Gaining accolades, friends & steam

Oscar buzz

Gaining accolades, friends & steam

Lupita Nyong’o was giving a surprise birthday party for her best friend, Ben Kahn. She pulled out a tray of sweets — “vegan, gluten free,” she noted — and organised a rendition of “Happy Birthday”.

That Nyong’o, the breakout star of 12 Years a Slave, had hours before, won an award from the Screen Actors Guild, for her supporting performance as Patsey, the tormented young slave, did not seem to muddle the celebration. 

It was another laurel for Nyong’o, who grew up in Kenya, lives in New York and has spent the last few months popping up on red carpets and at awards ceremonies. As one of the five best supporting actress Oscar nominees, Nyong’o is the most traditional ingénue — 84-year-old June Squibb, a star of Nebraska, is the unexpected one — and a front-runner for the prize. Her chief competition may be Jennifer Lawrence, a star of American Hustle and the reigning breakout salty-sweetheart.

12 Years a Slave is Nyong’o’s first feature film. If Nyong’o, 30, has made a smooth transition to Hollywood acclaim, it’s perhaps because she’s had training. A 2012 graduate of the Yale School of Drama, she stepped into the role of Patsey, the slave obsessed over by Michael Fassbender’s sadistic plantation owner, with a deep understanding of the character.

“I was heartbroken by her story. I just felt so sorry for her. I recognised then that I had a lot of work to do to get to a point where I could play her, because feeling that kind of sympathy for someone is no way to actually inhabit them,” she said.

Nyong’o’s performance began with a multistep audition. After putting herself on tape, she met the casting director, Francine Maisler, who put her through the ringer, Nyong’o said. “She had me do my audition on my knees.” The director, McQueen, said he knew soon after meeting Nyong’o that she was right for the part. “There’s only one word that can actually describe Lupita,” he said. “Grace.”

In her audition, McQueen counseled Nyong’o that, despite her suicidal suffering, Patsey is not noble. “That was something that he repeated, and I repeated to myself thereafter,” she said. “She was just simple, and she was just trying to get by on a daily basis. She’s not sentimental about her pain.” To play that, Nyong’o added, “I had to have the same kind of attitude.”

That attitude was challenged by scenes in which Patsey is brutally raped, whipped and more. Nyong’o reported that she couldn’t sleep well during filming, on location in Louisiana, particularly when she kept the wounds — elaborate makeup on her back — on overnight.

“They were haunting,” she said. “I could only sleep on my belly. I was just so aware of them the whole night. I just remember fretting and weeping, and then it occurred to me that my discomfort was temporary, and the woman who I was playing, her discomfort was permanent. It just really centered me, and it really quieted my soul for the next day’s work.”

After she was nominated for a Golden Globe, the Yale professor who taught her the movement skills emailed. “She was like, ‘Your use in the film was great, and you’ve come a long way,’” Nyong’o recounted. “And those things mean so much to me, because those people have been so instrumental to me as an actor.”

Nyong’o lost the Golden Globe to Lawrence, but followed in her footsteps as a designer darling: She is a face of Miu Miu’s spring collection. Still, she said that the tumult of attention that comes with being a cover girl is overwhelming. “I think everything in my life has prepared me for this,” she said of playing Patsey, “and then nothing has prepared me for the red carpet.”

As she adjusts to the refracting gleam of the spotlight — her next project is a big studio thriller, Non-Stop, with Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore and Dockery — Nyong’o is relying on her background to help her find her footing.

“Now, I feel more comfortable in my own skin, and I think that’s helpful when you’re in these out-of-body experiences,” she said. “I can remember to look for gravity and just remember that gravity is my friend” — she laughed — “when nothing else is.”

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