The breakout star of 12 Years A Slave who has Bond girl written all over her…
Steve McQueen repeated the phrase until he was blue in the face over recent months, but the British filmmaker is bang on the money with his simple assessment of 12 Years A Slave’s breakout actress: “A star is born.” After bursting forth with incandescent might from the Toronto Film Festival, where McQueen’s film had its world premiere, Nyong’o endured ups and downs during the awards-season rat race: winning the Screen Actors Guild award; losing the Golden Globe and Bafta to Jennifer Lawrence*. She led her American Hustle rival in the red-carpet stakes, though, and has been anointed a 2014 fashion icon (yes, these things do matter in LA power corridors).
But never mind the style, Nyong’o is a performer of stunning substance too, as she demonstrated so impressively in 12 Years A Slave. As persecuted slave girl Patsey, the unlucky object of plantation owner Edwin Epps’ (Michael Fassbender) lust and fury, Nyong’o brought rawness and vibrancy to one of the roles of the year. Having auditioned around 1,000 actresses, from established names to screen virgins, McQueen was feeling desperate by the time he stumbled upon the audition tape sent in by the Mexico City-born, Kenyan-raised Nyong’o, then still in her final year at Yale’s School of Drama.
“I felt honoured to have the opportunity to tell Patsey’s story,” she says. “When I read the book, I was mesmerised by this woman who is described as genial and pleasant-tempered and yet at the same time she wants to die. That complexity intrigued and terrified me; I had to do her justice.”
While 12 Years A Slave was her film acting debut, this 31-year-old daughter of a Kenyan parliamentarian is no stranger to film sets. She was a runner during the Kenyan leg of Fernando Meirelles’ shoot for The Constant Gardener, tasked with ferrying Ralph Fiennes to and from set and peppering him with questions about becoming an actress. (“Don’t do it unless you absolutely have to,” he told her.) Nyong’o has even directed; a selfproduced video documentary about the treatment of Kenya’s albino population, called In My Genes.
Suffice to say that on the strength of her performance in 12 Years A Slave, which she followed with the somewhat less anguishing role of a flight attendant in Non-Stop, Nyong’o has the film industry banging on her door. A young star swiftly on the rise, with jaw-dropping good looks – could the James Bond franchise be her next stop? We wouldn’t be in the least surprised. Either way, the future looks bright.
We’ll let McQueen have the final word on her prospects: “She’s a fucking natural,” he told Total Film. “She’s real, she’s amazing, she scared the pyjamas out of me. There’s no stopping her.”
*Total Film went to press before the Oscar winners were revealed.