Guest of Honor

Lupita Nyong’o Invites Us Into Her Bubble

With her feature film debut in "12 Years a Slave," Lupita Nyong'o stunned critics and audiences and became perhaps the breakout star of the year. Now up for just about every award an actor can receive, she talks to us about the 'athletics of the heart' and trusting her fellow artists.

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Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Lupita Nyong’o was born in Mexico, grew up in Kenya, moved to the United States to attend Hampshire College, and, with her debut feature film role has become a certifiable Hollywood sensation. The multi-talented star started out behind the scenes as a documentary filmmaker and later served on the crews of several films. She began acting on the stage and television, and was cast by the acclaimed and controversial filmmaker Steve McQueen for his “12 Years a Slave” immediately upon her graduation from the drama program Yale.

Her stunning performance as Patsey in that film has earned her praise from  just about every critic on the planet. Wikipedia currently lists over seventy awards or nominations she has received so far, among them a Golden Globe nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress, and the list is only expected to grow.

In February, she will have to take a break from accepting statuettes to premiere her next film, “Non-Stop,” an action thriller about an airplane hijacking, which might not quite be the art-house fare of “12 Years a Slave” – but the versatile and bright Nyong’o tells us she is excited to show audiences another side of her talents.

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Lupita Nyong’o: It’s the diminutive of the name Guadalupe.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Okay.

Lupita Nyong’o: And Guadalupe is a place in Mexico.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, I knew you were born in Mexico, but were you born in Guadalupe?

Lupita Nyong’o: No, I was not. I was born in Mexico City. But my parents chose that name in particular because in our language it made some sense as well. We’re from the Luo ethnic group and to ‘luo’ means to follow, and my father’s name is Peter, so they though it would be smart to call me Lupita because I followed my father to Mexico.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Your father is a prominent Kenyan politician. You didn’t follow him in his career though.

Lupita Nyong’o: No, I didn’t but he actually was an actor when he was in school.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh really?

Lupita Nyong’o: Oh yeah, I’m kind of still following in his footsteps. He’s living vicariously through me right now.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You were cast in the part of Patsey right as you finished Yale Drama School. Because that transition to a major movie role was so quick, it made me curious. How did your education prepare you for this role?

Lupita Nyong’o: There was no way that I could have done Patsey without having gone to Yale, because at Yale I learned so much about myself and about my instrument, and it taught me how to do the athletics of the heart you have to do as an actor. And so I learned very technical skills and how to put myself in someone else’s shoes, and to do so really like truthfully believing in the imaginary circumstances.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What didn’t it prepare you for?

Lupita Nyong’o: Well for one thing, the last year at Yale is all about preparing you for the industry, and so there was a lot of emphasis on how it was gonna be a long trajectory, probably a long trajectory, so it was- we learned a lot about keeping the faith and just continuing to believe in yourself even when the industry doesn’t. And so they thing they didn’t prepare me for was for getting such a big role right out of the gate.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

Lupita Nyong’o: And that was bizarre, and there’s no way that they could have prepared me for that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s interesting you said the athletics of the heart. I mean, this film is very intense, and leaving the film I felt shaken. I saw it several weeks ago in preparation for this interview, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. And you are in some of the most intense scenes in this film. Your character is repeatedly whipped, beaten, assaulted, and this must exact a toll on you as an actor.

Lupita Nyong’o: Yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: How did you prepare yourself for, and then come down from those scenes in particular?

Lupita Nyong’o: For me, the fact that Patsey was a real person was always very grounding, because she actually went through those atrocities and I had the privilege of going through them in an imaginary world with phenomenal artists. So just remembering that was enough to make it practical, you know, that I couldn’t sentimentalize her pain because she didn’t have that luxury either.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Did you have any hesitation about accepting this role?

Lupita Nyong’o: Oh no. No. Absolutely not. No no no. I didn’t have any hesitation in accepting it because you know when I was getting ready to leave school I was just looking for a job, you know.

I had no idea what the future held and then this thing came right off the bat and it with such incredible, incredible artists, and no I didn’t hesitate taking the job, but I did hesitate after that, where I was like, you know I definitely went through a moment where I was like, “do I have what it takes to do this justice?”

But then at that moment you remember that Steve McQueen surely knows what he’s doing, so when I didn’t have the confidence, I had the confidence in him.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. It almost must be a little daunting now looking ahead I’m sure you have lots of opportunities, and yet you were really blessed with this first step. I mean, how do you plot your future?

Lupita Nyong’o: You know Sarah Paulson said to me, you’d better be prepared to do at least 10 bad films before another good one comes along.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, roles like this and films like this don’t come around all the time.

Lupita Nyong’o: No they don’t and I don’t. I’m not going to kid myself in thinking that my career will always look like Steve McQueen. But I want to do different things. I love fantasy, I’d love a hand at that. I would love to do a comedy as well. Just to have an eclectic career.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So you know if “Ghostbusters 5” offers an opportunity, who knows? Maybe you’ll take a chance. It’s fantasy, and you know, you’ve already had this great artistic triumph, so.

Lupita Nyong’o: Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I can’t wait to see it. All right, well look, we have two standard questions that we ask our guests, and the first question is- and you’re pretty new at this, but you’ve been promoting this film for a while. What question are you tired of being asked in interviews?

Lupita Nyong’o: The question about, as a foreigner how did you do this role? It’s tiring because, as an actor that’s my job, and if all I could do was to play middle class Kenyans, my career would be very short.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, so our second question is, tell us something we don’t know, and this can be something about yourself that you haven’t revealed in interviews before, or just kind of an interesting fact about the world.

Lupita Nyong’o: Well, I just heard this from Forest Whitaker actually he said this to me, that if ever you’re feeling low, say the word bubble.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Bubble.

Lupita Nyong’o: And it will bring a smile on your face.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Wow. Were you feeling low and he gave you this?

Lupita Nyong’o: I think we were talking about the films we’re in and how sad it can make you. You know sometimes it makes me sad when I have to talk about Patsey.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I’d bet.

Lupita Nyong’o: Because I have to recall that pain, you know, and so he said just say the word bubble and it will bring a smile on your face. And I said to him, that’s not true. And he said to me, try it. And I tried it, and I smiled.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It does kind of work. Bubble. I know another word that kind of sounds like bubble that also will make you smile, so I can leave you with it and you can take it if you need it- Ghostbusters 4. See?

Lupita Nyong’o: Yes.