The dazzling Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o samples the fall couture collections and talks to Plum Sykes about fame, family, and her four new acting projects.
It’s the Monday morning of Paris Couture Week, and Lupita Nyong’o appears, right on time, from the elevator of Le Bristol hotel. Never mind that she’s come direct from a trip to her native Kenya, which she just happened to combine with an elephant-saving mission. Or that her flight landed only a few hours ago. Or that all her bags were lost en route. She is wearing a dramatically sculpted scarlet Dior minidress, her short hair is teased into a halo and held off her face with an Alice band, and her beautiful skin gleams with health. As she bounces into the lobby, her mirrored, blue-tinted Dior sunglasses reflect a roomful of transfixed admirers.
“Hello-ooo!” she says, her voice deep and warm, as she breaks into a gigantic smile. She removes her sunglasses to reveal wide, dark eyes, sprinkled with glittery silver eye shadow. Her eyebrows are precision-plucked—no Cara Delevingne strays for her. “Really, I’m not tired,” insists Lupita. She’s beaming with excitement. This is her first Paris Couture.
There are few actresses as instantly recognizable as 32-year-old Lupita Nyong’o, who took on the role of the slave girl Patsey in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave while a student at Yale—and went on to win an Oscar in 2014. In one fell swoop Lupita conquered Hollywood, seduced the fashion world, and found herself shouldering the dreams of an entire continent.
A few minutes later we are crawling through traffic, heading to the Dior show at the Musée Rodin. Settling herself patiently in the back of the car, Lupita tells me, “I didn’t know the power of couture until I tried on a couture dress. It made me cry.”
Lupita has an old-school attitude to fashion. She calls pants “slacks.” When I joke about this with her, she responds, “What can I say? I’m a Pisces. I have the soul of an 80-year-old woman inside me.” Long before the world was awed by her movie debut and her Oscar speech, for which she wore an exquisite baby-blue Prada chiffon gown, Lupita was properly turned out. Her first memory of fashion was at age five, wearing her “very eighties red cord miniskirt with suspender straps. Presentation is extremely important in Kenya. You dress formally. You can’t just wear flip-flops. My mother always had her own style. She wore A-line, tea-length flowery dresses, very well fitting. Her nails were always perfectly done.” As a girl in Nairobi, Lupita recalls, “salons were a big feature in my life. We would go every two weeks to get our hair braided, washed, or treated. That’s where I read American, British, and a few African magazines.Then I would design my own clothes. In Kenya it’s much cheaper to get clothes made than to buy them. We would have everything run up by a tailor, or my aunt Kitty, who is very creative, would sew things for me.”
It may seem an unlikely combination, but politics were as ever-present in the Nyong’o household as style. Lupita’s father, Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, now a senator, was for a long period an opposition politician under the repressive Moi regime. He spent three years in self-imposed exile with his family in Mexico, where Lupita was born.
The Nyong’os returned to Nairobi when Lupita was one. The following years she remembers as “scary, but I was at an age where you couldn’t fully understand what was happening.” Her father was at times detained in jail, once for an entire month, and the family “had to destroy a lot of his documents. I wasn’t allowed to go to school. We were basically locked up in the house. The curtains were shut all the time, and we were just burning papers.” She says the experience made her resilient. “I was definitely exposed to some extreme situations. Tragedy is something that I have known and that I have tried to accept as part of life. But I don’t dwell on it. . . . OK! I need to powder my nose!”
We have arrived at the Dior show, and Lupita, her beautiful nose suitably blotted with custom-blended Lancôme Miracle Cushion (she is the newest face of Lancôme), strides confidently across the lawn toward a vast glasshouse that has been splashed with Pointillism-style dots. Photographers snap pictures constantly as she is escorted by a gaggle of worshipful Dior publicists to the front row.
The sublime collection makes me want to throw out every single piece of clothing I own. As Lupita walks backstage afterward to meet Dior designer Raf Simons, she says, “I loved the breeziness of everything, the coats thrown over the dresses.” Her favorite piece is a demure, New Look–inspired green-and-pink print, A-line silk pleated coat. It’s the kind of thing a very, very chic Sunday-school teacher might have worn circa 1952. “I can work a pleat,” adds Lupita. (At Cannes this year she did just that, twirling up the red carpet in an emerald-green Gucci dressthat was a swirl of hundreds of pleats.) Backstage, while the model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and the singer Grimes look patiently on, Lupita is greeted with excitement by Simons. He thinks Lupita is “so radiant and seems to take such pleasure in playing with fashion.” Next, the actress Emily Blunt, chic in white, grasps Lupita’s hand. “I am so thrilled to meet you,” she declares. “I am a huge fan.”
I can’t think of another actress who has appeared in only one major role in an American film and caused quite such a stir. (Lupita also played a smaller part in last year’s Liam Neeson movie Non-Stop.) But, as she tells me that evening, her output will be dramatically upped this fall. We visit the historic restaurant Le Grand Véfour in the Palais Royal for an indulgent dinner. The maître d’ offers Lupita the honor of sitting in Napoleon’s seat—now a plush crimson velvet banquette—and she accepts gracefully. She is dressed in an asymmetric print Dior silk top, skinny black pants, and high heels (all on loan while the aforementioned lost luggage is being located). While we tuck into delicious platters of fish, sorbets, and cheeses, Lupita tells me that she has just spent four months filming a CGI character—a pirate named Maz Kanata—for J. J. Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, opening this December. “We needed a powerful actress to play a powerful character,” the director explains to me later. “Lupita was someone I’d known a little and was enormously fond of. More important, her performance in 12 Years a Slave blew my mind, and I was vaguely desperate to work with her.”
Acting a motion-capture character was “really bizarre and lots of fun,” Lupita says. “I really enjoyed the fact that you’re not governed by your physical presence in that kind of work. You can be a dragon. You can be anything.”
When I ask her, “How do you act ‘anything’ ?,” she says, “My training at Yale is the core of the actor that I am. Before that I was just going on instinct . . . having my imagination take over. But Yale taught me that it’s about giving yourself permission to pretend.”
An important pretending trick is to dress in the same “uniform” every day while going to and from set. If she doesn’t have to think about what she’s wearing when she’s not in costume, this allows her to focus. When she was recently filming the Mira Nair–directed Queen of Katwe, the true story of a chess master raised in a Ugandan slum, she wore an A-line skirt and blouse every single day because that’s what her character wore. “One amazing thing about filming in Uganda was that on the first day of rehearsal we were all barefoot,” she remembers. “I looked down and all the feet were my complexion. That had not happened to me before. I was reminded that I’m actually not that special. There are lots of people in the world who look like me.”
Her love of Africa is at the heart of Lupita’s persona and her work. Given the suddenness of her celebrity, she took advice from colleagues about how to best use the platform she now has. The British actress Emma Thompson (whom she met on a panel in 2013) and her 12 Years a Slave costars Alfre Woodard (“a straight talker with an incredible sense of humor”) and Sarah Paulson (“I basically have her on speed dial”) have helped her navigate everything from career choices to activism. “Oprah Winfrey advised me to figure out what my intention is and to act on it,” she says. “I think I can make a difference by having certain stories be told. But it’s in the hope that I will not always be the only one telling them.”
On her recent visit home, Lupita was greeted with a ceremonial reception. “It was overwhelming,” she says. “In Africa there is a nationalism that comes with things like winning an Oscar. It’s traditional to be welcomed and celebrated. Praise songs, which are the highest honor in Kenya, were sung for me, and they included lines from my Oscar speech.” (“Your dreams are valid” featured prominently in the lyrics.) She chuckles as she recalls local newspaper coverage under a headline that read “Tears Roll Down Hollywood Cheeks.”
“I wanted to go back to Kenya with something to say,” she continues. “I was raised with a strong sense of charity. When I was younger I volunteered with an orphanage. I did a lot of organizing of church events.” Her mother, who runs her own public-relations company, also raises money for cancer. Besides returning to Nairobi a WildAid ambassador, Lupita hosted mentoring events for groups of arts-focused school children aged between ten and eighteen. “When I was that age I would have liked someone to talk to me. Because what I found when I was growing up was that there was no real understanding of what it meant to be in a creative field.”Lupita’s career path was not without its obstacles. As a teenager auditioning in Nairobi, she was told that her skin was “too dark” for her to be on television. Lupita is Luo, a member of the Nilotic tribe that migrated south from Sudan. They are one of the darkest-skinned of the African tribes. Although the Luo are a sizable ethnic group in Kenya, known for their intelligence and scholarship, the Luo language, like most other tribal tongues, was forbidden at Kenyan schools. She had to speak English or Swahili. “So there was a certain amount of shame attached to my mother tongue. . . . I developed this discomfort in all things that identified me as ethnically Luo when I was a teenager.” Was she put off by being told her skin was too dark for her to act? “No,” she says, with a determined look on her face. “It didn’t ring true. I just thought, I need to find another way.”
Lupita moved to America at 20 and took classes in film and African studies at Massachusetts’s Hampshire College. It was here that she was confronted with race for the first time. “As Africans, we don’t grow up with a racial identity. We grow up with cultural and ethnic identity before racial identity. I never used the word black as a child. It was never a thing. When was I ever discussing black? Why?”
At Hampshire, she says, “I realized that my skin color was making some people see me differently.” The moment this became apparent was in class, when Lupita wrote a paper on independent American film. After reading it, Lupita’s professor instructed her to go to the Writing Center to get help with her writing skills. But having looked over Lupita’s paper, the teacher at the center asked her, “Why are you here?” “I said, ‘Because my teacher said I should come,’ ” says Lupita. “And she said, ‘I could use this paper to teach the people who come here how to write.’ ” Puzzled, Lupita looked at two Caucasian students’ papers in class. Even though they were full of grammatical errors, these kids had not been given extra teaching. “And then I realized that there was maybe one other black person in the class, who had also been sent to the Writing Center.”
The next time I see Lupita is two days later, at the Maison Margiela show, John Galliano’s first couture presentation in Paris since he left Dior in 2011. Lupita’s enthusiasm for Galliano’s avant-garde, deconstructed couture increases with each look that appears on the runway. “Mmmm! I love the sackcloth,” she declares as an embroidered hessian coat stalks past us. “Oh, my Lord!” she gasps excitedly as an ombré-spot strapless cocktail dress, open at the back, parades by. After the final model floats out in a voluminous wedding dress that appears to be made of Bubble Wrap, Lupita says, “So much drama. The show gave me goose bumps.”
Dressed in a short cotton A-line frock printed with bright zigzags, by her favorite Kenyan designer, Kiko Romeo, Lupita has a lunch appointment. We meet Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci—whose orange pleated dress Lupita rocked at an NAACP event last year—in a little bistro on the Avenue George V. Over langoustines, lobster, and crab salad, she talks excitedly of her return to theater, where she began her career, in the fall. “One of the things Emma Thompson encouraged me to do was get back to the stage,” she says, “and this is advice I have taken very seriously.” Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of New York’s Public Theater, says he offered Lupita any stage role she wanted after she won the Oscar, but “she had fallen in love with a play called Eclipsed, set during the Liberian Civil War. . . . Who am I to say no to Lupita?” Written by the Zimbabwean-American playwright and actress Danai Gurira, it follows the story of a teenage girl who is captured and forced into marriage as one of a warlord’s five wives. Eventually she becomes a rebel soldier herself. “So it’s about that experience, and how women end up creating freedom within themselves,” says Lupita. “My character is wife number four. It’s about her grappling with the loss of her life.”A longtime colleague of Nyong’o (Lupita understudied Eclipsed while she was at Yale), Gurira says of the actress, “We have to bear in mind that there are a lot of Lupitas behind Lupita. She has trailblazed an understanding that there are many African female voices and faces that are universal and resonant and need to be heard.” For her part, Lupita is undeterred by controversial material. “I’m definitely attracted to more dramatic roles,” she says. “I like playing characters that stretch me and that allow me to investigate humanity in a different way.” The play opens for a six-week run this month, as does Jon Favreau’s live-action remake of The Jungle Book, in which Lupita voices Raksha, the wolf mother. “Acting a wolf mother is, first and foremost, acting a mother,” Lupita says, laughing. “And then you gotta work on your howl.”
After lunch, Riccardo invites us up to the Givenchy couture salon to see his latest pieces. En route, he asks Lupita how she works with her stylist, 30-year-old Micaela Erlanger, whose clients include Michelle Dockery and Olivia Munn. “I only wear a look if both of us agree on it,” she says. “My rule is that I have to recognize myself. I have to feel like I’ve chosen it.” She gazes longingly at a bias-cut gown made from lace woven in the image of the Stars and Stripes. “When you know a dress is handmade,” she observes, “it completely changes the experience of wearing it.”
Lupita is looking forward to getting back to her Brooklyn apartment. (In the past year she’s hardly been home due to her filming commitments in London, Los Angeles, and Africa.) “I live alone there. I lie quite low. I take the subway. I do yoga. I meditate,” she says. Clearly she loves America as much as she does Africa. I ask her where she would raise children.
“This is my conundrum. When I was back in Kenya this past week, I would be driving along with my mother and she would say, ‘That’s a nice school for children’ and look at me like——” Lupita raises her eyebrows as if to say, My mom wants me to have children now. Then she tells me that one of her fondest childhood memories is of climbing the mango trees in her grandmother’s village. She ate the fruit straight from the branch. She’d like her children to have the same experience one day. “But I think that will all be determined when I have that moment. When I have that man.” (On the subject of her love life, Lupita remains silent, but since she broke up with rapper K’naan in 2014, she hasn’t appeared to be seriously dating.)
“I definitely feel there’s a lot of America in me,” she continues. “The idea that you can be self-made is very vibrant in America. You can do anything that you want to do. That spirit pushes you on. But it took me leaving Kenya to really appreciate the glory of the place. Ultimately,” she concludes, closing her eyes and smiling for a few seconds, as if she is back in her home country, mango-picking with her grandmother, “I will always be a child of Kenya.”