If you’re not yet familiar with Kenyan breakout star Lupita Nyong’o, that’s about to change.
The vivacious 35year-old emerged on the scene just a few years ago when she scooped an Oscar for her sterling performance in 12 Years a Slave. Now, as one of the few dark-skinned African women in popular culture, she uses her prominence to shift the balance in Hollywood and challenge Eurocentric beauty standards.
Lupita came out of nowhere, or so it may seem. But acting has been on her mind since childhood, ever since she decided she wanted to be a stage actress like her aunt. When she saw Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple (1985), she was even more inspired. But she knew how difficult it would be to make it in the cut-throat movie industry, so after university she decided to pursue a career behind the scenes instead.
While working as a production assistant in 2004, she met English actor and director Ralph Fiennes, who told her: ‘Only act if you feel you can’t live without it.’ She couldn’t – so those words changed everything. She enrolled in a master’s degree programme at the Yale School of Drama, where she excelled and appeared in many stage productions. Several weeks before graduating, her manager asked her to put herself on tape for 12 Years a Slave. It was the first time she’d ever tried out for a feature film, and, amazingly, she was cast in a lead role. She played Patsey, a slave on a cotton plantation, and went on to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Incredibly, she is only the sixth black actress to win this award, and the first African woman. Hollywood’s diversity problem is not a myth.
Since then, Lupita has become an unstoppable force in Tinseltown. She’s starred in a thriller with Liam Neeson, been in two Star Wars films, and returned to the stage in Eclipsed, a drama by Danai Gurira.
‘I’m a child of the theatre,’ she says. ‘My father used to recite Shakespeare to me when I was five years old. It’s something that’s very, very dear to me. I’d experienced unprecedented success with my first film, and I really wanted to get back to the craft of it, just to remind myself, “Wait, what is it that I do again?” The best way to find out is on stage.’
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