Lupita Nyong'o's Journey Into Hollywood Stardom

Born in 1983 in Mexico City and raised in Kenya, "Black Panther" actor Lupita Nyong'o began dreaming of Hollywood early. "I remember wanting to be an actor from around the age of 5 because my family was really performative. We used to perform at family gatherings," she told Vogue. Nyong'o specifically recalled watching the movie "The Color Purple" as a kid and feeling inspired by the film's star. "When I saw Whoopi Goldberg and she looked like me, and I was like, 'I could do this, I could do this for a living,'" she shared. 

As of this writing, Nyong'o has 28 acting credits to her name, as well as a number of major accolades. So, how did she go from being a little kid dreaming of being in major motion pictures to starring in some of the biggest films in recent history? Let's get into Lupita Nyong'o's journey to Hollywood superstardom.

She started in Hollywood as a production assistant

Lupita Nyong'o's acting career began when she joined the Phoenix Players, a national repertory theater in Kenya, at the age of 14. But before she could become an award-winning movie star, she had to get her foot in the door somehow. While she's now a famous actor, she actually got her start working behind the scenes as a production assistant. And this was not for some small student production or a straight-to-DVD feature. As she recalled to Vogue, a friend got her a job working on the 2005 film "The Constant Gardener" while she was attending Hampshire College and back in Kenya for summer break

As a brand new PA, Nyong'o got a chance to work with A-list star Ralph Fiennes. Understandably, she was excited about sharing a set with the actor — at times, perhaps a little too excited. "It would be very quiet, and that made me uncomfortable. I'd try to make chitchat," she recounted to Rhapsody magazine (via Us Weekly). "He was so polite, and he responded to me. At one point, though, he just said, 'Lupita, give me my space.'"

This opportunity was one that shaped who Nyong'o would later become as a professional actor, giving her invaluable tools and experience. As she told Rhapsody (via Us Weekly), "When an actor lands on a set, there's a psychological and emotional transformation that needs to happen. I learned from that experience what an actor needs — and to ask for it."

Her acting debut was in East River

As formative as her time as a production assistant was, Lupita Nyong'o always knew she wanted to be an actor. She got her feet wet with the 2008 short "East River." Per IndieWire, director Marc Grey described the short as being "about the relationship between physical and emotional space."

The short was only the beginning, as Nyong'o moved on to be part of "Shuga," a soap opera in Kenya the Daily Mail described as being "sexually-charged." While there was plenty of hooking up in the series, it also made space for important subject matter. In a 2010 interview with CNN (via the Daily Mail), Nyong'o said of the series, "I think one thing ['Shuga'] is trying to do is talk about how HIV and AIDS is not a death sentence." She continued, "[HIV] is a condition that can be managed, if one chooses to do so, if one catches it early on you can live a healthy life with HIV. I've been able to be an ambassador for HIV and AIDS."

She earned a master's degree at Yale

Lupita Nyong'o attended Hampshire College in Massachusetts for undergrad, but her path with education did not end there. She then went to Yale to get her MFA in acting, graduating in 2012. Ron Van Lieu, the Chair of the Acting Program, said in The Daily Beast that it was her audition for Juliet from "Romeo and Juliet" that really caught his attention and highlighted her natural talent. Max Gordon Moore, a fellow alum who was in a school production with Nyong'o, told the outlet, "The first thing you notice about Lupita is how stunning she is, of course. ... You could see she was incredibly committed and capable of very delicate feelings and very, very talented."

In an interview at the 2020 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Nyong'o shared that she headed to Yale to pursue her master's degree once she determined that acting was the only path for her. And it sounds like actor Ralph Fiennes' words of wisdom were just the push she needed. She recalled telling him on the set of "The Constant Gardener" that she hoped to become an actor one day, and he replied, "Only do it if there's nothing else in the world you want to do, nothing else you feel you need to do."

She landed a role in 12 Years a Slave

By the time Lupita Nyong'o finished up at Yale, she had a few acting credits to her name. Oh, and she'd already secured a life-changing role in the 2013 drama "12 Years a Slave." As she told Vulture, "I actually got cast, I think, three weeks before I graduated." But even after she scored the part, she feared she could be fired at any moment. "I had impostor's syndrome until the day I landed in Louisiana," she said. 

Nyong'o was thrilled to work with acclaimed director Steve McQueen and alongside a whole roster of Hollywood veterans like Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender. She also felt fortunate to play such a challenging and important role. "I was in pain, but I was looking forward to going there, because I felt really privileged and honoured to have the responsibility of telling this incredible woman's story," she said at the Toronto International Film Festival, per CTV News.

The film was a success at the box office and with critics. When award season rolled around, "12 Years a Slave" raked in the accolades, including the Academy Award for Best Picture. 

Lupita Nyong'o won an Academy Award

On Oscar night in 2014, "12 Years a Slave" was up for nine awards. In addition to Best Picture, John Ridley's adaptation of Solomon Northup's memoir of the same name earned Best Adapted Screenplay. Oh, and Lupita Nyong'o won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. When accepting her award, she started out by thanking the Academy before going on to add, "It doesn't escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else's." After thanking Steve McQueen, her co-stars, her family, and her educators, she said, "When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every child, no matter where you're from, your dreams are valid."

Nyong'o shared the moment with her brother who was present during the ceremony. The actor told Oprah Winfrey that when she looked over at her brother after hearing her name, it all sunk in for her. Beyond celebrating her happiness at receiving such an important recognition, she continued to honor the life she was representing. "I definitely felt like I was a vessel to tell her story," she said.

She went on to make her Broadway debut

A year after winning one of the biggest awards in Hollywood, Lupita Nyong'o took her career down another successful path by stepping onto a Broadway stage for the very first time. The play was "Eclipsed," and the actor captivated the audience with no hesitation. Charles Isherwood wrote in his review for The New York Times, "Lupita Nyong'o, one of the most radiant young actors to be seen on Broadway in recent seasons, shines with a compassion that makes us see beyond the suffering to the indomitable humanity of its characters."

The beauty of this role? It came as a full circle moment for the young woman who joined Yale with dreams of a successful career. "In 2009, when I just joined the Yale School of Drama, I was cast as an understudy to the role I'm currently playing ... So, I made a mental note, put [playing this role] on my bucket list of things I had to do before I died," she shared with Theatermania.

This role wasn't only celebrated by Nyong'o herself. She was also recognized by a nomination to the Tony Awards. As Essence reported, the play earned six nominations.

She joined the Star Wars franchise

When an actor reaches a certain level of fame and success, there may come a time in which they are asked to join an epic franchise. For Lupita Nyong'o, that opportunity came when she joined the cast of the "Star Wars" sequel trilogy as the character of Maz Kanata. And of course, she was a fan before she became Maz. She told ScreenRant her love of the franchise goes all the way back to being a kid and watching the movies on TV while home from school during holiday breaks. 

The characters in this fictional world are known by millions of fans and there is a lot of weight that comes with taking on a new role. And Nyong'o took it very seriously. Chatting about the "Star Wars" universe with The Guardian, she said, "These worlds are created by human beings, and at the end of the day they are created to illuminate something about us. So, under all the makeup, it's just human relationships and wants and desires."

To create the character, both motion capture technology and animatronic technology was used throughout the trilogy. Understandably, seeing the end result was surreal for Nyong'o. She told Mom Endeavors, "[T]o finally see the film and to see what became of her and somehow it's me, but it's definitely not me; it's bizarre. I've never seen myself like that, in another body all together."

She gave voice to a character in The Jungle Book

Many Hollywood actors dip their toes in the waters of voice acting, and Lupita Nyong'o is no exception. She gave voice to the character of Raksha in the 2016 version of "The Jungle Book," alongside Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, and Idris Elba. Bustle called Nyong'o's portrayal of the mother wolf a standout performance. 

For Nyong'o, taking on the role of such a maternal, nurturing figure meant a great deal to her. As she told Adventures of a Nurse, "I have a lot of very, very powerful women in my life. My mother being the first. And most important. ... For me, that spirit, that tenacity of mothering was something that I thought that inspired, my version of Raksha."

And yes, "The Jungle Book" is yet another major hit in her filmography. The film, which was helmed by Jon Favreau, not only won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, but brought in a lot of money. According to Box Office Mojo, the adaptation grossed nearly $1 billion worldwide. 

She joined the MCU

Joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe has more or less become a rite of passage in Hollywood. Lupita Nyong'o's MCU journey began when she was brought on to play Nakia in the 2018 film "Black Panther."

It goes without saying, but Nyong'o was beyond excited to be a part of the film. "They don't show you a script. It's top secret and you get the script when you absolutely have to. ... It's so deep. It's so politically and socially aware of itself. And awake," she said on "Live with Kelly and Ryan" in 2018. The mix of relevance and the Marvel twist motivated her to take on the role.

After Chadwick Boseman's tragic death, some fans wondered if a second movie would be made. However, "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" became a way to honor the late actor and everything the first movie represented. Of her character's role in the second film, she told Marvel Entertainment, "What keeps her going? I think love of country and a love of her people. And she is a very principled person. There are certain things she stands for. And she really believes in the power of humanity together. I think she brings that to her work."

She jumped into the horror genre

Horror movies are wicked popular; "The Conjuring" franchise, for example, had earned over $2 billion by 2021. Who wouldn't want a piece of that pie? Lupita Nyong'o entered the horror genre in a big way when she joined the cast of 2019's "Us,"Jordan Peele's followup to "Get Out." She told BuzzFeed News she was so eager to work with the horror auteur that she was on board even before knowing what "Us" was about. When the project was first floated her way, she remembered saying, "Of course I'm doing it! Whatever it is. Now, let me read the script."

In "Us," Nyong'o played a woman named Adelaide as well as Adelaide's doppelgänger. To play the doppelgänger, Nyong'o altered her voice significantly, and the end result really resonated with audiences. "[The voice] was inspired by a condition called spasmodic dysphonia, which is a condition that is brought about inexplicably sometimes but often by emotional or physical trauma," she shared with Yahoo Entertainment. This was not received well by the neurological disorder community, and as reported by Complex, Nyong'o apologized on "The View."

"Us" would not be the last time fans saw Nyong'o dive into horror. As Deadline reported in November 2022, the actor has been added to the cast of "A Quiet Place: Day One."