The idea of acting has appealed to Lupita Nyong’o since before she can remember. Born in Mexico to Kenyan parents living in self-imposed political exile, Nyong’o returned to Africa with her family while she was still an infant.
By the age of 14, she was playing Juliet in a Kenyan repertory company production of “Romeo and Juliet.” But it was a childhood viewing of Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” that convinced the budding performer she might actually be able to act for a living. “I think it was the first time that I’d seen people who looked like me in a movie,” says Nyong’o, a recent Yale School of Drama grad who makes her feature debut as the tragic field slave Patsey in “12 Years a Slave.”
Director Steve McQueen likens the challenge of casting Patsey in that film to the search for Scarlett O’Hara: He auditioned more than 1,000 actresses before deciding on Nyong’o, whose greatest challenge was reconciling the character’s outwardly pleasant demeanor with her deep inner sadness.
“That was a complexity I was drawn to,” she says. “It was about coming to terms with those two things: that one can be so filled with darkness and light at the same time, and the deeper the sorrow carves itself into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
Among her own inspirations, Nyong’o cites her profound respect and admiration for Sidney Poitier — “because in many ways I relate to him as someone from a different world trying to make a career for myself in America,” she says — and Charlize Theron, whom she considers “a very daring actor, always surprising in the kind of projects she takes on.”
According to Nyong’o, “That’s a quality I would like to have. I must have a career filled with roles that have an element of danger for me, that require me to face my fears.”