Lupita Nyong’o, A Gracious Role Model for Our Times

Photography– Willy Vanderperre   Styling-Olivier Rizzo     Text-Lynette Nylander

It’s been just six years since her Oscar-winning turn as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave but Lupita Nyong’o has already redefined what screen actresses might be, what they might achieve, what they might represent, and how they might inspire others. In fiction, she has inhabited different worlds, told different stories. In reality, she has affirmed the beauty of millions of black women across the globe, reaching way beyond the limitations of cinema.

Last year, as special-forces operative Nakia in Ryan Coogler’s Oscar-nominated Black Panther, Lupita Nyong’o and her accompanying all-black lead cast – unprecedented in the superhero-movie genre – caused a seismic shift.

Marrying the black experience, which in Hollywood is rarely seen through the African lens, with fantasy fiction, the resultant epic carries an enormous cultural significance that will be its legacy. It was wildly popular:

Black Panther was the ninth-highest-grossing film of all time. 2018 also saw Nyong’o reprise her performance as Maz Kanata in the Star Wars franchise, due for release later this year. Both roles – pivotal to megawatt, mega-buck productions – transcend any vague notion of Nyong’o as an ingenue, a rising star.

In fact, later this year she will take her place alongside Hollywood’s greats on the Walk of Fame. Despite such acclaim, when we meet in December she is remarkably private: wrapped, understated, incognito in a black coat, deep bucket hat and scarf, in a somewhat sleepy part of Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, where she lives.

Those interviewing Nyong’o in person are asked to speak to her on the telephone beforehand because, as her publicist explains, “she likes to get to know more about you” – and to understand where the conversation might lead. As it turns out, she’s researched me almost as much as I have her.

We settle at a corner table. Nyong’o describes a hectic week flying in from Los Angeles for interviews then flying back to her native Kenya for the holidays. Her beauty is luminous – regal – a quality only added to by her notorious intensity. She speaks in hushed tones, calm and considered, forgoing some of the menu’s elaborate offerings in favour of a herbal tea.

The new year sees Nyong’o expand her repertoire in a manner that will broaden her appeal still further. In March, she returns to the screen as the female lead in Jordan Peele’s Us. The film leans into the genre that made his directorial debut, Get Out, so successful and, according to the director, will be the second in a five-movie series of social thrillers.

Nyong’o herself is reluctant to reveal too much, as was Peele, who had only teased with leading one-liners on social media until, on 25 December 2018, he released the first trailer. His audience now knows that Nyong’o joins her Black Panther co-star Winston Duke, as Adelaide Wilson and husband Gabe respectively, on a road trip with their two children, during which she is confronted by a past trauma that unlocks a terrifying series of events.

Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker bolster a major cast. Nyong’o describes Us as a “scary, intense, mind-bending WTF kind of story”.

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