Stardom beckons, but she's keeping her balance
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Lupita Nyong'o is preparing herself for normalcy. After the frenzy that's followed her gripping performance in 12 Years a Slave, she wants to be ready for life back home in New York.
"I try to keep my regimen - rest, water, eat well, work out - so that when this is all over, I don't experience a total hangover," she says, taking a bite of scrambled eggs during a recent interview at a Beverly Hills cafe.
She hasn't yet accepted that her life may never be the same. "I have a very ostrich mentality," she says. "I feel like I have my head in the sand so no one can see me."
Before playing slave Patsey in Steve McQueen's brutal tale of a free black man kidnapped into slavery in the 19th-century South, Nyong'o was virtually unknown. Now, as a supporting actress Oscar nominee, she's become a breakout star.
When she received the call from McQueen saying she had landed the role, "I was so elated," she recalls. "But then I immediately panicked. I was so scared."
No wonder; this was her first major role after attending the Yale School of Drama. Yet shooting the film gave her the confidence she needed coming out of school. "It was an amazing feeling," she says.
Now 30, and focusing on what she'll do next, she refuses to be stressed about securing another role that's equally celebrated.
"The bar has been set very high externally and internally," she says. "But I don't want to feed into that pressure of expectation. This film was so fulfilling and artistic. I've tasted that and I obviously want to experience that kind of creative fulfillment again, but I also know that I can't replicate that. I want a varied acting experience and that may include some failure - and that's healthy."
Actually, her next film is already in the can and ready for release Friday: She plays a flight attendant opposite Liam Neeson in the action-thriller Non-Stop. "It was what I needed to do," she says. "It was the perfect antidote to 12 Years a Slave. It was a different genre with different demands. It was very technical and fun."
Nyong'o says that when she was growing up in Kenya, her parents encouraged her and her five siblings to "find out what we were called on this earth to do and then do it to excellence."
Before former Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi allowed multiparty politics in 1991, Nyong'o's father, Peter Anyang' Nyong'o, was an advocate for democratic reform opposed to Kenya's autocratic regime. Then a political science teacher, he moved his family to Mexico City for their safety. Nyong'o was born there; her family returned to Kenya while she was an infant.
Nyong'o says her parents had been supportive of her success but were taking the excitement in stride. "It's nice to have parents like that because they're thrilled," she says. "But they're not shaken by it." (Her father is a member of Kenya's senate and her mother, Dorothy, is managing director of the Africa Cancer Foundation.)
With the Oscars less than two weeks away, the actress says she wants to savor every moment, even the overwhelming ones. "The Hollywood Film Awards were really stressful," she remembers of the October ceremony. "It was the biggest press line I'd ever seen. It was difficult to orient myself, but there are familiar faces now, so it becomes less daunting."
Blessed not only with "terrific acting chops," as Whoopi Goldberg describes them, Nyong'o's striking beauty and bold fashion choices have made her one of the most talked-about actresses on the red carpet.
From the turquoise Gucci column gown she wore to the Screen Actors Guild Awards to the emerald green Christian Dior dress she chose for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards last weekend, she's what 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley calls "undeniably poised and graceful."
Never the girl who thumbed through Vogue (now she appears in the magazine as the face of fashion house Miu Miu), Nyong'o began buying fashion magazines in preparation for all the formal events she expected to attend after the success of 12 Years.
"I was like, 'OK, I have to research,' " she recalls with a giggle. But letting herself "dress large" has been scary, she says. Recalling the scarlet Ralph Lauren dress she wore to the Golden Globes, she adds, "It had a cape! That was exhilarating."