When Lupita Nyong’o was asked to narrate the Discovery nature documentary series “Serengeti,” the Oscar-winning actor jumped at the opportunity — not just because the subject celebrated to her heritage as an African woman, but because it was an offer she never expected.
“I hadn’t really heard of a nature documentary narrated by a woman. And I certainly had never heard of a nature documentary narrated by an African woman,” Nyong’o tells Variety. “I was really excited to try my hand at it. And who doesn’t want to play the voice of God. And that’s what it kind of feels like when you watch those documentaries — there’s so much authority in the voice and they’re interpreting nature and bringing nature to your living room.”
And as narrator, Nyong’o says the team behind “Serengeti” (especially executive producers and directors Simon Fuller and John Downer) wanted her to bring her authentic self to the role.
“The first day I got into the booth, Downer encouraged me to kind of tap into my native accent, like my original Kenyan accent. And that was moving and also kind of gave me a little bit of a panic attack because, I don’t even know where that voice is,” she says, acknowledging that her accent has evolved over the years and changes based on location. “But it was so nice to have someone embrace that and encourage it, because I never knew that I would start my career and that [accent] would be called for. So it was just really lovely to bring my full self to this without any sort of pretense.”
Nyong’o was born in Mexico and studied acting at the Yale School of Drama, but the Oscar winner was raised primarily in Kenya, so it was a real treat for her to explore the land next door (the Serengeti desert is located in neighboring Tanzania).
“I’ve never been to Serengeti, but it is right next door, and I have been going on safari all my life. I’ve been on more safaris than I can count because I love them and they were also part of my education,” Nyong’o recalls. “Whenever you’re out there, it’s a very humbling experience. … So being able to spend this kind of intimate time with these creatures — [the filmmakers] spent a year with these different groups of animals — that felt really special because, you know, there’s only so much you can see when you’re out there for real. Nature documentaries bring all that wonder to you.”
Nyong’o’s work is eligible for a nomination in the outstanding narration category at the 2020 Emmy Awards. And if she gets a nod, she’ll join Angela Bassett and Whoopi Goldberg as the only Black women to be nominated in the category to date.
“I think this is just another one of those areas where I’m excited about being a part of the change in the narrative,” Nyong’o says. “Before this opportunity was brought to me, it wasn’t even something I was thinking that maybe one day I’d want to do. It wasn’t in my frame of reference, because I think of that typical male white British voice as sort of the standard. I hadn’t even had a chance to even challenge that — I wasn’t thinking about it. It feels really great to be kind of, you know, breaking new ground, I suppose, and joining the ranks of the women and the Black women who have gone before me.”
For Nyong’o, the opportunity is just one step in a long path for an industry that is currently being confronted with its own history of systemic racism, after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police reignited the conversation and led to increased support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Though Nyong’o has been largely out of the public eye during the quarantine, speaking up and speaking out (especially on social media) has been a priority.
Nyong’o says she wanted to lend her voice to the movement, “Because I’m a member of that community. I’m a member of that society and what is happening, it’s personal. I’m taking it personally. There’s no other way to take it.”
“We’re requiring them to respond. And we just cannot let up,” she says of Hollywood’s reaction at large. “This is a time of deep learning for me, too, as an immigrant in this country, of trying to figure out how is this the world we’re living in? There’s just so much to unpack, there’s so much to learn, and there’s so much to need to be awake to. Because it’s when people fall asleep that these things happen — when we grow complacent.”
“And I think right now is a time when people were learning in so many ways how we’ve been complacent, even in areas that we are unaware of. And we are agitated because of how extreme the injustice has been, with the killing of George Floyd in front of our eyes. I mean, that was so extreme. And what it has done, I think it’s just shaken us all awake and now we are alert,” Nyong’o continues. “And fewer and fewer people are able to gaslight and able to deny the existence of these serious inequalities. And so I speak up when I feel I have something to say or offer and because I feel it; I feel it personally. … And as the world changes, I want to change with it.”
At the moment, Nyong’o is also contributing to the conversation through her children’s book, “Sulwe” — which centers on a young girl who wishes that her dark skin was lighter. Though published in October 2019, the picture book about colorism and learning to accept yourself returned to number three on the New York Times Best Seller list of children’s books and the actor/author says she’s been truly touched by the recognition in this moment.
“There’s moments when I’ve felt quite helpless. And just the powerlessness you can feel when something so large is happening,” Nyong’o says through tears. “And then I saw ‘Sulwe’ being recommended on so many lists, and then it gets onto the bestseller list again, and it was so encouraging to my artistic spirit. That I may not have been able to save anybody’s life, but that my work is soothing souls and hopefully equipping a younger generation to be confident enough to face these adversities. And that felt really good. It was very encouraging to know that, ‘Oh, actually, I have contributed to the moment.’”
For Nyong’o, the work to move forward lies in recognizing what you can do in the moment. “It’s not about doing everything at once. It’s not about doing the biggest thing. It’s about doing the thing you know how to do and doing it to the best of your ability.”