Lupita Nyong'o: acting in the US of A

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January 26, 2010 – She starts the day off with a stretch, and then a speech drill – to try and perfect her American accent.

Though she is completely Kenyan, Lupita Nyong’o, who has a scholarship at the Yale School of Drama, says it is imperative that her accent be as perfect as can be. It has nothing to do with being from Obama’s tribe…

“I have to improve my American accent so that I can play more roles. Accents are major pluses for an actor,” Lupita tells me.

“The drills are simple. You just repeat words with the same sound like cat hat mat sat brat… make conscious and repetitious adjustments to certain articulations,” she says.

Lupita is a well known rising star, drawing her most recent accolades across the African continent for her role in MTV’s Staying Alive project – SHUGA.

The masterfully done three-part series brought out a strong message on the monster that is HIV/Aids and a competitive cast, including Ayira, whom Lupita plays – completely drawing you into her stark and shocking character.

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I told her that her personality in Ayira is very energetic on screen and that I wondered how she does it.

“I am still trying to figure out my process. I do have some things that work for me to get into character and that’s part of what we learn here (Yale): how to prepare yourself to take on a character with your mind, body and spirit. It’s all about being open and vulnerable really,” she explains.

Lupita reveals to me that actors are ‘emotional gymnasts’ rather than good actors ‘pretending’ to be someone else.

“They (actors) are exposing themselves in another way to serve the character they are playing. So if I am to do a love scene, I – Lupita, must find the truth of what I know to be love and attraction in the person I am doing the scene with, for the sake of doing a realistic job of it…and then the trick is how you go back to your reality where you don’t want to make love to that actor.”

“I think that’s why actors often end up dating each other and even having affairs with each other because sometimes it is hard to differentiate between the truth of your character and your truth.”

Lupita says that the smoky scenes were the hardest for her to shoot in SHUGA.

“…All those people watching you simulate such an intimate act with someone you just met – WOW, it was intense! I remember taking a pause and asking myself: ‘What the hell is going on here and what makes you think this is a normal thing to do?’ But then I loved the adventure and the daring nature of it. I also loved what the point of the story was so I knew I wasn’t in my panties for just any loose thing. It was worth it from the responses it has gotten,” she confesses.

One girl wrote to Lupita saying she totally identified with Ayira in the film and that she was dumping her rich ‘clande’ due to the eye opening effect the film had on her. She wrote ‘he’s been wit millions of chix bt he’s still got millions in his account tho its nt worth riskin my life for that thanx Ayira. Shuga rocks.’

Lupita says that has been one of the most meaningful responses she has received from someone she doesn’t know.

Her parents and siblings have also watched SHUGA and they love it.

“…My family is TREMENDOUSLY supportive of this crazy unconventional dream of mine to be a professional actor – I LOVE THEM to death for that support! And of course I love them for other reasons as well…”

The 26-year-old actress is in love and though she refused to name him, she did let me know that he was ‘beautiful and loving and dedicated’.

Lupita’s plunge into acting started very early and passed through Phoenix Players, among other places. She became even more exposed through her film project to highlight the plight of people with Albinism: IN MY GENES, which she produced and directed. SHUGA meanwhile has been extremely well received and met with rave reviews.

“It’s (SHUGA) the most popular, most watched, most distributed (of all her works) for sure. I haven’t done that much on-camera stuff,” she says, adding that she’s working on a Spanish accent for her homework, which includes transcribing a poem in a Spanish accent.

Back to SHUGA: “You asked me earlier about whether I identify with Ayira: I relate fully to the lifestyle of the characters in SHUGA. I have never been a major party animal but I have partied in Nairobi and the scene is sometimes just like you see in SHUGA. I have some friends who do the one-night-stand thing and I have definitely made some questionable relationship choices in my past. I have kissed on church steps too – haha. I have Ayira’s drive but I don’t go about getting what I want the way she does. That said, I don’t judge her… If I were to choose one of the characters that I am in real life from the show, I’d say I was a mix of all of them: Sindi’s pragmatism and cautiousness, Ty’s dedication to the one he loves, Ayira’s drive to make it on her own terms, Violet’s desire to have a good time and enjoy her youth, Skola’s fear of the unknown, Leo’s honesty, Virginia’s sensitivity, Kenneth’s loyalty to his friends and I want to believe I possess Felix’s charm,” she smiles.

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Lupita describes herself as a child of the sun and in her current tedious schedule that runs between 7am and 1-2am, she makes sure to reserve about 30 minutes to sit under the Sun Lamp.

“It’s a gadget that helps relieve poor Africans like myself, who are scandalized by the brutally cold and dreary weather of their winter blues. You just sit in front of this light for a while and it tricks your eyes and brain into believing you are getting sunlight and it helps alleviate the tendency to be low and tired,” she laughs. (New York is cold.)

In order not to get swamped by the crazy study schedule, Lupita and her friends at school make big deals of birthdays and dinners, because that is the only time they get to socialize and release stress.

Lupita, who is the only foreign student in her class, however stresses that the work is extremely important for her.

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“I love acting. It gives me great pleasure and fulfilment and I believe we need actors to help us reflect on ourselves and our human condition. I have wanted to do many things with my life at different times but acting has been the one constant desire since I was like 5 years old.”

A parting shot: “Oh, and laura, I also wanted to say something about the message I think SHUGA passes. The most obvious is that casual sex may be fun and exhilarating, but it has its consequences. Not only do you put yourself in jeopardy but those who you love and may not mean to intentionally hurt as well. Then there’s the message in Virginia’s character that a HIV+ status is not a death sentence. There is also the message “get sheathed!” Another is that stigma is stupid. And lastly – my favourite one: we are human, we make mistakes, we can also learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others. That’s a WHOLE LOT of messages to put across but it works in SHUGA because the focus is on the people’s real experiences and the circumstances they are faced with. You get to know and love these people and you see why it is they are prone to make certain choices and decisions. That’s the significance of MTV Staying Alive’s SHUGA!”

There you have it…

(We conducted the interview on chat. So after that she said ‘bye for real’…)

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  • Njeri Luseno

    I just got done watching Lupita in Shuga (and talkig to her aunt in DC about it)and I thought it was tastefully done! The role she played was brash, fast and almost mundane but the message liberates everything else and then it is okay! I did think about her extending her career so this news and interview are a pleasant surprise. "You go gal!"
    Oxford, Ohio

  • Ty Mukumu

    Congratulations to Lupita for the great work she did in Shuga… the message was very well received especially when it was aired on local TV around World AIDS Day. Thank you Laura for giving us insight into Lupita. We are proud of her accomplishments and the fact that she is setting great standards (Yale) for young girls who want to be actresses. Keep inspiring us. I look forward to your

  • Jojo

    Excellent article! Lupita definitely has spunk and is going places…my only hope is that after her travels she comes home and continue to be a much needed role model for the hundreds of Kenyans venturing into the world of acting. Way to go girl!

  • Tweety gal

    Very inspiring! Congrats to her, we wish her all the best in her endevours. Let her make us proud.

  • Sharon

    Great article, believe it or not, it has more than one tip for aspiring actors/actresses, she really has a way of inspiring people!

  • collins ngetich

    Laura, can i shere this in my blog. Am so proud of the way kenyans are now becoming self reliant by acting local and real life scripts

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