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Empire Meets Lupita Nyong'o
The Oscar winner on her 12 Years A Slave experience

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Lupita Nyong'o has won an Oscar, stolen everyone's hearts, made a lovely speech and inspired us all with her smarts and charm. But where did her Hollywood journey begin? And how has she coped with being catapulted into the brightest imaginable spotlight in a matter of months. Empire spoke to her before her Academy Awards triumph to find out how she set about tackling the demands of 12 Years A Slave and get an insight into what makes the hottest new star in movies tick.

Empire Meets Lupita Nyong'o

Does your name have a particular meaning?
Not strictly. I was born in Mexico so my parents gave me a Mexican name, but they chose Lupita because my father's name is Peter and in my language 'luo' means 'to follow' so they thought it was a nice play on words because I followed him to Mexico.

Tell me there was a class at Yale where you learnt to walk a red carpet...
(Laughs) No, they didn't teach us that. It's something you just have to learn in practice, because nothing can prepare you for that whirlwind. All my classmates were, like, "Get ready, it's going to be crazy!" You can't fathom it. It reminded me of the first time I experienced winter: everyone tells you it's going to be really cold, but if you've never experienced it, you can't fathom it.

And a winter red carpet...
I'm terrifying of a red carpet in the winter (laughs).

Any tips?
The casting director yelled at me and was rough with me, but at the end of day it definitely prepared me.
I try to look at the people behind the cameras, which is hard because of the flashes, but it's a good reminder that they're all human beings and they're just there to do their job. It anticipates the overwhelming feeling you get when people are yelling your name.

So people pronounce it properly at least?
My first name, yes. That's easy to pronounce - it's my last name that causes difficulties.

You had an LA audition and then went to audition for Steve (McQueen) in Louisiana, which is quite unusual.
I guess it is, but that was just the practicalities of it.

What did you do in that scene?
I did two scenes in LA: the soap scene and the scene where Patsey asks Solomon to kill her, so they were both tough scenes. (Casting director) Francine Maisler handled it like a drill instructor. She said to me, "Listen, I'm going to ask things of you that are unconventional in an audition but I need you to go with me." In the audition what would end up happening is that I'd do these high-stakes, life-or-death scenes and at the end of them, when I'm at a point of despair, she would have me start the scene again and again. I kept getting deeper and deeper into despair. She was very harsh - she yelled at me and was rough with me, but at the end of the day I'm so grateful because it definitely prepared me. That kind of loveless experience prepared me for the film.

Empire Meets Lupita Nyong'o

Was the whipping scene the hardest day on set?
I thought it would be, but that day - it was just half a day - I always knew was coming and I tried to prepare for it. It was a difficult day, for sure, and in the book Solomon Northup said that the flopping of Patsey stood out as the darkest day, even on that plantation. I remember that it was a very sacred space I walked into - everyone on set was so focused and respectful of where we were going. Everyone was holding hands around us that allowed us to go to that dark place.

Actually, the scene that, for me, proved surprisingly difficult was the one where Patsey has her wounds attended to. The day before we'd shot some scenes - and Patsey has wounds prior to that whipping so I'd been in the make-up chair for four hours - and I saw the callsheet and realised that I'd have to be in the make-up chair for six odd hours to do those scars and then the fresh scars on top of them, so I said to Kalaadevi (Ananda) the make-up artist, "Let me sleep in these scars so we can cut our work in half", and she was thrilled by that! I was an insomniac while I was shooting the film, but that night I hardly slept at all, I was so uncomfortable and I had to sleep on my stomach, and I was just haunted by these scars. That night I realised that my discomfort was temporary and Patsey's was not, and that quietened my soul. She wanted to die and she couldn't even get that.

Would you do that again?
It was a blessing in disguise, because it gave me a perspective I couldn't have arrived out without those scars on my back.

Where did Patsey come from?
I'm ambitious to make my own work. I want that to be part of my experience in this world.
She was born on a plantation in one of the Carolinas and was sold to the Epps in her childhood. They coddled her and fed her biscuits before Master Epps took a sexual interest in her and then she's sent out in the fields.

She's second-generation African?
Her father was from Guinea and her mother was American slave, and she took great pride in knowing that her father was from Guinea. I always found that very satisfying because it was illegal to know where you were from. History was not yours.

You met Oprah. What's an Oprah hug like?
It's wholesome! (Laughs)

Do you have ambitions to direct feature films as well?
Yes, I'm ambitious to make my own work. I want that to be part of my experience in this world. I don't screenwrite - not yet - but I'm interested in creative producing.

Did you see things in the way Steve McQueen works that inspired you?
Yeah, and the thing about Steve is the way that he's guided by conviction and truth, and that's something that I want for the roles I play and the films that I participate in making. It's always the search for honesty to reveal something about the human spirit. Steve McQueen doesn't know how to lie!

Empire Meets Lupita Nyong'o

Some have suggested that the violence and degradation went too far.
It's funny because there's only six instances of violence in the whole movie. In an action movie that many people have died in the first six seconds. I feel it's because of the emotional violence; the film doesn't allow you to sit back and watch - you participate and it costs you emotionally. That's something that films don't often do: we are somehow detached from the emotional violence attached to the physical, but in this situation it's psychological and it's emotional, and that's the gripping and uncomfortable thing.

It implicates the audience.
We are continuum of this history. I'm only here because of the Patseys of the world. People who fought that fight for freedom made it possible for me to do the thing that I love most. We're all implicated.

And your research showed that this film didn't exaggerate those things?
No. When I read his book, I remember thinking, 'How can this be true? And how is it that I didn't know about this before?' It really puzzled me that it wasn't more popularly known. Shooting in Louisiana was so helpful because you're surrounded by oaks that existed when Solomon and Patsey existed and there you are, taking shade under their branches. It's so present.

After 12 Years, you worked on Non-Stop. Have you struggled with flying since you shot that?
No, I've had no difficulty flying but I do take notice of the flight attendants now. I've very nice to them because I know what they're going through. I learned that flight attendants do so much more than just serve you, so I appreciate them a whole lot more.

Interview by Phil de Semlyen

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