When Lupita Nyong’o was growing up in Nairobi she was almost frightened to admit that she wanted to be an actress. “I didn’t know any successful actors in Kenya,” she told Interview magazine in July 2013.
“So I felt I could get away with going to college to study film more easily than I could with saying, ‘I want to be an actor’.”
Luckily, someone had different intentions for the Mexican-born actress. Following her Oscar nomination for the role of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, the world has gone loopy for Lupita. And it’s hardly surprising.
Lupita grew up in an intellectual household: her father, Peter, is a politician, a representative in the Kenyan senate and an academic, and her cousin Isis Nyong’o Madison is a media and technology consultant whom Forbes voted one of Africa’s most powerful women.
Lupita was born in Mexico City, the second of six siblings, where her father was working as a visiting lecturer. Her name is a derivation of Guadalupe. She moved to Kenya as an infant when her father got a job as a professor at the University of Nairobi. When she was 16, her parents sent her back to Mexico to learn Spanish.
After graduating from Hampshire College in Massachusetts with a degree in film and theatre studies in 2008, she worked in production on films including The Constant Gardener and starred in short film East River and Kenyan TV series Shuga. In 2009 she wrote, directed and produced a documentary about the treatment of the Kenyan albino population, called In My Genes, which won an award at Mexico’s African Film Festival.
Eventually she enrolled on the acting course at Yale School of Drama, developing a love of Chekhov and Shakespeare. Not for her an interminable slog through unpaid internships and uncredited roles: she was cast in 12 Years a Slave just before she graduated from Yale in 2012. Speaking after the announcement of her Oscars Best Supporting Actress nomination, 12 Years director Steve McQueen said: “I’m absolutely delighted for Lupita. This was the girl who when I offered her the role hadn’t even graduated from school. That’s how remarkable she is. She’s such an amazing talent.” Lupita has hit awards season hard, in a whirlwind of dramatic gowns and star-studded Instapics. Instead of generic abstracts of champagne flutes, she headed for the Golden Globes with a list of stars and snapped a pic with each of her heroes. Targets included Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett.
Granted, she doesn’t look it, but Lupita is 30 years old – proving that you can become a critically-acclaimed actress without spending your childhood in shampoo commercials or selling your soul to Disney. She took years to perfect her craft and has launched her career without even a hint of a twerk. Seems 30 is the new 21.
• 12 Years A Slave is on general release