'I think I've developed a fairly healthy relationship with fame' - Lupita Nyong’o talks Us, privacy and privilege
With an Oscar win for her first ever film role, Lupita Nyong'o was thrust into the global spotlight. But far from being overwhelmed, she maintained a distance from the circus while starring in a string of hits. Now, as her new horror film Us is released, the star talks privacy and privilege with Paul Whitington
There's something distinctly regal about Lupita Nyong'o. She sits perched at the end of a sofa in Soho's Ham Yard Hotel, and when she smiles slightly and says hello I feel like I've been granted an audience. Back straight, head still, and dressed in an elegant black dress that perfectly offsets her skin tone, she is spectacularly beautiful, the face of Lancôme, who could hardly have picked a more perfect one.
She's also a frighteningly good actor, who won an Oscar for her first film role, in Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, and stood out from a talented field in Marvel's 2018 mega-hit blockbuster Black Panther.
She knows her mind, is not detained by industry nonsense, and has been described as prickly and standoffish by some journalists.
Not this one: she may speak correctly and measure her words, but Lupita is perfectly friendly, and every now and then her serene face explodes into a winning titter. Throughout our time together she munches what look like pieces of dried fruit so daintily that they seem to evaporate complicitly into her person. If ever one felt like an oaf, it's now.
We're here to discuss her starring role in Us, Jordan Peele's eagerly awaited follow-up to his thoroughly brilliant 2017 satirical horror, Get Out. "I saw that five times in one month," Lupita tells me. "I thought it was an amazing film." She was, therefore, pretty happy when Peele approached her about Us.
"When I read the script I was pleasantly surprised by how different it was from Get Out, and how terrifying it was to read. I could tell that there were layers to it, embedded themes that I'd need to unpack in order to do the story justice, and what a challenge it was going to offer me, playing two characters that are diametrically opposed."
To explain about the two characters, Us stars Lupita and Winston Duke as Adelaide and Gabe Wilson, a couple with two children who've retreated to a seaside holiday home for a break. They seem happy, but Adelaide is haunted by a childhood memory that opens the film, in which she got lost at a funfair and met a child who seemed her exact double.
She and the family are doing their best to relax when four figures appear in their driveway in the dead of night: on closer inspection they turn out to be doubles of the entire family, and seem to have a flair for violence. That is merely the entrée to Jordan Peele's wild, unpredictable, amusing and sometimes baffling adventure, which is inspired by an episode of the 1960s TV show Twilight Zone and combines several horror sub-genres to create something that feels new and fresh.
That double idea meant that Lupita in particular had to inhabit two connected but very different characters. The main one, Adelaide, ought to be happy (until the dopplegangers turn up, at least) but can't quite manage it. "She's riddled with this trauma from childhood that she just cannot shake off or understand," Lupita explains, "and when we meet her she has a foreboding sense that something bad is about to happen - she's right of course!"
The other character, Adelaide's double, has a feral, animalistic quality, and is clearly the group's leader, barking orders to her 'family' in a gutteral croak. "Jordan had described her as queen and cockroach, and so what I took from that is that there's a stillness and a regality to a queen, and a stillness and a menace to a cockroach: a cockroach can be extremely still for a long time and then it can scurry and skitter and it's surprising and it's kind of creepy.
"I wanted to capture all that in her physicality, and then her voice was inspired by a condition that is known as spasmodic dysphonia. This is a condition that's brought about often by emotional or physical trauma, where the vocal cords involuntarily spasm, and it creates this kind of irregular airpath." I make a Teresa May joke here. Lupita smiles tolerantly, then proceeds. "So I based it off of that and built from there to create this voice, because there was a line in the script that said she hadn't used her voice for a long time. Those kinds of physical distinctions were helpful in separating the two in my mind."
She does a brilliant job of it. "Jordan was so supportive," Lupita says. "He hired me to do this role, and he immediately looked at me as the expert on these two characters, so he would often pose things as questions instead of like recommendations. He had me play a hand in their look, the hair, the makeup, everything. It was very collaborative."
If Get Out was all about race, Us is more about the haves and have-nots, and class: the dopplegangers come from underground, and percolating beneath the action is the notion that in our laissez-faire capitalist world, those of us who live well do so at the expense of an underclass. "I think that's true worldwide," Lupita nods. "Privilege comes with oppression of some kind, and this film definitely explores that idea."
Refreshingly, though, the main characters' skin colour is not an issue here: they are merely a family who happen to be black.
"The truth is, black people experience this world outside their race, you know, and race is only relevant in as much as it is a reaction to another race. So in this film, you have a black family at the centre of the narrative, but race is not the paradigm through which we're viewing them. Having them at the centre of a film in the horror genre, that's the remarkable thing, and how surprising that it hasn't happened before, but beyond that it's inconsequential, and there's something very refreshing about that."
Lupita Nyong'o lives in Brooklyn, works in Hollywood, but was born across the border in Mexico. "Don't ask me about Trump," she has said more than once in interviews, and one gets the impression you don't have to. Both her parents are Kenyan, and her father was in exile during a period of political turbulence back home when Lupita was born, in Mexico City, in 1983. They returned to Kenya when Lupita was one, and she grew up in the affluent suburbs of Nairobi: her dad is a former senator, and government minister. Acting, she tells me, was always on the cards.
"I was acting ever since I was like five, in family gatherings and what not. I did my first professional play when I was 14, I played Juliet in Nairobi, in a repertory theatre there. So yeah I was always acting."
But when she finished school, and it came time to decide what to do, Lupita was hesitant about committing herself to the craft. She came to America to study film and theatre at Hampshire College, and later did a Masters at Yale, but initially considered a career behind the cameras.
"I did work as a production assistant on a number of films while I was in college, really for the experience, because I wasn't certain what I wanted to do. I was too timid to say I wanted to be an actor, so I was trying to figure out how else I could participate in the world of entertainment."
Was she wary of acting? "It just made no sense, the idea of me doing that," she says, "and the timidity was because I hadn't seen anyone like me, from where I was from, ever do it. And you know you can't believe what you can't see. Then this friend of mine who I'd acted with in Romeo & Juliet when I was 14, got into the Yale School of Drama and he was from Kenya, and so his proximity to me made it possible for me to envision, to give myself permission to dream that dream. It took seeing him get into that school to say, 'Oh maybe I could do this', and that's why I think it's so important to have inclusive representation in entertainment and popular culture because it opens people's imaginations, you know, and makes things possible."
It certainly made things possible for Lupita, who just a year out of college was cast as a slave on a Louisiana plantation in Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. Her performance won universal acclaim, and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Lupita shakes her head, remembering. "That," she says, "was really confusing, very strange." Suddenly she was on all the chat shows, having dinner with the Obamas.
She wasn't overwhelmed by the experience, though, and since that win has picked her roles selectively, and with care. Her first role after 12 Years a Slave was in a play about the Liberian Civil War written by a university friend. She was remarkably good as a harried Ugandan mother-of-five in the 2016 drama Queen of Katwe, and has done several voice roles, in Jungle Book and the Star Wars franchise, because she likes doing work that doesn't focus on her appearance.
She was very much front and centre, however, in Black Panther, Ryan Coogler's massively successful 2018 superhero film about a technologically advanced African nation that hides its superiority from the outside world. She studied judo, jujitsu and the Hausa language to play the dynamic warrior spy Nakia. In Black Panther, Nyong'o proved she can handle action roles: in Us, she does so again.
"Black Panther was extremely important," she says, "I think it's been a game-changer in the industry, it's shattered myths and perceptions you know. All the records it's broken, and more importantly, how it has launched itself in popular culture, and become part of the vocabulary." Its huge success has also raised Lupita's already high profile: her rise to fame on the back of 12 Years a Slave was so sudden, and yet she has seemed to handle it so well. What's her secret?
"I think I've developed a fairly healthy relationship with fame, but you know I was fortunate to have a father that was famous, and so the idea that there was a persona and then there was a private individual was something that I grew up with. I've always been aware that there's the way the world sees me, and then there's the way that I see myself, and the two do not have to match up: both versions are authentic and necessary." She smiles serenely, regally, you might say.