We all fell in love with Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o after witnessing her raw and honest performance in the film 12 Years a Slave. After the film deservingly received rave reviews, off camera Nyong’o was thrown into the spotlight and dubbed an “it girl;” breaking several barriers not only in the realm of acting but in fashion and beauty as well. Last week, during a candid conversation with renowned journalist Michaela Angela Davis, Nyong’o opened up about her upbringing, how she prepares and disconnects from the powerful roles that she has played and her definition of beauty. She also delved into deeper topics and spoke about how she uses her platform to shed a light on the black experience. Check out some highlights from the insightful conversation below!
Lupita on using her work to capture the essence of the black experience:
“I grew up not having this kind of material to watch and to learn from. I grew up with a lot of American, European, Australian and British television and entertainment. Very seldom did I see African stories portrayed on stage or on screen. For me right now in my career I have an opportunity to tell these types of tales and lucky for me I have a platform where people listen to what it is that I want to do. To be able to do a play like Eclipsed and share it with America and with a very wide audience is such an honor. I’m just so thrilled that not only have I had the opportunity to say that I wanted to do it, but someone listened to me and put their money down and is getting it seen. We are all hungry to learn from each other. That’s why entertainment works. That’s why films and plays work. We want to see ourselves reflected and we want to get something from that. To have the cultural specificity of something African is different. It’s just as valuable as being exposed to multiculturalism. The privilege that I have has as an actor is I get to experience other people’s circumstances. I get to research and take personally different histories and different contexts. Doing something like 12 Years a Slave helped me to really dig deep into the history of this country, the history of slavery and the black experience in this country. In that I learned so much about the experiences of black people globally as well. Now, we are at a time where we are experiencing more freedoms than the people that I played in 12 Years a Slave. With that freedom comes a way of exploring our own value. We have an opportunity to value ourselves first. It’s a very exciting time that we have the freedom to do that.”
On preparing and disconnecting from painful roles in efforts to keep her psyche safe:
“I’m attracted to playing roles that are very different from my own personal experience. That’s what I get really excited about. Sometimes they’re painful to do and painful to live in but they’re also so rewarding. It’s a really rich time for me during the rehearsal and preparation for a role because I’m learning so much about this character and the world they live in and how they navigate that world, and how they survive in that world. After 12 Years a Slave I went on and I did Star Wars and I did Jungle Book. I’ve always wanted to do Eclipsed from the time that I studied it at Yale.”
On playing roles that objectify and demean black women:
“For me, I’m very conscious and careful about what types of stories that I want to involve myself in and about my well-being and the well-being of people that I want to represent. I want to play interesting human beings that will illuminate something about the human condition. If a role offers me that, I will take it.”
On how she defines beauty:
“There is a limited number of people of my complexion running around on covers of magazines and things. I get it. The word ‘beauty’ is important and who gets to be called that is important. I think what’s more important is self-worth. I think that’s where the beauty stems from. I thank my parents for instilling self-worth in me. Even when I didn’t have it, they had it on my behalf until such a time that I could receive it.”
After the conversation Nyong’o was honored with her own day in Harlem.