By CAROL ODERO
Friday, February 21 2014 at 12:55
- Carol Odero has been following Lupita’s professional life from her days in Yale when she produced ‘In My Genes’ and interviewed her in 2009. Here she pieces together Lupita’s life and times.
I have met Lupita Nyong’o just once; at the premiere of her documentary, In My Genes back in 2009. She is indeed as stunning as she looks today on the red carpet.
Back then, when I asked her about her striking looks and whether people found her exotic, her response was “No. I wouldn’t use those words. People are intrigued by my back story. The fact that I was born in Mexico and grew up in Kenya, they are always intrigued by what on earth a Kenyan was doing in Mexico.”
After almost 15 years of acting her background story has been officially established.
In her most recent interviews, most notably with New York Magazine and CNN’s African Voices, she gives interesting details of her life. She is yet to come back to Kenya since 12 Years a Slave premiered late last year and has had a whirlwind of award ceremonies to attend and fashion shoots to take part in.
Speaking on African Voices on CNN in early February, Lupita Nyong’o says she was born on March 1, 1983 in Mexico where her parents were living in exile. She was given the Spanish name Lupita, a short form of Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe), according to Luo customs of naming a child after places or events. She told New York Magazine, “Every single laundromat, grocery store, everything is called Lupita in Mexico.
“My father was a politician. At the same time he was a professor of political science. He was organising for democracy in Kenya; we were under an autocratic regime. After an unfortunate series of events including the disappearance of his brother, he went into political exile in Mexico and I was born in his last year there,” she says.
Her family moved back to Kenya when she was a toddler and she is the second born of six. She was the only child born in Mexico. At the age of 16, her parents sent her and her 19-year-old sister back to Mexico to study Spanish for seven months.
She says Mexico was strange to her since she could not remember anything of her years there. Although they were the only black people in the town where they lived, they always felt welcome.
Later, she moved to the US and joined Hampshire College, a private liberal arts college in Amherst, Massachusetts for a degree in film and theatre studies. The school offers alternative education, in that the students choose and plan their own studies and are neither graded nor offered GPAs. It called for strict personal discipline and drive on her part, which she enjoyed.
Lupita says moving to the US was a culture shock for her. For the first time in her life, her blackness defined who she was. She was no longer the young girl, the skinny girl, the new girl she was just the black girl.
She, however, says she enjoyed her time in the college and decided she wanted to pursue her acting more seriously and was pleasantly surprised when she applied for and got admission into Yale School of Drama. She says she wanted to join drama school because she felt that although she had an acting instinct, she needed to be equipped with skills beyond instinct. She wanted to be efficient.
She says it was at Yale that she immersed herself in acting; the training was so rigorous, she had to play five different roles in one day. At first she says she found it a challenge but after a while she realised that if she opened her spirit, her mind and her whole being, she could be any character she wanted to play and eventually she nailed it.
At Yale, she acted in 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. She was also the recipient of the Herschel Williams Prize “awarded to acting students with outstanding ability” during the 2011–2012 school year.
In 2009, at only 26, she directed, produced and edited In My Genes, a documentary on people living with albinism in East Africa. She launched the documentary in Kenya and says she is proud that parts of it were screened in parliament and the issue of albinism was discussed in parliament and the government even enacted laws to recognise and protect people living with albinism. (The government now provides sunscreen lotion to albino pupils who attend special schools for the blind, since albinism affects their eyesight).
She presented the film at the New York Film Festival in 2009 and was the youngest entrant.
She says her family’s support was very important in that they allowed her to choose her own path. She particularly speaks warmly of her uncle, Aggrey Nyong’o, a pathologist, who she says attended every play she acted in and who died in 2002. (On January 18, she won the Best Supporting Actress award at the 20th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards for her work in the film, 12 Years a Slave and dedicated it to her uncle).
In her final year in Yale in 2012, her manager recommended her to Steve McQueen, who was then casting for 12 Years a Slave and asked her to go for a reading and audition in New York. She did. She got called up to go to California for a second audition and screen test. She did. Later she received a call to travel to Louisiana where the movie crew was already setting up and she auditioned again. She got the role of Patsey after three auditions in three different states.
On her role in 12 Years a Slave, Lupita admits that Patsey was a very emotional role for her but the other cast members helped her to cope.
She says when she took the role, she didn’t know how the audience would receive the movie but the reaction has been “amazing and humbling.”