Lupita Nyong’o learned lots of valuable lessons as an acting student at the Yale School of Drama — on Shakespeare, accents, the Alexander technique — but there was one crucial omission from the curriculum. “We kept being told that it’s going to be one long, lonely, hard and fruitless journey, being an actor,” Nyong’o says. “You’re going to be Policewoman Number Three for a long time before you can get anywhere. They helped us to mentally prepare for failure, but they did not prepare us for success.”
In Nyong’o’s case, success came quickly and dramatically when she earned an Academy Award for her very first feature film role straight out of Yale, in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. In videos of Nyong’o at that time, as she did press and accepted awards, she seems preternaturally poised. But that grace was masking a turmoil underneath that would have serious ramifications for her health. “I was mitigating my panic at all times because extreme failure and extreme success, the body doesn’t know the difference,” says Nyong’o, now 39. “Either way, you are in distress. I’m proud of how I weathered that particular storm, but it cost me. It cost me physically. I was extremely thin. My body was ravaging itself, and I got fibroids.”
Nyong’o eventually underwent surgery to remove the fibroids, and today she’s healthy. As she shares this story over lunch at a seaside restaurant in Malibu in August, the Kenyan Mexican actress cuts a conspicuously glamorous figure among tables of Californians clad in athleisure. She’s wearing a yellow and brown floral jacquard jumpsuit with puffed sleeves, made by Nigerian American designer Autumn Adeigbo, and a Christian Dior ring of a snake about to swallow a monkey. “A sad and beautiful scene,” she says of the ring. “It’ll double as a weapon.”
Nyong’o, who lives in Brooklyn, is known as a serious and committed actress, and she is undoubtedly that, but she’s also, as fewer people know, playful and self-deprecating. Because the loud ocean waves are interfering with the recording of this interview, she has taken a digital recorder and tucked it into her bandeau top, its red light blinking from the middle of her chest as she talks. “Don’t worry,” she says, with a wave of her hand. “Nobody is looking at my cleavage.” That lighter side, as well as her status as a major foodie, is more evident on her Instagram and TikTok accounts, where she shares videos of her eating her way across Italy or trying a dish with ants.
After the Oscar, lots of interesting work came Nyong’o’s way — a terrifying dual lead role in Jordan Peele’s Us, a motion-capture part as pirate queen Maz Kanata in the Star Wars films, a stage role playing a rape victim during Liberia’s civil war in the Broadway play Eclipsed, which earned Nyong’o a Tony nomination. She also played Nakia in Black Panther, a fighter-activist and lover of T’Challa, the king of Wakanda. Once again, Nyong’o was part of an extraordinary and unprecedented success, a movie that grossed $1.3 billion worldwide, became the first Marvel film nominated for best picture and marked a defining moment for the global impact of Black culture.
In the sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which arrives in theaters Nov. 11, Nyong’o reprises the role of Nakia, this time without the man who played her king, Chadwick Boseman, who died in August 2020 of colon cancer. Boseman’s death took the world, including his closest collaborators, by surprise. Nyong’o had known Boseman was sick but not that he was terminally ill, and she learned of his death in a text from Viola Davis. “I couldn’t believe it,” Nyong’o says. “I was paralyzed.” For her, as for many of the film’s cast and crew, Boseman had been much more than a colleague; he had been a kind of spiritual anchor. “He had an aura,” Nyong’o says. “He was the leader, and we were all good with it.”
Nyong’o watched how Boseman carried the responsibility of being the lead on a massive movie and also how he maintained his boundaries. “There were moments when Chadwick said no to me, and I was not happy with him,” she says. “I fought tooth and nail to change his mind, and he would ever so quietly be like, ‘I know, but no,’ with love.” Once, she wanted him to come to South Africa with her and Danai Gurira to promote Black Panther. “I felt it was important to have him on the continent, as an African American coming to South Africa. I thought that was a potent symbol, and he wouldn’t go,” Nyong’o says. “Now I understand he was battling cancer and probably had medical reasons. I tried everything. I tried charm. I debated him on the political front, and he smiled, he sighed, and he was just like, ‘I know, Lupita. I can’t go.’ ” Instead, Boseman sent a message along with her and Gurira. “He affected how I move in the world,” Nyong’o says. “But that’s the thing about Chadwick. Chadwick wasn’t trying to have everyone be like him. What he inspired was you to be your best self. So how I’m going to lead a set is nowhere near — I’m not that person. I’m not Chadwick at all. I’ll never be.”
With Boseman’s death, the future of the franchise that had meant so much to so many was suddenly unclear. “Losing your centerpiece, everything changed,” Nyong’o says. “When you say the world rotated around him, it revolved around him, it did.” Black Panther writer-director Ryan Coogler and his co-writer, Joe Robert Cole, had written a script for a Black Panther sequel that centered on Boseman’s character and his evolution as a leader. “The script we wrote before Chadwick passed was very much rooted in T’Challa’s perspective,” Coogler says. “It was a massive movie but also simultaneously a character study that delved deeply into his psyche and situation.” Marvel decided against recasting the role of T’Challa with another actor, deeming it too soon, a decision that sparked debate among some fans who feared that losing T’Challa as a character in pop culture hurt the audiences, especially Black boys and men who saw themselves in him. Nyong’o says she supports Marvel’s decision not to recast T’Challa. “That is not the death of the Black Panther, that’s the whole point,” Nyong’o says. “It’s laying to rest [T’Challa] and allowing for real life to inform the story of the movies. I know that there are all sorts of reasons why people want him to be recast, but I don’t have the patience. I don’t have the presence of mind, or I don’t have the objectivity to argue with that. I don’t. I’m very biased.”
Instead of recasting T’Challa, Coogler and Cole rewrote the script to include the character’s death and reframed the story from another character’s point of view, a different Wakandan becoming Black Panther. “The Black Panther has existed in Wakanda for centuries, so the notion of someone else picking up the mantle didn’t seem inorganic,” says Nate Moore, vp production and development at Marvel Studios and a producer on Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. “But once that had to become a reality, then it was, ‘OK, what makes the most sense for the story? Who actually makes the most sense to take this thing on?’ All of the characters in the film have a different idea of who should don the mantle and why.” Fans have speculated, based on a Lego toy and trailer imagery of a female figure wearing a Black Panther costume, that Letitia Wright’s character, Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, will take over the role as Wakanda’s protector, as has happened in the Marvel comics. Nyong’o was always going to be in the sequel, and she, too, could play that crucial part. Asked whether she is in fact the new Black Panther, Nyong’o pauses. “If I told you that, I might as well just … swim into the ocean and never be seen again.”
Just a few months after Boseman’s death, Nyong’o was in Kenya when Coogler connected with her by Zoom to relay his plan for a movie that seemed at that time almost impossible to contemplate, let alone make. “Every time I thought about what the next Black Panther could be, my imagination fell short,” Nyong’o says. “Even just talking about Black Panther in the midst of still grieving Chadwick, it was really complicated emotionally to do.” Coogler described to her how he and Cole had rewritten their script to include Wakanda’s mourning as a central plot point. “Ryan wrote something that so honored the truth of what every one of us was feeling, those of us who knew Chadwick,” she says. “He created something that could honor that and carry the story forward. By the end, I was weeping.”
Much of the Wakanda Forever story is set under water, as the film introduces the kingdom of Talocan and the character of Namor, a kind of Marvel version of Aquaman, played by Tenoch Huerta, who portrayed Rafa Quintero in Narcos: Mexico. While the film was in preproduction, Nyong’o, whose character hails from Wakanda’s river tribe, began underwater training, and periodically she would send videos of her workouts to Coogler and Moore. “She would be down there holding her breath and carrying giant weights through the water,” Moore says. “Nothing we’d asked her to do, by the way. We were like, ‘What is this lady doing?’ She was so intent on being believably comfortable in the water. She wanted to be as much of an expert as possible. And it shows. She was able to do things other castmembers weren’t because she was just so intent on going above and beyond to make sure this character felt real.” Nyong’o, Coogler says, has “grit.” “With Lupita, what you see is what you get,” he says. “She’s smart, cultured, gifted. She’s very confident, knows who she is. If ever she makes a choice that doesn’t feel true to herself, she’ll stop herself.”
When Wakanda Forever began production in Atlanta in June 2021, COVID-19 protocols meant that the cast and crew weren’t spending time together casually, as they had on the first film, and the loss of Boseman loomed over the set. “Art can be therapeutic, but the process of therapy can be painful, at times tortuous,” says Coogler. “But also at times calming and rewarding. It was all of those things. Sharing that with the cast, who were also in grief, they granted me a lot of grace — Lupita especially.” Wright sustained injuries while filming a stunt in Boston that caused production to be delayed; with additional delays because of COVID, the shoot dragged on for 10 long months. “Toward the end, we were just saying that it’s Ryan’s fault because he called this Wakanda Forever, and it just will not end,” Nyong’o says. “It’s forever, and ever, and ever, and ever.”
Nyong’o credits much of her career, and sense of self-expression, to Amondi Buyu, a cool aunt who was an actress in Kenyan theater. “I grew up in a very conservative environment, aside from my parents, who were very open,” says Nyong’o, who spent most of her childhood in Nairobi, Kenya. “My schooling was very conservative, but my aunt was wild. She had hairstyles that nobody else had. She shaved her head. She gave me space to explore my femininity on my own terms. At some point, I shaved my head. She gave me courage to be daring.” Nyong’o’s aunt would cast the family’s children in skits to entertain the adults, and it was she who encouraged Nyong’o to audition for the annual musical in Kenya’s one semiprofessional repertory theater when she was 13. Nyong’o didn’t get that part, but the next year she was cast as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Today, Nyong’o plays a similar role for her sister’s 5-year-old daughter as well as for many of her extended family’s children. “I’m the coolest aunt,” she says. “Cool aunts don’t have to punish you,” Nyong’o says. “You can tell them things you never tell your parents, and you go to them in moments of crisis.”
Nyong’o’s father is Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, the governor of Kenya’s Kisumu County, and her mother, Dorothy, has been a PR consultant for NGOs in Kenya. The family was living in Mexico City, where Peter had a visiting professorship in political science, when Lupita was born, but they moved back to Kenya when she was still a toddler. For much of Lupita’s childhood, Peter was a politician and a public figure in Kenya, which shaped his daughter in ways that would become very useful when she got famous. “Going to school, and people giving you their opinions about the headline that was in the news yesterday that involves your father — they have a firm opinion and oftentimes not very complimentary. ‘He shouldn’t have done that,’ ” she says. “He’s a public figure, and therefore his persona goes beyond him. It’s beyond his control how people interact and interrogate him. And in much the same way, there are things that are beyond my control. My persona is for public consumption.”
A major part of Nyong’o’s persona has been her beauty and the barriers she has broken as a dark-skinned Black woman. By now, that image of Nyong’o is so ingrained, it’s a Beyoncé lyric in the song Brown Skin Girl — “She need an Oscar for that pretty dark skin/Pretty like Lupita when the cameras close in.” But in 2014, when she became the first Black actress to land a Lancôme contract and was also named People magazine’s Most Beautiful, the experience of personifying Black beauty was sometimes disorienting. “I was the subject of a much larger conversation, a socio-political one,” Nyong’o says. “I appreciated that larger conversation and at no point did I not want it to be happening. But I wanted to participate in the practice of being me, not in the theory of being me.” When Nyong’o played Maz Kanata, a wholly CGI role in 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, some fans mused that the character was a waste of such a beautiful actress. But the performance, Nyong’o says, “allowed me to disconnect from my body in a way that I needed at that time. I needed a break from my body, from what people were saying about my body.”
Part of how she asserted some power in the conversation over what her appearance meant was to write a children’s book in 2019, Sulwe, about a girl who has “skin the color of midnight” and is darker than anyone in her family. The book became a New York Times best-seller and won an NAACP Image Award. “It’s all too easy as a Black person for the politics of being Black to overshadow the art, and it’s about fighting to maintain a right to artistic expression,” Nyong’o says. “But also, respecting the need for a larger conversation, the need for political movement. I think being the daughter of a politician, I get that. I’ve never just been an individual. I’ve always had to straddle that line of being the daughter of a public figure.”
Nyong’o attended Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, as an undergraduate, studying film and African studies. She was lost, she says, scared to admit that she wanted to be an actor. “I was coming from so far away in terms of what was possible for me as a Kenyan from Nairobi,” she says. “I was living completely out of the realm of possibility that I had grown up with. I had gotten to a point where being uncomfortable was all I knew.” But by the time she got to Yale, “I had decided to bet on myself,” Nyong’o says. And even as the drama school lessons emphasized the hardship she would face as an actor, she began trying something different. “A very good friend at the time encouraged me to accept success in the same manner that they had prepared us to accept failure,” Nyong’o says. “To meditate on saying yes and on receiving what could potentially come my way.”
She bucked expectations again after the Oscar, partly thanks to some advice she got from Emma Thompson. “I got told a lot, not just by my team but by other actors that I would meet, ‘You’ve got to strike now,’ ” Nyong’o says of the pressures to capitalize on her sudden success. After months of talking about acting to promote 12 Years a Slave, Nyong’o wasn’t sure she even remembered how to do it. In London to film Star Wars, she called Thompson, whom she had met on the awards circuit. “She invited me over, and I went to dinner with her, and she totally demystified all of that,” Nyong’o says. “She did save my life. I had won this huge award, and my imposter syndrome was at an all-time high. I was so intimidated by this new platform that I seemed to have. I mean, I acted in one film. I didn’t even know what the ‘martini shot’ was, for crying out loud.” Many in Nyong’o’s circle were pushing her to do more film work and discouraging her from doing theater. Thompson disagreed. “She told me that she quit acting for over eight years at some point, and everybody told her that she would never be able to come back to it, and she did,” Nyong’o says. “She encouraged me to do what I thought was best for my instrument.” Because of that conversation, Nyong’o took the role in the Broadway play Eclipsed. “My first place where I cut my teeth was in the theater, and I wanted to touch base with that because I knew how to do that, and it really, really helped me,” she says. “It helped me rededicate myself to the work of acting because I was so disillusioned by it. The awards circuit is so far away from the work. Becoming a celebrity, that’s a whole other job than being an actor. I needed to get back to what got me here in the first place, and the theater did that for me.”
As a second-generation public figure, Nyong’o has learned to keep her personal life private, often bringing family members as her dates to red carpet events. Nearly every time she’s been photographed with an attractive single person, fans have speculated about her dating them, including Jared Leto, Michael B. Jordan and Janelle Monáe. Leto stoked the rumors when, while accepting an award in 2014, he thanked “my future ex-wife, Lupita.” “Why have I kept it private? Because I want some things just to be for me, and I want my work to be louder than my love, that’s it,” Nyong’o says. “And I honestly hate the idea of having to publicly withstand my exes. I don’t need their faces in my face.”
She’s also aware of when she’s about to be a part of a media moment, whether she wants to be or not. At this year’s Oscars, when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock, Nyong’o was seated behind Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, reacting, like much of the audience watching at home, first with nervous laughter and then with confusion and open-mouthed shock. Images of her emotional journey became ubiquitous on social media in the days after the telecast. One user tweeted: “LUPITA WAS ALL OF US.” “Once the moment was over, I realized, ‘Oh my God, there’s no way all this transpired and I’m not in the shot,’ ” Nyong’o says with a laugh. “I knew as soon as it was over that I was going to be a meme.” On what it was like to be there that night, she’ll let the memes do her talking for her. “I don’t want to add any more fuel to that thing, quite frankly,” she says.
For Nyong’o, growing as an actress this past decade has meant learning how and when to push herself and when to back off. “I can’t half-ass it,” she says. “I don’t know how to do that. Because I know how much it costs for me to go in, it means that I probably work less because of it. I work deliberately, so I will ask myself often what I’m spiritually prepared to do. What the spiritual cost will be, what the emotional and physical cost will be. And then, I make a plan for it.”
The Jordan Peele horror movie Us, in which she played a Jekyll and Hyde character — both a mother, Adelaide, and her murderous double, Red — was new thematic territory. “She was a movie star by the time we made Us, and from her existing work, I was really impressed at her ability to make an emotional connection with the audience, often just by using her face alone,” Peele says. “So I knew she would be able to handle the Adelaide side of the role, but I was eager to see what she would do with the cold, disconnected side, the Red character. What happens when this face that can elicit so much empathy is used to terrify?” Nyong’o worked with a vocal coach to create Red’s deep, terrifying voice, in a way that wouldn’t harm her vocal cords, which she had injured on the first Black Panther movie after performing an intense scene without first warming up her voice. She dove into the script, mining it for meaning. “Once she had the script, I knew she was perfect for the challenge,” Peele says. “She not only had the ability to create two completely different characters but also the skill and the depth to understand the link between them and how they are also the same character at the same time.” It was a layered performance that many critics considered Oscar-worthy, though she was not nominated.
One role Nyong’o had, and walked away from, was as one of the Agoji warriors in The Woman King, the new movie that tells the story that inspired the fictional Dora Milaje of Black Panther, including their kingdom’s participation in the slave trade. Shortly after she was cast in The Woman King, Nyong’o made a short documentary about the Agoji, Warrior Women With Lupita Nyong’o, in which she grapples uncomfortably with the tribe’s legacy of violence. After making the documentary, Nyong’o was no longer attached to The Woman King, though she declines to get into the specifics of her withdrawal from the project. “It was very amicable, the departure from it,” Nyong’o says of her relationship to that film. “But I felt it wasn’t the role for me to play.”
Much of Nyong’o’s work has been in large studio movies, like Star Wars and Black Panther. In 2019, she made a small Australian horror comedy, Little Monsters, in which she played a cheerful zombie-fighting kindergarten teacher. “I’m desperate for small projects,” Nyong’o says. “They’re harder to get off the ground, they’re harder to stay on track. Bigger movies elbow them out of the way. The pandemic and the fiscal stress on the industry has made it even harder for those movies to get made.”
Asked about the debate over whether Marvel movies are swallowing the film industry, she pauses. “It becomes a philosophical question about what is art and what is its purpose,” she says. “I believe that art plays a role in moving the people that experience it, and a lot of people are moved by Marvel. Is you being moved by this thing less important than me being moved by Picasso?
“I think to be culturally prosperous, to be artistically prosperous as a people, is to have options,” she adds. She recalls moving from Kenya to the U.S. and first going to the grocery store. “In Kenya, sugar was sugar, it was brown or it was white,” she says. “You come to the States, and a whole section in the supermarket is dedicated to sugars. So many different sugars. That is a symbol of prosperity, when you have options. So I personally love a good Marvel movie, but it doesn’t take me away from really wanting the little character-driven film. I believe in the fight for those things to be kept alive because the one thing we always want, the ultimate privilege, is choice.”
This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.