshire College, Massachusetts, and write, direct and produce In My Genes, a documentary about albinism in Kenya that was inspired by a neighbour with the condition. The film, which started as her thesis project, follows the lives of several Kenyans with albinism as they navigate the discrimination and suspicion surrounding them. In 2008 she starred in Shuga, an internationally successful Kenyan television series about Aids and young love.
“I had this vivid image of myself at the age of 60 looking back on my life and truly regretting the fact that I hadn’t tried to be an actor”
Nyong’o could no longer deny what she calls the meditation of her heart. “It wasn’t until 2008 that I finally outwardly admitted that I wanted to be an actor. It was because I had this vivid image of myself at the age of 60 looking back on my life and truly regretting the fact that I hadn’t tried to be an actor. That’s when I applied to Yale.”
At Yale School of Drama, she confronted her insecurities and honed her talent. She credits the process with the success of her role as Patsey. “Before I went I had an instinct for acting but I didn’t understand how to fully lend myself to a character. I wanted to know what the reach of my instruments were, and they taught me that at Yale.” It was also there that she learned to call herself an actor. “Each time it becomes more true, because if you don’t admit it out loud then the naysayers get you.” When her extended family of professors and businesswomen – Forbes namedher cousin Isis one of Africa’s most powerful women in 2012 – expressed concern for her chosen path, Nyong’o understood it was only out of love. “There’s so much fear of the unknown, and that’s what’s speaking. Everyone has to recognise that when someone says ‘you can’t’, it’s because they are afraid.”
The accolades she has received might seem likely to eliminate self-doubt, but doubt remains integral to Nyong’o’s creativity. For her, every project means proving herself again. “Part of being an artist is that you are always concerned that you don’t have what it takes. It’s what keeps us honest. As an actor, most of my time is spent in discomfort, and that is no excuse to then not do the work.”
She recalls her audition for 12 Years a Slave as being so free of expectation that she treated it as practice for the skill of auditioning. “And then I got the role, and I just remember feeling a swell. My heart rose and fell, because all of a sudden I had to do this thing. There was no kidding myself. I had at least two weeks of sheer panic and feeling like an imposter.” During her first rehearsal with Fassbender, McQueen turned to her and called her his “peer". “That was so valuable to me,” she says. “It was exactly what I needed to hear.”
What Nyong’o shares with her character is a commitment to be present – present to her work as Patsey was present to her despair. “The world of acting is a reminder that everything is so temporary. There’s no illusion of security that other jobs may have. You’re always starting again. You have to have the eyes of a child to be able to take in things with a sense of newness and freshness. In other careers you can protect yourself from the vulnerability of not knowing something, but as an actor you’re always putting yourself in new environments.”
Outside of film sets, those new environments have included TV appearances hosted by gushing reporters and fashion shows in Paris. And yet Nyong’o’s favourite activities are decidedly less glamorous. “I prefer pajama parties at my best friend’s house,” she laughs. “And I’m afraid of heights but I want to go indoor rock climbing.” She now lives in Brooklyn, where she loves the social scene, “Brooklyn is where it’s at. I don’t like living where I work, so it’s nice to be outside of Manhattan.”
Nyong’o’s breathless journey from aspiring actress to critically acclaimed star has been so fast that she mostly credits luck, and remains mindful of the basic creative impulse that guided her. “I wanted to act, that was all I wanted to do. I’m so pleased and relieved and excited by all this happening because it means I can act some more.”
As a dark-skinned woman with short natural hair in an industry still overwhelmingly dominated by white standards of beauty, Nyong’o recognises her potential to be a mirror for other black women and inspire a new generation of actresses. Young women expressing gratitude just for feeling represented decorate her Facebook fan page. “It feels great. Dwayne Johnson said that greatness is not just what you do but what you inspire others to do. And that really moved me. If young girls feel inspired by my journey right now, it’s an honour.”
Nyong’o may usher in a more diverse era of film. She may be remembered as a fashion icon of the 10s. She’ll certainly keep winning acclaim for 12 Years a Slave. But more than anything, she will doubtless continue to leave the same impression she gave McQueen at her audition: “There is no one like her.”
12 Years a Slave is out now
Hair Bok-Hee at Streeters using Oribe Hair Care; make-up Benjamin Puckey at D&V Management using Chanel Le Lift and SS 2014; nails Casey Herman at Kate Ryan inc using Butter London; set design Whitney Hellesen; photographic assistants Matthew Hawkes, Myles Blankenship, Charles Lu; styling assistants Katy Fox, Gabriel Lahanque, Alison Isbell; make-up assistant Grace Ahn; set-design assistant Graham Hamilton; production Ashley Herson; printing Arc Lab ltd