Lupita Nyong’o
Photo by Koury Angelo

Lupita Nyong’o: “I have to transform who I am”

 Listen to Audio Excerpt Listen to Audio Excerpt
Short Profile

Name: Lupita Amondi Nyong'o
DOB: 1 March 1983
Place of birth: Mexico City, Mexico
Occupation: Actor

Ms. Nyong’o, aside from being an Oscar-winning actress, you are working for historic and wildlife conservation, and as an activist for women's rights. Would you consider yourself a role model?

Ultimately, when I make the choices that I make, I know that there are very many eyes on me and many hearts that are rooting for me. So I stay true to what I feel is my path. I think that the term role model is bestowed on you by other people, not one that I would like to claim. I wouldn't put it on my resume, for example, but I embrace it, I welcome it, and I appreciate that people see me as a role model. And I mean, at the end of the day, we all have one life to lead and we have to be in the driver's seat — and that has contributed to or supported that title that I've been given. And so I'll just continue doing what I'm doing.

Did you grow up feeling like any path you wanted to take was a possibility? Were you always in that driver’s seat you mentioned?

I grew up with aunties that had their chests out, they fought the system in all sorts of ways, and in many ways rose to the top of their lines of work. My father has also been an incredible influence. So I am blessed with that, and I definitely feel very fortunate for having such strong role models in my immediate family, and yes, my parents raised us with the conditioning that we could do whatever we put our minds to. They did not limit us by gender or age necessarily. My grandfather was also ahead of his time, for example.

“I definitely surprise myself with how much of a warrior spirit I have sometimes, because I think that politically, socially, and culturally there are wars to be fought.”

In what ways?

Well, at a time when women were relegated to the kitchen and to raising children and so on, he supported my grandmother's education and he insisted that all his 11 children got an education, too. That was on my father's side, and the same thing goes for my mother's side. So I grew up with formidable male and female figures, but I have to say that women are dominant in number in my family and they maybe had more of an impact on me in that regard. But then I also grew up in a very patriarchal society that was very keen to ascribe certain qualities and behaviors to me as a woman.

There’s a certain tension in that contradiction, isn’t there?

Yes, I grew up with that tension! But because my immediate family was more liberal, theirs is the primary way in which I started to view the world. So I was a little bit of a rebel, I would contest figures of power in ways that were sometimes good and sometimes destructive. I think ultimately that mentality that you can be whatever you put your mind to, and that the world you want to see is worth fighting for, won over.

How is that impacting you today? Are you fighting any battles to create the world, or even just the film industry, that you want to see?

Working in Hollywood is still quite the learning journey because it's not like a society where everybody lives together and you can figure out the rules of engagement just by walking around the village. The movie industry is abstract, you know? Yes, there are studios that you could go to and offices that you could visit and sets that you could tread on. But ultimately the movie industry is a group of people that come together in different ways, at different times for different reasons. So it's actually a lot harder for me to be confident, to have it figured out at all times. It continues to be a learning curve. I don't live in Hollywood either, so there's lots of subcultures within the movie industry that I am still trying to get to know… But I would say that I find myself fighting little battles every day about representation, an authentic representation. And I definitely surprise myself with how much of a warrior spirit I have sometimes, because I think that politically, socially, and culturally there are wars to be fought.

Is that why it’s important for you to have a more direct, active role in making films and documentaries as producer, director, or host?

That's why I wanted to host the documentary series Warrior Women because for me it is rewriting the history and telling a more truthful version of what the time of the Agoji women looked like from an African perspective. I am very keen to do that in my work as an actor as well. I really deeply investigate the representation of African women in my work and of black women as well, and I enjoy that. I enjoy that philosophical, social and political battle.

“I like to play women who are in contrast to me. I think that’s how I look at it: What aspect of this character offers me a chance to explore something new about my humanity?”

There’s also a recent blockbuster film that depicts the lives of the Agoji women. Where did your desire to tell the real story come from?

I believe that African history has been misrepresented, and that's something I came to really realize when I got to college. I hadn't really been taught much about my own history, and so I am very eager to kind of relearn the history of African people. I travelled across Benin in West Africa to learn about this culture for the series, and I knew that I would be surprised. I knew that I would be informed of things that I had no idea about. It was a visceral experience for me to go there and learn of this incredible history of the warrior women and the culture that existed in Benin at the time. So it's an experience that has stayed with me and has definitely been formative. It’s a reminder that there's always more to something than you think there is.

Looking at your films, you’ve played a lot of warrior women yourself, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically. Then again, you won the Academy Award for a character that was victimized in 12 Years a Slave. What other kinds of characters are you hoping to explore?

I like to play women who are in contrast to me. That's how I look at it: What is this character offering me? What aspect of this character offers me a chance to explore something new about my humanity? So I think both the warrior and the wounded are things that I relate with in different capacities. And it's their distinction from me that attracts me to them. Because that's when it's most fun, when I have to transform who I am. I have to use who I am to transform who I am.