Actress Lupita Nyong’o

A breakout star of 2013, Nyong’o contemplates her status as a rising star and the numerous award nods for her powerful debut feature performance.

Little did Lupita Nyong'o realize that she'd be a fixture on the 2014 awards circuit as the breakout star of the film, 12 Years a Slave. Cast just before her graduation from the Yale School of Drama's acting program, she's won numerous honors for her performance (and feature acting debut) as Patsey in the critically acclaimed film, including SAG and Golden Globe nods. Nyong'o was born in Mexico, raised in Kenya and educated in the U.S. and worked on the production crews of several movies. She's also a filmmaker and created, directed, edited and produced the award-winning feature-length documentary, In My Genes. She next co-stars in the thriller, Non-Stop.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: We continue our conversation with actors tonight, making their mark in their very first film. Lupita Nyong’o won the crucial role of Patsey, the desperate and abused slave in the critically acclaimed movie “12 Years a Slave,” over a thousand other actresses.

She is now being nominated for every major acting award this season, from the Golden Globes to the Screen Actors Guild awards, including a possible upcoming Oscar nomination.

The film itself won a Golden Globe for best drama and is opening in more theaters, as you might suspect, in the coming weeks. Let’s take a look at a scene from “12 Years a Slave.”

[Clip]

Tavis: So how you holding up?

Lupita Nyong’o: I’m good. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah?

Nyong’o: Yeah, I’m doing well. I’m enjoying myself, and just trying to absorb as much as I can.

Tavis: How are you processing all this first time out the gate?

Nyong’o: I definitely look at people around me and ask them whether this is actually happening from time to time, but a lot – this is a very busy time, so I’m almost on autopilot at times, yeah.

Tavis: For those who have not heard, you’ve been a little bit of everywhere these days, as you should be for a film this wonderful. For those who have not heard the story of how this came to be, take me back one more time and tell me where you were and how this role came your way.

Nyong’o: So I was just about to graduate from the Yale School of Drama, and my managers received the script for Garret Dillahunt, whom she represents and who plays Armsby in the movie, and she thought I’d be good for Patsey.

So she had me go on tape in New York, and then it just so happened I was going to be in L.A. a week later for our Yale showcase there. So she had the casting office come in to see my work.

Then Francine Maisler, the casting director, invited me in to work with her. She put me through a one-hour, very grueling audition. Then about two weeks later I was invited down to Louisiana to audition with Steve. So it was three auditions in three different states.

Tavis: When you saw Patsey on the page for the first time, what did you think?

Nyong’o: I was heartbroken when I read her story, and I felt a deep sense of sympathy. I felt so sorry for her. I realized then that I had a lot of work to do in order to be able to actually play her.

Because playing – seeing someone sympathetically is a judgment of their situation rather than an advocacy for where they are and what they’re fighting for. So I had my work cut out for me, but I had a gut reaction to her.

There was something that I understood in my gut that I didn’t understand in my head, and I know that’s something that actors have spoken of in the past with certain roles.

I was just so excited to feel that and not understand it, and to then go about trying to find how to play her and understand her in other ways as well.

Tavis: So clearly, young people can do this because there are persons younger than you who have been nominated for these kinds of awards in the past. So young folk can act and folk who are older can act.

But what’s fascinating about this character, Patsey, that you play, for me, given your young age, is what – and I hear that thing about the gut. But I’m trying to get a sense of what it was that you drew on, because this is such a, speaking of gut, gut-wrenching role.

It is so passionate and so volatile and so – all of that. There’s just so much that comes out of this character. I’m trying to get a sense of where – this is what you go to acting school for, obviously, to figure this out.

But I’m trying to get a sense of where you pulled from, not having lived that much life, to bring this to life for us.

Nyong’o: Well, I honestly don’t believe that we are as individual as we think. As human beings, what makes us able to empathize with people is a connection that is not necessarily understood mentally.

That’s what makes cinema possible, that we have a room full of people empathizing with people on the screen, and going through what they’re going through emotionally.

So I think that’s something to do with it. Perhaps we understand more than the span of our lives lets us understand. But – and I think actors just have more access to that than other people, because that is our profession.

But it was in the script, it was in the autobiography, clues as to who this woman was. Solomon described her as having an air of loftiness that neither labor nor lash could rid her of.

He said that had she been born in a different time, she would have been a leader among men. So these were the clues of her quality that I really cherished. Then of course I did research and my training obviously came in very handy.

One of the reasons why I went to the Yale School of Drama is because I felt that I was acting off of instinct, but sometimes that is not reliable. When you’re not feeling it, what do you do?

So going to grad school was about getting the tools to just use my instrument to the best of my ability. So I honestly don’t think I could have done this without that kind of training, having the tools to devise a character other than myself.

Tavis: We will see in the coming years how playing this character will impact and affect your career as a thespian. But I am curious, Lupita, as to how connecting with Patsey has changed you as a person. Not as an actor, but as a person.

Nyong’o: Yeah. A lot. One of the qualities of Patsey was that she was very present, and she had to be, because of the volatile nature of her master. He could do anything at any time and she had to be ready.

She had to be a cat – pounced, and just ready to act and react. That’s a quality that in playing her – being thrown into this role with this group of people was a very intimidating thing, and I suffered from a lot of self-doubt.

In fact, I thought that Steve was going to call me and fire me, or just tell me that he’d made a mistake in calling me in the first place. So it was about finding the confidence and the comfort in the discomfort, and just being present every day.

So not being overwhelmed – finding a way to not be overwhelmed with the entire magnitude of the project, but just the day-to-day. What can I do today to prepare for Patsey?

That’s what got me through, really. That quality is something that I think is keeping me alive this awards season as well. Just being just in the present moment and letting the future worry about itself, because it’s still coming.

Tavis: When I first read your story – that is the story of what you were doing when all of this sort of came to fruition for you – the first thought, I think we discussed this on the radio program, my first thought was that of my friend LeVar Burton.

Because LeVar was a student at USC when he had the opportunity to play Kunta Kinte; obviously an iconic character in the “Roots” series. So both of you were in school, and it’s your first major acting role, and you get a chance to just break out.

So I’ve talked to LeVar about this any number of times, about how he went on that set with all of those acting luminaries and was not intimidated, or how at least he dealt with the intimidation.

So you spoke of your intimidation and how you thought at any day, at any point, Steve McQueen may just fire you for the choice that you made. But how did you come to terms with the intimidation? How did you get through all that? How’d you deal with it?

Nyong’o: Well, that’s what the training at Yale prepared me for. Because I had to remember that I’d felt those feelings over and over again, and I had three years to deal with this intimidation and imposter syndrome.

I was dealing with it with other actors and other artists who were remarkable. I remember being in class and having one of my classmates crying because they felt like such a failure.

Then in the evening, they’d do a production and my jaw would just drop at how fabulous they were. So that discomfort and that self-doubt, I think, that fear, that’s the thing that keeps us curious, it keeps us searching for truth, and it keeps us with integrity, I think, as actors.

So remembering that was very helpful, that I had experienced those feelings. Then of course I get on set and I get to Louisiana, and I have my first rehearsals with Chiwetel and Michael, and Michael turned to me after our first reading and said, “You are my peer,” and that was just so relieving to come from his mouth. Chiwetel, in true fashion, went, “Yeah.” (Laughter)

Tavis: You knew him quite well.

Nyong’o: Yeah. (Laughter) Those things, the confidence of Steve and Michael and Chiwetel and everyone else that I met who embraced me, they definitely had me more relaxed and just focusing on what was important, which was Patsey’s story.

Tavis: Before all of this happened, how did you expect that, or hope that this career was going to get off the ground? Were you interested in film, was it about the stage? What had you – there’s an old adage that we plan and God laughs.

Nyong’o: Yes. (Laughter)

Tavis: I love that – we plan and God laughs. What we have in mind ain’t always what he has in mind. But how did you think this career was going to get off the ground?

Nyong’o: Well, right before I graduated, I was on a plane to L.A. and I was just writing in my diaries just visions for myself, and really, it was just a bunch of adjectives – the kinds of roles I wanted to do, of a woman coming to herself.

I wanted to do something dramatic, and just different adjective, different nouns and verbs to describe the kinds of things I wanted to do. Then it was answered immediately in Patsey, and I couldn’t have planned that.

So for me, it’s not so much specific planning. That’s virtually impossible as an actor, to have very specific plans. But having a sense of the kinds of spaces I want to enter, the kinds of – the ways in which I am interested in exploring the human experience.

I think that is what I had written down, and it’s still what I’m using to navigate my choices in the future. I always envisioned working in film and in theater. Theater and film are not, they’re not in any way substitutable.

What I love about theater is so different from what I love about film, and I enjoy the craft of both. Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah. Well, if mere writing in your diary brings you what you want, you better get back to writing. (Laughter) It’s working for you, so please continue the writing.

Nyong’o: Thank you.

Tavis: Her name is Lupita Nyong’o. She plays Patsey in “12 Years a Slave.” You’ve seen her everywhere. I don’t want to embarrass her, but she’s also become, just pretty quickly here, a bit of a fashion maven.

Everybody wants to know what she has on and who she’s wearing and where’d you get that and where can I get that and all that. Anyway, you look very nice tonight.

Nyong’o: Thank you.

Tavis: We’re glad to have you on the program.

Nyong’o: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

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Last modified: February 3, 2014 at 1:31 pm