Lupita Nyong’o doesn’t come across as someone who loves a press tour. Highly intelligent and articulate, the repetitious cycle might seem boring and tiresome, and yet today we are greeted by an enthusiastic actress in her prime. She has tackled ’12 Years a Slave’, ‘Black Panther’, ‘Us’ and now returns to ‘Star Wars’ duties as Maz Kanata in the forthcoming ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’.
‘The truth is, when I like the film, I like the press tour,’ she begins. ‘That makes sense, right?’
Showcasing her signature sartorial prowess in a multi-coloured shirt dress, the 36-year-old Mexico-born Kenyan glows with confidence and life… not exactly friendliness, it must be said, as a guarded wall remains in place throughout our conversation.
Winning an Oscar for her first movie performance in ‘12 Years a Slave’, Nyongo carries herself with the poise and suspicion of a politician. She pauses and thoughtfully considers her words. And then sporadically, her guard slips and she sets free a glorious roar of laughter.
RSNG spoke to her about her run in the Star Wars saga, how her upbringing has helped her achieve success, and her reputation as a trailblazer in Hollywood…
RSNG Your fight to represent Africa continues on, even though we don’t witness the principles of that in this movie?
LUPITA NYONG’O, ACTRESS ‘I am very outspoken because I am so proud of Africa, and I should be. I know there is still a long way to go, but as an African actress I have to make sure people of all backgrounds are represented in an industry that is, at times, very happy to ignore them.’
‘When I did Queen of Katwe, it dawned on me how very rare it was to have a story like that on the African continent, and having a stage as international as Disney, to be told on this scale, about Africans told by Africans.’
‘We’ve all watched many movies which depict Africa in a negative light whether it be through famine, war, disease, corruption and political strife, or you see it used as a background and frame and used as a foreign perspective.’
‘And this is a testament to my own life, where I had my dreams and I was able to realise them and have it go so well, it’s a reflection on that. And it’s a relatable, identifiable story for anyone who has a dream. Anywhere in the world. That what makes it so great, it applies to everyone.’
RSNG The return of Star Wars has given you a breathless spread of original material, a sequel to a prequel, a political slant… whatever next? Have you fulfilled your dreams?
LN ‘I wanted to do a comedy for a long time, and Little Monsters gave me the angle into that. It was difficult and I wasn’t sure it was always the right direction to take, but that was a genre I was so keen to sample and to try to make right. I was delighted when the opportunity came along as I felt incomplete as an actor up until that opportunity arose.’
LN ‘Yes, it’s something I long for. And it’s a challenge because no filmmakers saw me that way, no scripts were landing on my desk. The last time I did any comedy was in graduate school and I found the experience frightening but absorbing, and I’d like now to do it again.’
RSNG Do you think people are too focussed on seeing you in a certain way?
LN ‘Perhaps so – that’s why Star Wars was so valuable to me. It means someone putting faith in you to subvert everything you are associated with. For me it has always been about diversity, justice, equality, politics… and when I say ‘always’ I mean in much of what I have done that has ended up mainstream.’
‘To head towards sci-fi was a very new thing and to be represented as a black woman from African heritage in what is a new dawn of sci-fi that embraces and encompasses all backgrounds and persuasions, is very special.’
‘Other than the fact this is the biggest thing you can imagine, I think what really made me want to explore this series further and stay with something so prolific is because it is a project that is moving with society, not trying to rebel against it.’
RSNG While you are guarded on plot and script, did you find it more difficult to prepare for this role than, say, that of Nakia (Black Panther) or Nakku (Queen of Katwe)?
LN ‘I think when you are an actor you have a very sensible set of processes and standards, and that is essentially to represent a character no matter where they come from or what is around them.’
‘That was really and very simply the case for me, where I was embodying someone fighting, battling, making their way. It doesn’t matter if that’s in outer space or in the heart of Africa, the rules are the same, so that’s very easy for me.’
RSNG With so much conversation about diversity in Hollywood, many consider your career as a trailblazer in the industry. How do you deal with that pressure?
LN ‘I think that would be an immense responsibility and duty to place on one person’s shoulders but that will never happen because one person cannot assume such a role. That will come from a combination of the actions of many, to converge with purpose.’
‘I… yes, I know that my presence contributes to that as one of these individuals working, but my contribution can only offer so much impact. It’s very nice of you to say so but I don’t believe I will ever possess that power unto myself.’
‘Both my father and my mother encouraged us to have high ambitions and be willing to take risks to realise our dreams‘
RSNG It’s been commented on that you’re maintaining a very close relationship with Disney?
LN ‘Haha! Someone said to me the other day, they asked me, “Do I have an exclusive relationship with Disney!” And it seems that way. If there is a contract, I don’t know anything about it but I’m very happy with it, haha!’
RSNG How were you raised?
LN ‘Both my father and my mother encouraged us to speak our minds and be very serious and responsible in developing and pursuing our goals in life. We were expected to have high ambitions and be willing to take risks to realise our dreams.’
‘My mother would also tell me that you need to have passion for whatever you choose to do in life, and she would cut out pictures and take quotes from magazines and paste them up on the walls of our house to inspire us.’
‘My father's philosophy was that it doesn't matter what kind of profession you choose in life, just make sure you strive to be the best at whatever you do, whether it's in business or the arts or some other field.’
‘He always taught me that it's important to strive for excellence and greatness in the world. That has always guided me in how I've tried to make my way in life.’
‘When you get into acting, you know that the odds are stacked against you. But if you also feel that you have the talent and the ability to keep working hard then you're going to stay the course.’
’12 Years a Slave was my chance to prove myself and then it was up to me to keep finding good roles. Even now, the pressure will always be there but I kind of enjoy that. It keeps you hungry.’
‘I grew up in a family where risk was a part of our lives, and when it came to make a decision about acting – I was willing to risk it all’
RSNG What lessons has Hollywood taught you?
LN ‘You have to listen to your inner compass and stay true to your vision of where you want to go. I'm always very conscious of what I expect from myself and how I need to be strong and committed to deal with all the obstacles that I have met and will meet along your journey.’
‘My father taught me that you must always strive for excellence in life. That's been my guiding principle and I want to continue in that spirit.’
RSNG Do you feel that you're now enjoying the kind of career you want to have?
LN ‘Of course, I am very excited about the work I've done but there is still so much that I want to accomplish. My dream as a young child while I was watching films like The Color Purple and seeing Whoopi Goldberg was to be able to make my living in this profession.’
RSNG You've spoken out at women's conferences about how important it is to push yourself beyond what you think you can do in order to succeed. How did your family upbringing instil that kind of drive in you?
LN ‘When you grow up in a very successful family, you develop a heightened sense of ambition and you become extremely conscious of your sense of purpose in upholding the family legacy.’
‘My parents encouraged me and my brothers and sisters to be creative with our lives and to learn to express ourselves. Our house was always a very noisy place and everybody was always busy with something.’
‘I could never do my homework in peace and quiet, and even today I need to listen to music or have some activity going on around me in order for me to concentrate.’
RSNG Your father spent many years as a leader of the opposition movement in Kenyan politics. Did you ever fear for his or your own safety?
LN ‘Risk was a part of my upbringing. My father was always willing to take risks because he believed that we must fight for what is right in the world, and that often in life you need to take risks to accomplish great things. Nobody is going to do it for you. My father also had a strong sense of justice and he showed me what true courage means.’
RSNG And your mother?
LN ‘My mother was a very solid, reassuring presence in our family. She was also someone who always said that I should be passionate about whatever I decide to do with my life and I never forgot that advice.’
RSNG What’s the best piece of advice you’ve had?
LN ‘When I was working as a production assistant on The Constant Gardener, Ralph Fiennes told me, “Don't become an actress unless it's something you can't live without.”’
‘It took me four years before I finally accepted and understood that I couldn't live without acting. I grew up in a family where risk was a part of our lives, and when it came to make a decision about acting, I was willing to risk it all.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch the trailer for the latest Star Wars movie…