Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave)
In the role of enslaved fieldworker Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, Lupita Nyong'o triumphs in her first big-screen role and gets her first Golden Globe nomination as Best Supporting Actress in director Steve McQueen's acclaimed movie.
Nyong’o was born in 1983 in Mexico City from Kenyan parents, then raised in Kenya and educated in the U.S. Her father is Peter Anyang' Nyong'o, a Kenyan politician. He was the former Kenyan Minister for Medical Services which explains why she was born in Mexico while he was a diplomat there. Peter was elected in 2013 to represent Kisumu County in the Kenyan Senate. “My family is at the forefront of the fight for social justice, civil rights and individual and economic growth in a developing country,” Nyong’o says. “I think it's very telling that my face and name came about with a very honorable film about slavery, something we should defy even today, all over the world.”
After studying theater and graduating from Hampshire College with a degree in film and theater studies, she worked on the production crew of many films, including Fernando Meirelles's The Constant Gardener with Ralph Fiennes, and Mira Nair's The Namesake. She starred in the 2008 short film East River directed by Marc Grey, shot in Brooklyn, New York. She returned to Kenya in 2008 and starred in the Kenyan television series Shuga. In 2009 she wrote, directed, and produced the documentary In My Genes, about the treatment of Kenya's albino population, which played at several film festivals.
She subsequently enrolled in the acting program at the Yale School of Drama, where she appeared in many stage productions, including Gertrude Stein's Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, and Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and The Winter’s Tale.
Nyong'o was cast in 12 Years a Slave immediately after her graduation from Yale in 2012. Here’s how she recounts that moment: “My manager was given the script by another client of hers. She immediately thought I was perfect for the role of Patsey and put me on a tape. I first met casting director Francine Maisler in Los Angeles, then I met director Steve McQueen. It was a grueling audition, but I nailed it and they cast me in the film.”
When asked in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times about the impact Slave might have on the prevailing thinking about equality and justice, she very matter-of-factly responded: “If an actor thinks that way, you get paralyzed. It's not healthy to have an omniscient view of what’s happening. An actor has to think about the subjective point of view of his/her character and think of nothing else. Otherwise you became very self-conscious and that's never good for your performance.”
Her Patsey undergoes terrible pain in the arc of the story, not only because she has to suffer the inhumanity of slavery in the pre-Civil War South, but also has to endure the lust, violence and contempt of sadistic owner Master Epps, played by Michael Fassbender. Patsey is the young woman tenderly cared for by lead character Solomon Northrup, the slave played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Isn't she taken aback by the excessive abuse Patsey suffers from her slavers? “I will put it this way,” she answers with her typical poise and subtle intelligence. “12 Years a Slave is about life and love. It’s love that gets Solomon through those 12 years - the love for his family he hopes he'll be able to see again. And even Master Epps is conflicted by his love for Patsey. He wants to destroy that love by destroying her. This is not a black and white story with just villains and victims,” she continues. “There's more to it than that.”
She's unfazed with her sudden success and popularity thanks to the role of Patsey. “I've never seen the Golden Globes nor the Oscar,” she says. “I wasn’t raised like that. Therefore, everything that is happening right now is all new to me, and I'm taking it day by day.”