Lupita Nyong'o can remember running around as Ralph Fiennes’s assistant when he was shooting a film in Kenya. Now she’s the female star of the hottest movie of the year. The actress — who was born in Mexico but raised in the U.S., where she studied acting at the Yale School of Drama — was visiting relatives and managed to get herself hired as Fiennes’s runner on the award-winning The Constant Gardener.
she appears alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict
Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt in director Steve McQueen’s masterpiece 12
Years A Slave, which was premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last
week. ‘I bumped into Ralph
on the street in Telluride after he’d seen the film and he was saying:
“Was that you?!”,’ Lupita (pictured left) told me. The
movie, set in pre-Civil War America, charts the real-life story of
Solomon Northup (Ejiofor, giving the screen performance of his life), a
musician and free black man with a family in Saratoga, who is kidnapped
and sold into slavery. After
being carted around the South, he’s forcibly sent to a plantation where
other slaves include Patsey, played by Lupita, a star cotton picker,
but of more value as the woman who satisfies the ‘predilections and
peculiarities’ of the estate’s brutal owner Edwin Epps — a powerful
There’s not a false note in the film as it takes you into the darkest corners of America’s past. This
is the antithesis of the trashy, treacly Color Purple spew. Rather, 12
Years A Slave is the movie I’ve been waiting a lifetime to see because
it confronts what was the American nightmare, long before there was any
hope of an American dream. There
are several extraordinary scenes, but the landmark moment everyone will
be talking about occurs when the master whips Patsey, then when it
becomes too much he forces Solomon to take over lashing her. It
will make instant cinema history because of its rawness. Even if you
shield your eyes you will still hear the strikes on bare flesh. Man does what he wants with his property,’ the master argues, as though that makes the beating OK.‘Chiwetel
was gentle with me,’ Lupita told me when we chatted in Telluride, an
old silver mining town high up in the San Juan mountains in Colorado.
‘So was Michael,’ she added.‘They were both concerned about what I was going through because they had to do these brutal things,’ Lupita explained.Chiwetel underwent his own beatings and tortures. In one scene he is suspended by his feet. ‘I was feeling the pain and the degradation,’ he told me. Later, he told a public panel that he had used that pain to help channel Solomon’s journey.During
the same discussion, Steve McQueen, who directed Fassbender in previous
movies Hunger and Shame, said that actors are like athletes.
He continued that he’s not interested in working with movie stars, ‘only artists’.
Certainly, the artists in 12 Years A Slave are athletes of Olympic stature.
movie is being screened at the Toronto International Film Festival
tomorrow and for the Accenture gala at the BFI London Film Festival on
It is set to open in the UK in January, and it’s going to be a force to reckon with this awards season.As we bid each other farewell, Lupita told me how she’d needed something lighter for her next film. ‘I
wanted a comedy or a thriller, so I made a film with Liam Neeson,
Julianne Moore and your Lady Mary and we both play air stewardesses,’
she said, referring to Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery who is also
appearing in the movie Non-Stop.‘It’s very different,’ Lupita added with a laugh.