Lupita Nyong’o’s starmaking leap to the Oscars

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Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years A Slave”

NEW YORK — “This is such a wild experience,” Lupita Nyong’o told me even before her Critics’ Choice Movie Awards and Screen Actors Guild award victories for her performance as slave girl Patsey in “12 Years a Slave.” Now that she’s an Academy Award nominee, perhaps it’s sinking it that, like Audrey Hepburn, the young actress may win an Oscar for her first film role.

Nyong’o chatted with me about how it helped to film the movie in the Deep South, the emotional toll it took on her, and how she was treated by her much more experienced cast members.

Q. You were born in Mexico to Kenyan parents who brought you up in Kenya, and then you went to college and graduate school here in the States. Did your African upbringing help you create the character of Patsey?

A. I’m sure it did. I think all of our experiences as actors — even at this very, very early stage of my career — are things we bring to every acting role. However, the most important thing for me was to keep going back to Solomon Northup’s amazing story, brought to life by John Ridley’s fantastic script. That’s what was the key thing for me.

Q. You obviously had to go through a lot emotionally to play this role. Was it tough to walk away from it after the end of each day of filming?

A. It was incredibly hard, and I didn’t really ever escape Patsey. I don’t think I’ve completely escaped her now. But here’s the thing. It was a role I was performing as an actress. Yes, it was brutal and the scenes, especially the ones with Michael Fassbender [playing her sadistic master] were unbelievably intense. But what carried me through was the thought that I was only re-creating Patsey’s world and the hideous things she endured. She lived it. She could not escape it. My beatings and scars were made with movie magic. Hers were real and oh so ugly and cruel.

Q. You have said you never could have done this without [director] Steve McQueen. Why do you think he picked you for the role, and what did you learn from working with him?

A. He’s told me he saw something in me that just made him realize I could do this. As for what I learned from him? Oh, my goodness, where do I begin? He is such a brilliant, sensitive and intuitive man. He has such a clear idea of what he wants to achieve. Yet, he made it all seem so collaborative. I think he works very hard to cast his projects and then completely trusts those of us lucky enough to be cast to do the work and bring to life the ideas from the pages of the script. He taught me confidence. He taught me to believe in what I was doing. He kept saying this thing on set, “Fail, and then fail better.” What he meant was: Don’t be afraid to try something, because you were worried you’d fail. Unless you try, you don’t know what will work. It was that atmosphere of trust that gave all of us in the cast great peace and the confidence to do good work.

Q. You were part of an ensemble that included actors with a great deal of experience and previous success. Were you ever intimidated or overwhelmed?

A. I was intimidated by the thought that Steve and the producers trusted me with this important role in their important film. As for the other actors, it was never a case of “Oh, here’s the new girl. What does she know?” It was pure heaven. As tough as the conditions were — especially the heat during filming! — everyone was so good to me. I was blessed.

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