ABOVE: LUPITA NYONG'O IN NEW YORK, JULY 2013. DRESS: VALENTINO. STYLING: VANESSA CHOW.
Watching Lupita Nyong'o's performance in Steve McQueen's wrenching, new historical drama 12 Years a Slave, it's hard to imagine that any actor could wish for a more auspicious—or harrowing—debut. As a young slave named Patsey, the 30-year-old Nyong'o must contend with the unwanted advances of a cruel owner (played with maniacal glee by Michael Fassbender) and the sadistic jealousy of his wife (Sarah Paulson). It's a role that required Nyong'o's character to withstand an inordinate amount of physical and emotional abuse onscreen—a fact which, when brought up, brings a smile to the actress's face. "There was so much joy in the making of this film, despite the fact that it's about such a sad, traumatic experience," says Nyong'o, who explains that shooting at an actual Louisiana plantation added an extra layer of gravity to the proceedings. "We all felt like we were part of something so real and so necessary. It was a joy to go on set every day and tell these real people's story. Doing this movie, I discovered that joy is not the negation of pain, but rather acknowledging the presence of pain and feeling happiness in spite of it." Though she was born in Mexico and raised in Kenya (her father is a Kenyan politician), Nyong'o honed her acting skills at the Yale School of Drama—a life-changing experience that almost didn't happen. "When I was younger, I was almost too afraid to admit that I wanted to be an actor," recalls Nyong'o. "I didn't know any successful actors in Kenya, so I felt like I could get away with going to college to study film more easily than I could with saying, ‘I want to be an actor.' That's what I did." After earning a degree in film and African studies at Hampshire College in Massachusetts—during which time Nyong'o directed a documentary, In My Genes, about albinism in Kenya—she was faced with the age-old post-college question: What do I want to do with my life? "I knew that if I didn't try acting, that would be the one thing I would regret, so I decided to apply to acting schools," Nyong'o says. "If I got in, I'd take it as a sign that I should pursue acting as a career. If I didn't get in, I was prepared to figure out some plan B." She adds: "Luckily, I got in."
COSMETICS: DIORSKIN, INCLUDING HYDRA LIFE PRO-YOUTH SORBET CRÈME. ZOYA, INCLUDING NAIL POLISH IN FARAH. HAIR PRODUCTS: KÉRASTASE, INCLUDING nutritive olÉo relax. HAIR: JENNIFER YEPEZ/MAREK AND ASSOCIATES. MAKEUP: KARAN FRANJOLA for DIORSKIN/MAREK AND ASSOCIATES. MANICURE: MAKI SAKAMOTO FOR ZOYA/KATE RYAN INC. SPECIAL THANKS: FAST ASHLEYS.