Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, 33, grew up in Nairobi before studying film and theater at Hampshire College, Massachusetts. Her father, Peter, is a politician who has spoken of being harassed and tortured for his beliefs. In 2014, Nyong’o won the Oscar for best supporting actress for her role as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. She currently lives in Brooklyn. Here, she talks fame, and how childhood readied her for it:
Being uncomfortable with sudden fame is nothing to be ashamed of. It can be trying and confusing. Being cast in 12 Years a Slave completely altered the architecture of my life. I had come straight out of school and everything seemed to change overnight. Suddenly there was all this recognition. It still surprises me when people know who I am.
If I look calm, it’s probably because I’m terrified. Human beings have three reactions to stress – fight, flight or freeze – and my default is to freeze. If that comes across as calmness, I’m lucky.
I have a lot to thank television for. As a child in Kenya, it presented me with a window to the world. I was exposed to different cultures through shows from England, Australia, Brazil, Mexico. TV taught me what it means to be human.
In my family, looking good is a sign of respect. You should take time to present yourself well for an occasion. I grew up with so much grooming that, after a while, I got sick of it and cut off all my hair.
My tempestuous nature has served me well. As an actor, I can play the storm as well as the eye of the storm. It is very damaging to have only one notion of beauty. My teenage years were plagued by the idea that light skin was better skin. There were adverts on TV about a woman trying to get a job and she only got it when she applied skin-lightening cream. I felt that I was not considered beautiful because of my complexion. My self-worth was deeply compromised in those years.
What you wear has to stand the test of time. You need clean lines and maybe a bit of humor, too.
My childhood prepared me for this life in more ways than I could have imagined. I witnessed my father navigating life as a public figure and also just being my dad. He was on the cover of the newspaper and everyone was talking about him in an abstract manner in my presence. Then I would go home to a very real man who was tired and needed a back rub. I grew up meeting world leaders and, as such, I have always known that incredible people are also very normal people.
Throw a seed over your shoulder and it will grow. At least, in East Africa it will. I miss eating the seeds from the baobab trees.
The most important thing to instil in a child is curiosity. Going to college was never a question. I was born expected to achieve. But I found school to be a very narrow experience, having to cram in all this theoretical and literary information. I learn through story and experience. If it weren’t for my parents, who were very liberal, I think I would have given up on myself.
Stand up for what you believe in. I’ve witnessed my father stand in the line of fire for his causes. He has sacrificed a lot for his beliefs and my family has had to stand by him and support his calling.
Don’t get me started on self-righteousness. The idea that how you see the world is the only way the world can be is so annoying. Eat deep-fried food. In Kenya, we deep-fry anything. There’s a snack called chevdo, which is a mix of deep-fried potatoes, peas, raisins and cashews. There’s a fruit that’s really good for you – higher in calcium than milk – but we fry it up with red spice before we eat it. It’s heavenly.