After Very Visible Roles, Lupita Nyong'o Looks To Disappear Into Character The actor is now starring on Broadway in Eclipsed, a searing story of young women held captive in Liberia. After that and 12 Years a Slave, Nyong'o says she's ready for some lighter material.
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After Very Visible Roles, Lupita Nyong'o Looks To Disappear Into Character

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After Very Visible Roles, Lupita Nyong'o Looks To Disappear Into Character

After Very Visible Roles, Lupita Nyong'o Looks To Disappear Into Character

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The biggest movie in theaters now, "The Jungle Book," stars an actress who's also making her Broadway debut. Lupita Nyong'o became famous for winning an Oscar right out of drama school for the movie "12 Years A Slave." NPR's Neda Ulaby visited her in Brooklyn to talk about the challenges she set for herself since then.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Lupita Nyong'o lives high above the East River in a sunny apartment - orange walls, black and white photos of African wildlife and a collection of pretty blue pottery. She was born in Mexico to Kenyan parents teaching university there. They went back to Nairobi when she was a baby. Nyong'o studied drama at Yale, then did "12 Years A Slave" and won an Oscar the day after her 31st birthday.

LUPITA NYONG'O: It was a very discombobulating thing to go from being completely unknown to winning an Academy Award. It was dizzying.

ULABY: Nyong'o played a young woman named Patsey in the movie, who endures horrible violence on top of punishing work in the fields.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

NYONG'O: (As Patsey) Five-hundred pounds of cotton, day in, day out, more than any man here.

ULABY: Patsey was based on a real person, who Nyong'o acknowledged in her Oscar acceptance speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2014 ACADEMY AWARDS)

NYONG'O: 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. And so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance.

ULABY: Nyong'o - serene and starry-eyed. Her dark skin set off by a blue pastel gown became a celebrated international beauty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When it comes to fashion, you're one to watch. Everyone's been looking at you nonstop.

ULABY: Twirling on the world's fanciest red carpets, like the Met Gala's in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NYONG'O: And I call it the taxi dress.

ULABY: She was one of People Magazine's most beautiful, a face of Lancome. But all of that ended up giving Nyong'o pause.

NYONG'O: You know, "12 Years A Slave" is a lot about the economy of Patsey's body. And then also the exposure the film gave me was a lot about my body.

ULABY: You do not see Lupita Nyongo's body or her beautiful face in the two giant movies she did next. In "The Jungle Book," she's a voice. In "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," she's a CGI alien. I wondered if that's because of Hollywood's starring roles for women who look like her. But Nyong'o said no.

NYONG'O: I think subconsciously I was excited by work that was not about my body.

ULABY: And after all, she said, how often do you get to be in "Star Wars?"

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STARWARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS")

NYONG'O: (As Maz Kanata) Han Solo.

ULABY: Playing a thousand-year-old creature who runs a rough space cantina.

NYONG'O: It wasn't about, you know, my skin or my body or its economy, whether we're talking about slavery or we're talking about fashion. When "Star Wars" came about, it excited me because I got to get back to acting in a way that was free of that body, and I got to inhabit a different body.

ULABY: Similarly, in "The Jungle Book," Nyong'o got to try out voice acting in a classic Disney remake. She says it meant a lot for the first time to play a mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JUNGLE BOOK")

NYONG'O: (As Raksha) You're mine.

ULABY: Lupita Nyong'o plays a maternal wolf who adopts a human baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JUNGLE BOOK")

NYONG'O: (As Raksha) You will always be my son.

I like to disappear into character. I like to let go of my ego and just work on the material. I like to be in service of character.

ULABY: That's also why Lupita Nyong'o decided to return to her roots on stage. As a drama student, she was an understudy for a heartbreaking play set during civil war in Liberia. It never left her. She used her fame to bring the play, called "Eclipsed," to Broadway. And she stars in it as a teenager captured with other women for sex.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ECLIPSED")

NYONG'O: (As The Girl) How long you've been here for?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Long time - long, long time. They no let me go. They've been keeping me for years.

NYONG'O: (As The Girl) Since you was how old?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Young.

ULABY: The New York Times called Nyong'o's performance simply superb. Its critic, Charles Isherwood, sees lots of movie stars on Broadway, but he says they usually pick revivals or obviously commercial shows, not such challenging ones.

CHARLES ISHERWOOD: To see a young actor bringing a play like this to Broadway is really, frankly, not something I've seen before. It's unprecedented, I think.

ULABY: So what do you do when you've just played someone who's 15, someone who's 1000 and a cartoon wolf?

NYONG'O: Like now, after doing "Eclipsed," I really, really need to do a comedy.

ULABY: Nyong'o's next movie is not a comedy, but it's already in the can. It comes out in September from Disney. Lupita Nyong'o will play the mother of a female Ugandan chess champion. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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