What immediately stands out upon meeting Lupita Nyong’o is the graceful and elegant presence. There’s definitely a warm, down to Earth demeanor, but she maintains a sense of class that’s hard to ignore.
Nyong’o was in Washington, D.C., promoting her new film, Queen of Katwe. The 2014 Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner should be in the running for another nomination thanks to another amazing performance.
I spoke with her about the challenges, dealing with self-doubt and what has her most excited about appearing in Marvel Studios’ Black Panther alongside Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan.
What was the most challenging aspect of the role?
Playing a mother. That was very challenging and that’s the reason I took this role. I was so surprised when I received the script that Mira asked me to play the mother for essential five children. At a young age of 30, this was a woman who had her first child at 15 she’s a teen mom and she’s a single mother struggling to keep her family together.
I don’t have any children … so what do I know of taking care of four, you know? But I love that kind of challenge, something that asks me to do something completely different from the thing I’d just done. This was it. This was the film I shot right after Star Wars [The Force Awakens]. I just love how uplifting the story is and how inspiring it was.
I was keen to play the role of someone who sees the world totally different from how I see it. Someone who’s afraid of dreams and quite suspicious of them. And fearful of how easily they can lead to disappointment.
When asked about putting herself into very different characters and situations, Nyong’o said research is her best tool.
We as human beings we underestimate our ability to empathize and consider someone else’s circumstances. As an actor I get to exercise that muscle all the time. I had the Harriet, the real Harriet to go to, create and build this character.
I went to Uganda three weeks to a month ahead of time in order to sit with her. To get to know her, experience the culture, the environment and the neighborhoods where these things happened and really just get a sense of time, place and character.
Nyong’o said she definitely felt extra pressure in getting the role right considering her character reference was available.
It’s not very often you get to play someone and then play their recent history. These events transpired in 2000 … so there’s a pressure for sure. But as an actor you have to remember there’s no way you’re actually going to be this person. So it’s just being aware of that and able to reconcile this is going to be a representation, not a recreation of a person is important.
To be able to hear her voice — she has a very deep voice — and to be able to take that and watch her movements and borrow some of that. Remember this is a snippet of her life. You have to craft it so you can understand the larger themes within the duration of the film you have.
A decade ago, Nyongo’o worked as an intern for Kwate director Mira Nair on The Namesake. Nyong’o reflected on her journey and playing a role she said Nair wrote with her in mind.
When I did that post-production work, I always felt like I was exactly where I needed to be. And it’s the only way I got to where I am now. Having those relationships back then and figuring out for myself where I felt I belonged. And it took some time before I figured out OK, I just want to be in front of the camera. But I had to explore the other options so I don’t regret it.
I like the idea of being forward thinking and feeling dissatisfied with where you are. And that’s really the theme of this movie. Harriet is afraid her daughter will be exposed to a world other than the one she comes from and then not be accepted there and then not be able to return to the world she’s from and be left in limbo. That is a real fear, you know and one that can stunt you from striving for more. This film is about the encouragement to stay the path, strategize and like a chess board, figure out the obstacles and where you want to go and figure out the best way to get there.
What were some of those obstacles for you?
Self-doubt. Along the way I was very fortunate to have parents that were always supportive of our unconditional dreams. My dad used to act so he would always recite Shakespeare and tell us stories very animatedly. My mom, she made us create these dream charts over the summer. It felt like homework then, but now I appreciate it because she was asking us to look at our lives in the short-, mid- and long-term and think what we wanted for ourselves… It taught me to dream out loud and being deliberate about creating a vision for yourself.
I did came from a larger community that wasn’t supportive of me pursuing artistic endeavors. I had people say ok well now you have to get serious and stop playing around and do something of use to the world. Like being a doctor or business woman or lawyer. Because there was just no precedent for this thing called acting being a viable career path. What that created in me self-doubt. Wondering is the thing I’m interested in going to do any good for me or the world I want to live in? And just overcoming that.
As an actor, I am constantly faced with beginning again. When I take on a new role, it doesn’t matter I was on the last one. This is totally different. And I’m a beginner and I have to apply my craft to a new process and it’s about gaining the confidence within that new process so it always begins with self-doubt. What I have learned is not let self-doubt stop me from the thing I’m trying to do. It’s just one of the hurdles you have to jump over and if it appears again in the horizon you just jump over it again.
What are you most excited about with Black Panther?
Kicking butt! I want to get ripped and just whoop a bunch of people. I’m really looking forward to the physical challenge of the role, I’m looking forward to being a cast member of the first African-American superhero [film].
Looking forward to living in the fictional African nation where things are happening that nobody’s eyes have seen. I’m looking forward to the trip, the amazing imaginative trip [Director] Ryan Coogler is going to take us on.
Queen of Katwe opens in theaters Friday, Sept. 30 nationwide.
Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures