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Porter
Cover story

Drama Queen

With

Lupita Nyong’o

In just six years, LUPITA NYONG’O has added Oscar-winning tear-jerkers, sci-fi blockbusters and now psychological horror to her résumé, reaping critical and public acclaim in the process. She tells MARJON CARLOS what her warp-speed ascent to Hollywood’s upper echelons has taught her

Photography Paola KudackiStyling Tracy Taylor
Cover Stories
Top image: Dress Valentino. This image: Dress Christopher Kane

FIND YOUR PEOPLE “Starting with 12 Years a Slave, I was welcomed [in Hollywood] with such warmth. My castmates surrounded me. I don’t know if they are aware of this, but I felt so protected. Sarah Paulson: my God, that girl, she was like everything to me. And Alfre Woodard, she was invaluable. I would ask questions about my finances, where I should live, all sorts of things. [Woodard] had this dinner that she throws during Oscars season for all the black women in Hollywood. Being invited to that basically [felt like] my TV had exploded in the room because all these actresses were there. No cameras are allowed and people just have candid conversations. Oprah embraced my mom and my brother and invited them to her house for lunch without me. I was just like, ‘Wow, this is an incredibly supportive industry.’ I didn’t feel isolated. Gabrielle Union: we’d gone to a fashion show in France together and she’d been so open and embracing, exchanging phone numbers with me – there was a ‘you need anything kind’ of vibe. I didn’t feel alone within the black community, I didn’t feel alone within the Hollywood community… [Director] Steve McQueen really did look out for me big time. Brad Pitt, same thing. And Jared Leto, he’s still on speed dial, because we were on that [Oscar campaign] journey together and he’s so embracing of me. There was an intimacy that grew from that, that goes beyond the dating rumors, beyond all that.”

NOW IS ALL THAT MATTERS “When I made Black Panther, that was the best thing in the world: going to set every day, making this movie that’s like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like this.’ I wasn't thinking, ‘What’s opening night going to be like?’ I was there [in the moment]. It’s been such a rewarding experience because it’s not about the thing that we haven’t yet achieved; it’s about the thing we’re achieving right now. As human beings, we can’t necessarily just be in the present moment; we have to constantly negotiate between dwelling on the past and anticipating the future and the moment in-between. I think what makes my life enjoyable is that I understand and appreciate that now is all that matters.”

“I was welcomed in Hollywood with such WARMTH…I felt so protected. OPRAH invited my mom and my brother for lunch. I was like, ‘This is an incredibly SUPPORTIVE industry’”

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WORK HARDER THAN YOU EVER THOUGHT POSSIBLE “I literally watched [director Jordan Peele’s] Get Out five times in one month while I was making Black Panther. I had things to do but I would make the time to go to the cinema and watch that film because I loved it so much. The topic of discussion [in Peele’s new horror film, Us, which Nyong’o stars in] is not the color of [the characters’] skin. In this, a family that is black is going through something catastrophic. The racial commentary is that you have such a family in this genre, where we haven’t seen very many black families. But within the story itself, [race] is not what’s important. It lends itself to this idea that not everything is about race… There are other monsters in this world. Though the racial one is a big one, it’s not the only one. Early on, I was talking to Jordan on the phone and he just stopped me and said, ‘Lupita, I need to tell you something. You’re going to be really tired making this movie.’ My heart sunk. He was like, ‘Yeah, it’s going to be really exhausting, so I just want you to know that.’ It was a thing I feared. I mean, I’d read the script, so I knew it was going to be work, but just having the director confirm that he was going to tire me… I require a lot from myself, but Jordan was going to demand even more. I had to brace myself and just be like, ‘Okay, here we go.’”

Dress Reem Acra
Dress Valentino

“There’s been a whole revolution, led by AFRICAN America for sure, where we are embracing our NATURAL hair texture and returning to a past glory. Our hair is FABULOUS and we can do all sorts of things with it”

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FEEL THE FEAR “I developed new fears [after working on Us]. I am terrified of my own reflection, which was really tough because I was staying in a house that had mirrors everywhere. My days were so long that when I’d get home from filming and it was time for me to shower, I was half asleep, and because it wasn’t my home, I would come upon my reflection and scream at the top of my lungs.”

EMBRACE YOUR FABULOUS HAIR “I don’t feel defined by my hair, and I think that’s why I like to play with it. I remember when I was a teenager in Kenya, I had relaxed hair and I decided on a whim that I was going to cut it all off and grow my hair natural. I’d been going to the same hairstylist for years – he was a Kenyan, like me, and when I went natural, he didn’t know what to do with it. He was like, ‘They don’t teach us how to style natural hair in school.’ There’s been a whole revolution, led by African America for sure, where we are embracing our natural hair texture and returning to a past glory. You look at beautiful traditional hairdos from pre-colonial and colonial times and they have been erased from so much of our contemporary expression. I remember one of the first times I really saw African hairstyles preserved and celebrated as art was through the photographic lens of Leni Riefenstahl. I was 10 years old and had not truly seen images of natural pre-colonial hairstyles beyond our Kenyan borders. At the time, I wasn’t familiar with Riefenstahl’s work as a Nazi propagandist and that, in and of itself, is highly problematic, because this deeply colonialist, white supremacist gaze was introducing me to the people and hairstyles of the Nuba, Dinka and Shilluk of Sudan. Essentially, even when we as a colonized or oppressed people are engaging with images or notions of our ancestry, it is so often within a Eurocentric gaze. That idea has stayed with me. Now at least it seems like we are waking up to ourselves again, and are like, ‘Hey, hold on, wait a minute…’ Our hair is kind of fabulous and it’s like clay and we can do all sorts of things with it.”

SHOW PEOPLE WHAT’S POSSIBLE “My hairstylist Vernon François is great. Though [his styles] may be fresh, they’re not original. We look at images [from the past], then apply it to who we are today. I think part of it is that when my previous hairdresser said he didn’t know what to do with my hair, I didn’t know what to do with my hair either, because I hadn’t seen [what was possible]. I was just in Benin [in West Africa] and I saw this woman with a gorgeous hairdo and I took a picture of it. I was like, ‘Okay, research.’ When you see it, then you know it can happen and then you can make it happen. For me, the red carpet and [shoots like] this are opportunities to provide another image that can be a reference for some girl somewhere with hair like me to get creative.”

Dress Carolina Herrera

“I come from a very SEXIST society…but it was always a step removed from my HOME life. My outlook from very young was that WOMEN can do whatever they want”

Top and pants Brandon Maxwell
Top and pants Brandon Maxwell

CHOOSE WORDS, NOT EMOJIS “I’m a stickler for grammar and I can’t stand spelling mistakes in text – and now it happens more and more. I’m that person: I’ll type a text message real quick and send it and then I’ll proofread it as I send it. I’m like, ‘Oh my God. There are so many letters I got wrong!’, and I’ll rewrite the text and resend it. I judge people on their emailing skills. I feel disrespected if someone just writes to me in emojis. I’m like, ‘Where are the words? Where is the time for wording?’”

KEEP EVERYTHING IN PERSPECTIVE “Emma Thompson, she’s the realest woman. Observing her on the red carpet and how free and irreverent she was… [Thompson photobombed Nyong’o at the 2014 SAG Awards; the ensuing pictures went viral.] She was like, ‘Don’t sweat it. We get to wear pretty dresses and prance around this red carpet, so enjoy it.’ That made it less pressure. I’m like, ‘Okay, I need to channel my Emma Thompson. This is a big moment in my life, but also it’s just a moment.’”

“My mom worked for Planned Parenthood, my father RAISED us without any REGARD to our gender. I was a FEMINIST before I knew that was a term”

DON’T LET ANYONE LIMIT YOU “I come from a very sexist society [growing up in Kenya]. I did need to be conditioned for that kind of world, but it was always a step removed from my home life. My outlook from very young was that women can do whatever they want. I remember a teacher saying, ‘You can’t whistle. You’re a girl,’ and I was like, ‘Yes, I can,’ and I whistled some more. I didn’t understand what he was saying. I was a tomboy. I would climb trees. But it was like, ‘Don’t climb trees. You’re a girl.’ I’m like, ‘But my feet work. Why would I not want to climb a tree?’ I was just raised different. My mom used to work for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, so she’s always been involved in women’s issues. My father raised us without any regard to our gender. I was a feminist before I knew that was a term. When I heard Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech, We Should All Be Feminists, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m a feminist. That’s what I’ve been talking about all this time.’”

Us is out March 22

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Total recall

From her somewhat awkward red-carpet debut to her initial thoughts about the Black Panther script, Lupita Nyong’o shares some of her cherished first-time memories

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