It was well into the audition process for 12 Years a Slave when Steve McQueen began to despair. He’d seen over a thousand actors for the role of the long-suffering Patsey, and no one quite had the “majestic grace” he thought the part required. By the time he watched the tape sent in by an unknown Kenyan actress named Lupita Nyong’o, he’d started to question his own judgment—“I just kind of rubbed my eyes in disbelief and needed someone else to confirm what I was seeing.” McQueen showed the audition to his 14-year-old daughter. Her response: “Wow. Who is she?”
So it was that Lupita Nyong’o found herself where she is, which at this particular moment is the NoMad Hotel, sipping verbena tea, sleek in black pants and black sweater, and sitting with legs and hands crossed politely as a driver waits outside and the lunch staff scours the pantry for gluten-free bread. “I haven’t always been gluten-free,” Nyong’o explains in a measured tone, after scanning the menu and coming up short. “I’ve done it for maybe nine months.” Which, like carrying a baby, is roughly the amount of time it could take a lovely young woman who lives in Brooklyn with a roommate from school to morph, via a team of publicists and stylists and handlers, into a Bona Fide Star. Just back from the awards circuit in L.A. (the SAG and Critics’ Choice Awards, which she won; the Golden Globes, which she didn’t), Nyong’o, 30, was this year’s standout fresh face, floating gracefully down a succession of red carpets in a series of bold-colored, eye-catching, sophisticated gowns (she shares a stylist with Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey). On March 2, she may very well take home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but in the meantime, she’s perfecting the role of the grateful, gracious ingénue nominee.
That is to say, her ability to both land her first feature-film audition after drama school and get nominated for it is “not a badge of honor” but only a lucky break; her director is “very good at keeping us on point”; her co-stars are “incredible, all exceptional artists, and very dedicated to their craft”; while on set, “egos are checked at the door, and everyone’s about the work”; her current whirlwind life is “stressed but blessed—I mean, I couldn’t have dreamed this up”; and her goal for the future is to “just be in the moment, fight to stay in the moment.” All of which makes her a publicist’s dream and ensures that, whatever may come of the Oscars, Nyong’o is not going to screw this moment up.
And in some ways it’s a moment she’s particularly equipped to handle, having grown up in a prominent Kenyan family. The second of six children, Nyong’o was born in Mexico City, where her father, who had been fighting for democracy against Kenya’s then-autocratic regime, was teaching political science at the Colegio de México and hiding out after his brother had disappeared under unusual circumstances. “His car was found on the ferry in the town he lived in with a pair of his shoes and no sign of him,” Nyong’o says. Worried that he might be the next one to go missing, her father relocated, figuring that “no one would look for a Kenyan in Mexico.” Nyong’o was born shortly thereafter and, in the Kenyan tradition of naming a child after what’s happening at the time of his or her birth, was given the name Lupita, a diminutive of Guadalupe. “Every single laundromat, grocery store, everything is called Lupita in Mexico.”