It is impossible to tear your eyes away from Lupita Nyong’o, the Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised graduate of the Yale School of Drama, with her arresting oval face and vast, luminous eyes.
Nyong’o makes her screen debut in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave. Based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, it tells the story of a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South in the 1840s. She plays the beautiful Patsey, a slave girl who attracts the uninvited attentions of the sadistic plantation owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
“I fell in love with Patsey,” says the 30-year-old Nyong’o. “I was mesmerised by this woman who is described in the book as genial, agile and pleasant-tempered and yet also wants to die. She intrigued and terrified me. It was a constant daily struggle to play her, and involved a lot of crying, on and off camera.”
Having seen a thousand hopefuls for the role, McQueen was in despair when he stumbled upon Nyong’o’s audition tape. “I thought, ‘Who is this girl? Is she real?’ She came to New Orleans to meet me and she scared the pyjamas off me. She was so raw, an absolute natural.”
During the film’s Louisiana shoot, Nyong’o refused to take refuge in air-conditioning from the oppressive bayou heat, feeling it would dishonour her character to seek out such comforts. “I felt blessed to have the opportunity to tell her story and I had to do her justice. Steve would say, ‘I’m not interested in nobility. Patsey is simple.’ It was the guiding word for my performance: simplicity.”
The daughter of a Kenyan parliamentarian, the budding filmmaker (before Yale, she wrote and directed a documentary about Kenya’s albino population) is jetting off in a different direction for her next role, as a flight attendant in Liam Neeson’s airborne thriller Non-Stop. A sign, if one was needed, that Nyong’o is going places.