On a fall afternoon in Manhattan that still feels like the burning days of summer, Lupita Nyong’o and I are in a bare, wood-floored studio called Foxy Fitness, learning how to pole-dance. Dressed in a dusty-pink sports bra and a matching wrap skirt over cream shorts, Nyong’o groans half-jokingly during the strenuous warm-up, then scrutinizes her pole with seriousness. Each time our instructor, competitive champion Ashley Fox, shouts out a new, seemingly impossible move, I wearily wilt against mine, and Nyong’o bursts into laughter. Our lesson was Nyong’o’s idea. I was surprised by the suggestion; exotic dancing with a magazine writer is not something I had imagined would be of interest to someone who maintains her privacy with unerring vigilance. A male friend of hers, Nyong’o explains, once visited her in New York and wanted to go to a strip club. They picked one in midtown (“It was a fancy club,” Nyong’o says), and she was amazed at the acrobatics of the dancers. “It was incredible and sexy, and I thought, I need to learn how to do that.”
After class ends, Nyong’o changes into a deep-V-neck floral dress from Reformation, slips on dramatic cat-eye sunglasses, and strides onto the street. She is self-possessed, a woman who walks with her back straight, her shoulders set back, and her gaze fixed directly in front of her. It’s the kind of pride that many African women share: a sense that they own the ground on which they are walking. “She’s very careful as a person, about her words, about how she moves through space,” her friend, screenwriter Ben Kahn, tells me. From the moment Nyong’o entered Hollywood, with her Oscar-winning, star-creating turn in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, her poise was striking.
Before we even meet, Nyong’o decides to interview me first. Too many journalists end up impersonally grilling her over lunch, she tells me over the phone, and as a result, she wants to know some things about me so that we can have an actual conversation. In our pre-interview, I discover our mutual love of the clothes of Nigerian fashion label Maki Oh, and our shared, slightly unhealthy obsession with Game of Thrones. “I’m not caught up, though, so I can’t talk about it. I’m in the dark and blissfully so,” she says, laughing. “I like to spread it out so that it can live with me for longer.”
She has thoroughly researched me: She knows the places I have lived and the kinds of stories I have written. She seems to be a person who doesn’t trust easily and wants to determine the motivations of people who enter her life. “She’s very inquisitive in the way she works; she’s very detailed,” Chadwick Boseman, her costar in Black Panther, says. “She probably has the most organized script I’ve ever seen: The pages are color-coded with Post-its and notes. On set, she’s not going to let the camera operators, the cinematographer, or the director go without answering the questions she has.”
Pole-dancing is a decidedly stark change from the mixed-martial-arts training Nyong’o underwent for her role in the movie, which premieres next month. Black Panther, which Nyong’o calls “brave for an action film,” is based on a Marvel character that debuted in 1966. She plays Nakia, bodyguard and love interest of the young leader (Boseman) of an advanced African kingdom named Wakanda. The country has never been colonized, and its traditions have matured without interference. “For me, as an African who lives outside Africa and wrestles with that dichotomy of tradition and modernity, this is almost healing,” she says.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote a vivid Black Panther spin-off comic in 2016, describes it as “the fulfillment of some sort of deep wish that extends throughout the black diaspora to show that we are human, that we are beautiful, that we can be bad-asses, too. We’ve occupied such a servile place in film and TV,” he continues. “It’s nice to see that flipped.” Nyong’o agrees. “The little Kenyan child in me leaped for joy because it’s such an affirmation,” she says. “What colonialism does is cause an identity crisis about one’s own culture.” The advance footage I saw was thrilling: Nyong’o, Boseman, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett, Michael B. Jordan, and Daniel Kaluuya in a world of black African pride, strength, and cool. In one scene, dressed in a sleek, fitted green print dress, Nyong’o slips easily into combat, grinding her high heel into an adversary.
Before filming began, she spent up to four hours a day for six weeks in boot camp with her castmates. “Chadwick had a live drummer come in as we worked out, and it was so cool—it changes your sense of internal rhythm,” Nyong’o tells me. “My character fights with anything: guns, spears, ring blades, shoes, glass.” Nyong’o’s appreciation of working out started when she was a child watching her aunt exercise to Jane Fonda videotapes at home in Nairobi. She now has a trainer come to her apartment in Brooklyn several times a week, and physical training plays a significant part in her preparation for every new role she takes on. Flexibility is more important to her than exertion, so that she can stay “fluid and open.” She does plenty of stretching, drinks a lot of water, gets regular massages, and takes Epsom-salt baths. She tries to avoid anything that results in tension or bulk.
Her physical practice stems from a broader desire to preserve something essential about herself. Nyong’o, who is 34, wants to remain childlike, she explains, so that she can feel buoyant and unabashed about who she is. “That’s why I like to try new things, like pole-dancing” or mastering new languages and accents, and learning the ukulele for her next role. “I value not being good at things, because children are not good at things.” She is about to leave for Australia to begin preproduction on an independent comedy/horror film called Little Monsters, directed by Abe Forsythe, in which she plays a kindergarten teacher. Right now, she is in the period of self-doubt she usually experiences when starting a new project, she says, “feeling like a total rookie.”
When Nyong’o was growing up in Nairobi, she was known for her playfulness. (Obsessed with plaid, she was “the oddest-dressed member” of her family, she recalls.) “She was very smart and clever, but also very naughty,” her childhood friend Belinda Odera, a lawyer who practices in Nairobi, tells me. Nyong’o kept a book of lyrics to their favorite pop songs in class, and carried around a snake preserved in formaldehyde to scare people. Years later, at the Yale School of Drama, her friends appreciated those same qualities. “Lupita could break it down on the dance floor,” her former classmate Lileana Blain-Cruz says. “I remember her running around, a ball of joy and exuberance that would keep the party going.” Nyong’o performed in productions helmed by Blain-Cruz, now an Obie Award–winning director. “In her acting, she could go to the crazy places, and that was always impressive,” says Blain-Cruz. Boseman describes her mischievous provocations of Black Panther’s director, Ryan Coogler. “She compiled this whole list of ‘Cooglerisms’ that we would all repeat and make fun of,” he says.
An acute sense of self, and resulting unwillingness to bend to please others, has sometimes made Nyong’o appear aloof to fans and prickly to journalists. Her way of carrying herself seems to arise not only from self-protectiveness but also from a certainty of her worth. Amid news breaking this fall about Harvey Weinstein, the prominent Hollywood producer who is alleged to have sexually harassed and assaulted dozens of women, Nyong’o wrote an explosive op-ed for The New York Times. In hauntingly lucid prose, she described being harassed by the producer, who claimed he was interested in her work and repeatedly propositioned her when she was a student. “What I am most interested in now is combating the shame we go through that keeps us isolated and allows for harm to continue to be done,” Nyong’o wrote. “Now that we are speaking, let us never shut up about this kind of thing.” The piece is both assured and moving: striking for both the story she tells and the vulnerability she so plainly shows.
Post pole-dancing, over lunch in a nearby hotel—gluten-free carrot tartare (hers) and sausage-laden butternut squash (mine)—I ask Nyong’o about her vulnerabilities, such as how she navigates the risks of being pigeonholed as an actress of color. She rejects the question on its premise. “I got such a head start in this industry that it is not in my best interest to look for struggle. That’s such a powerless place for me to think about: what is working against me,” she says. “I don’t think of what I don’t have; I think of what I do, and use that to get the next thing.” She is adamant about protecting her creativity. “It’s a finite reservoir, so it’s important that I safeguard it with my life.”
Nyong’o chooses to savor her blessings and concentrate on fighting for what she wants—a perspective enabled by her insider-outsider status in America. As a woman raised in an African country, she had other concerns before she ever had to consider the implications of race. “Growing up Kenyan, we are used to wishing for more than what seems available,” her friend Odera tells me. “So we are aware that we will have to push harder—what will you bring to the table?”
In Nyong’o’s case, the answer is: a lot. She is moving ahead with the screen-adaptation rights she optioned for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah—a love story about a young Nigerian couple who take separate paths before reuniting. Nyong’o will star as the headstrong protagonist, who finds herself becoming a popular blogger in America, and she is also delving into the production process. “Americanah is close to actually rolling camera—it’s about time,” Nyong’o says. She will be making the film with the production company Plan B, which was cofounded by Brad Pitt, her costar in, and a producer of, 12 Years a Slave. As for the stage, she is waiting to find a play that excites her as much as her last project, Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed. “I am a theater baby first and foremost,” she says. “It may pull me back sooner than I think.”
From Nairobi, with stints living in Amherst (where she went to Hampshire College), the Mexican city of Taxco (where she spent time learning Spanish), and New Haven, Nyong’o is still mulling the concept of home. When she first moved to New York, “I had the mattress on the floor for so long, my mom was like, ‘Buy a bed. You are alive now, and you need a bed now. Accept your existence as it is in the moment,’” she recalls with a laugh. So she bought a bed and dug into Brooklyn: eating local, going to farmers’ markets, finding out who her city representatives are. Nyong’o is also relishing her free time, listening to podcasts (she loves “On Being” and “The Business”), going out for oysters with friends, cooking (“I like to make salads,” she says), checking out fashion (Off-White is her current favorite), and laughing at the comedy of Russell Brand.
A few weeks after our lunch, Nyong’o and I meet up again. It is early October, and she has just returned from Sydney. She is wearing an olive-green beret with a bright-red star that she bought in Cuba. It gives her an air of fierceness; she says it makes her feel rebellious. Nyong’o and I are riding in a car on the way to a photo shoot, and she leans back into the seat, appearing both tired and restless. As we move through streets crowded with taxis and people, we talk in a shared shorthand about her time spent filming in Uganda (for Queen of Katwe) and studying in Mexico, places where I have also lived and of which she has fond memories. She laughs when I ask about her dating life. “You can ask, but you definitely won’t get an answer,” she responds. “There have been rumors and rumors and rumors about my love life. That’s the one area that I really like to hold close to my heart.”
Before she disappears from the car, she tells me that she has just been in talks to star in a buddy comedy for Netflix with Rihanna. She is feeling exhilarated and defiant. “I am here. I am happy to be here,” she says, tilting her head, immersed in thought. “I know this industry was not made for me. But I’m not going to apologize for being here.”
In this story:
Fashion Editor: Tonne Goodman.
Hair: Vernon François for Vernon François; Makeup: Nick Barose for Lancôme. Manicure, Deborah Lippmann.
Tailor: Leah Huntsinger.
Set design: Mary
If you need more reasons to look forward to 2018, Nyong’o will provide you with plenty of them. You can read Okeowo’s full interview with her on Vogue.com. Howard.