Long before Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar for her first major movie role (Patsey in 12 Years a Slave) and graced the covers of Vogue, Marie Claire and People, she was a 16-year-old from Kenya moving halfway around the world by herself to study in Mexico, where her parents lived when she was born. She says she was “excited but mainly terrified.” But she set off with courage, which is not to be mistaken for fearlessness. “Courage is acknowledging fear and taking action in spite of it,” Nyong’o says.
Strength in Experience
Knowing that she could always go back home “to loving, accepting arms” helped Nyong’o make that big move. It was just the first of many brave acts, the starting steps on a path that would lead her to a success where she is known as much for her smarts as for her talent. She has since come to see that “our challenges in life have the equal chance of building us up or breaking us down, depending on how we absorb and interpret them,” she says. Yes, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. But “I think the power of that statement lies in how much you are willing to believe it,” Nyong’o adds.
Dealing with Self-Doubt
As an example, she points to her experience of being cast in 12 Years a Slave when she was still at the Yale School of Drama: “I was panicking a lot about it, certain that I would fail miserably at the role because I had no experience working on such a big film with such big people. It was bound to be the biggest challenge of my life.” She expressed her fears to her counselor, who had her imagine the worst that could happen—“I imagined forgetting my lines, being the weak link of the cast, getting fired and replaced, being blacklisted in Hollywood even before I could be on a list,” recalls Nyong’o, who says that she then “basically cried a river of all the woes that lay ahead of me” before her advisor asked, “And then what happens next?”
“I paused and gave it some serious thought,” Nyong’o says. “And then I burst out laughing and said, ‘I guess life goes on.’” The exercise taught Nyong’o the importance of good mental habits. “I felt such a relief in that moment and free enough from the demon that was my self-doubt, that I could actually go away and do the work that I needed to do to prepare for the role,” she says.
More Secrets to Her Success
If Nyong’o seems wise beyond her 31 years, it’s partly because she has the savvy to listen to, and learn from, her parents. Four lessons she says she has taken to heart:
1. “My parents taught me, in action more than in words, to never pretend to be someone I am not—except when I am acting, of course!”
2. “My mother is NEVER ashamed to admit she doesn’t know something, and I have witnessed her admit this and retain her dignity. That is a quality I truly admire about her and one that I have very consciously strived to espouse.”
3. “All my conscious life, my father has fought for what he believed in, even when it was highly inconvenient. Integrity is a quality I insist on in my relationships because of his example.”
4. “And together, my parents have taught me the value of friendship. Just the other day my mother reminded me that the value of life is not what you do, but who you are to those you call friends. My parents have invested in some quality friendships over the years. To this day I call their close friends my aunts and uncles. They have been my foster parents in the foreign countries that I have called home over the years. They have loved me like a daughter because of how much they love my parents. And my parents have instilled in me the conviction to foster those relationships, make them my own, and never take them for granted.”
Feeding Her Soul
Finally, as crazed as life can get, Nyong’o is mindful not to neglect her inner life. A self-proclaimed avid listener of “This American Life,” and a few years back of Marianne Williamson’s podcast, “Miracle Thought,” she feeds her soul primarily through her ears. “If I were to develop a sixth sense, it would be Clairaudience,” she says. “I love feeding my soul by listening to things: stories, talks, news, music. Listening activates my imagination.”
Lupita Nyong’o won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as well as the Screen Actors Guild Award and Critics’ Choice Award. This past summer she joined the cast of the J.J. Abrams-directed Star Wars: Episode VII. Next she will lend her voice to Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book and co-produce and star in a film based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah. Nyong’o is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama.