When Lupita Nyong’o played Patsy in 12 Years A Slave (for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2014), everyone assumed she was in her late teens.
Little did we know she was in her early 30s.
Nyong’o, who turned 36 last month, is currently winning critics and fans over with her performance in the horror flick, Us. (Read our review here.)
How do you account for your cultured British accent?
Even though I was born in Mexico I grew up in Kenya which was colonised by the British. I went to a British system school, and that’s where I picked up these traces of a British accent, but the Kenyan accent is pretty influenced by the British.
Later I came and studied in the US, so right now my accent is like a paella of all my life experiences.
How did it happen that you were born in Mexico?
My father was a professor of political science. He was opposed to the autocratic regime in Kenya, and they weren’t very happy with him; so after a series of events that included the disappearance of his brother, who has never been found, my father went into self-exile and got a job at Colegio De Mexico.
He taught political science there for three years. I was born in his last year there.
Was that always your dream to be an actor?
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an actor. I was the kind of child, I would lock myself in the cupboard and play with my Barbies while everyone else was riding bikes.
I enjoyed make-believe and making up my own worlds, but it wasn’t until I watched The Color Purple that I came to the realisation that people can do this for a living. And then I saw Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act and here was this same black woman and she’s doing these different things; so that was the first time that it got planted in my head that I could actually be an actor.
But it wasn’t until I was an undergrad and a friend of mine, who I’d done a production of Romeo And Juliet with when I was 14, got into the Yale School Of Drama, that I thought, maybe I could be an actor and have a career. So, he was the one who planted the seed in my head, and finally I went and did it.
You’re extremely articulate. Did you ever think of following in your father’s footsteps? (He currently serves as governor in Kenya.)
Frankly I don’t like politics. I believe people are just drawn to certain things. I was just drawn to acting, and my acting and film making is my form of social activism.
Are you subjected to the same kind of discrimination that African Americans experience in the US?
The truth is I never identified as black until I came here because I grew up in a predominantly black world where everyone was black – it wasn’t a word that I heard on a daily basis.
I was many things before I was black. I was a woman. I was middle class. I was an intellectual. So coming to America that was an adjustment, to be thought of as black first, and a minority. Those two things were something I had to adjust to.
I had to learn to navigate this new world and find my place in it. So I think my relationship with race has been a different journey.
Have you personally been discriminated against?
I had one experience at Yale where I wrote a paper for a cinema class, and when I got it back, the teacher suggested that I go to the Writing Centre to seek assistance with my writing.
I was like, “Oh, my goodness,” so I went to the Writing Centre and the woman read my essay and she was like, “Why are you here? Your writing is better than most people that come here. Why are you here?”
I said, “Well, my teacher said that I should come because I need assistance with vocabulary or my diction, I don’t know, my grammar or something.”
And she said, “Well, you may forgot to put like a comma here, but this is not anything you need my help with.”
And I went back and I realised that he had just assumed that because I’m black I am less educated. My colleagues who were Caucasian had the same errors in their papers … so I went up to him and I asked, “Why was I sent to the Writing Centre?” and he brushed it off.
So that was the first time I realised that there are certain things that are being projected on me because of my colour.
What did winning the Oscar mean for you?
It is the ultimate confirmation that I chose the right path. It is a constant meditation of how valuable it is to follow your passion and follow your dream.
You’re such a fashionista on the red carpet. Do you enjoy that?
Well I like to play dress up, and red carpets are a chance to do that. It feels like a wedding every time I get to dress for a red carpet, but I enjoy it. It’s a moment of fantasy. Beauty is something that inspires people and inspires joy. So I enjoy participating in that from time to time. But then I like jeans other times.