Lupita Nyong’o is Unconventionally Seizing Her “Moment” in Hollywood

The ‘Black Panther’ actress is setting up a career for the long haul with some carefully curated varied choices.
Lupita Nyong'o Black Panther
Marvel Studios
By  · Published on December 18th, 2018

On the subject of the media’s inclusivity, 2018 has been a pretty great year. We’ve witnessed an influx of new narrative perspectives that actually come packaged in accessible ways. Some of these projects have broken box office records. In other cases, they end up on streaming services, bringing them to the forefront.

These projects reevaluate the variations of stories we ingest. As many are boundary-pushing, it’s probably easy to celebrate them as individual inclusive milestones. But although I completely believe in uplifting particular voices when the time is right, these “trends” should ultimately be sustainable, too.

Thankfully, that’s the vibe that Lupita Nyong’o‘s recent interview with IndieWire exudes. Her relatively short onscreen career thus far has been about dodging typecasting all around. Despite the onslaught of expectations placed on the actress after she burst onto the scene in 12 Years a Slave — winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her very first feature film role — Nyong’o reveals the headstrong curation of her career since then.

The key takeaway? Ensuring longevity in the film industry. As Nyong’o explains, “I really had to understand what I was in [the acting business] for. Was it about sustaining that [Oscar level] of accolade, or something else?” That conundrum would then fuel a choice that left many (admittedly, myself included) scratching heads at first.

12 Years a Slave and the buzzy press circuit that followed heightened Nyong’o’s public profile considerably. To move on from that to doing voice acting that kept her hidden from view was a fascinating choice. I even remember my own skepticism over the fact that such an important burgeoning talent would be covered up by CGI in order for Maz Kanada to come to life in Star Wars.

That said, Nyong’o’s sought such roles in service of a bigger picture that nobody was privy to. Her distinctive work in Star Wars and, subsequently, Disney’s The Jungle Book serves as a stellar reminder of her abilities as an actress outside the overt physical vulnerability depicted in 12 Years a Slave. As Nyong’o explains:

“That was very important to me [to take those roles], because I really wanted to, first of all, reinvestigate what it means to be an actor. My role in ’12 Years’ was so much about the currency of my character’s body. And then, the publicity for the film began, and suddenly it was about the currency of my own body, in a different way. It was about fashion, and it was about redefinitions of beauty, or whatever people were saying. I just wanted a moment to myself, to be kind of invisible, and reclaim control of my body you could say, which both films offered.”

Through this interview, Nyong’o encourages us to trust the whole process of her brand of entrepreneurial filmmaking. “I certainly didn’t have the pick of the litter, given where the industry was when I got in [in 2013],” she says. “It was about recognizing that fact, and then figuring out how I was going to play my role in it.”

That came down to plainly deciding to do an action movie, which led her to her groundbreaking role as Nakia in Black Panther. When Nyong’o was ready to make horror and comedy, Jordan Peele’s Us and Abe Forsythe’s Little Monsters came her way. John Woo’s remake of his own action thriller The Killer surely completes this collection of genre delights…

…but that’s not all. Nyong’o has even more in the works, across drama and action genres alike. Yet, in the spirit of her own keenness to test herself (“I want to have a varied career. I want to always be jumping into new boxes”), I can’t help but indulge in a little more dream casting for Nyong’o, too.

Knowing Nyong’o’s shrewdness, she has probably beaten me to the punch in thinking up these possibilities anyway. But it doesn’t hurt to put these wishes out into the ether. Without further ado, here are some more onscreen experiments Nyong’o would be well-suited for.

A Gritty Andrea Arnold or Sean Baker Film

The trials of modern-day living are tried and true territory for many an indie filmmaker. Nevertheless, I’m specifically name-dropping Arnold and Baker to showcase the quality of character study that Nyong’o deserves. The actress steals scenes amid many larger casting line-ups. That’s exactly what netted her an Academy Award.

Comparatively, while Arnold and Baker are no strangers to the dynamism of a great ensemble, they are in the business of greatly humanizing their protagonists, whether these people are likable or not. As an added bonus, these filmmakers create deeply atmospheric worlds in their movies that further strengthen each narrative and their respective challenges. Nyong’o should get to immerse herself into these environments and play blatantly imperfect characters more often.

An Off-Kilter TV Project

What joy it is to discover that Nyong’o wants to do TV! Aside from prepping to adapt Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah as a limited series, I’d love to see her go full-on Fargo or Legion; that is, something in the vein of those FX shows by Noah Hawley. A Maniac adjacent series would be ideal as well.

Basically, regardless of unsettling not-quite-truths or all-out absurdities, the humor in such projects is unmatched. It doesn’t negate the fact that these shows can be evidently profound in their dissection of human instinct and emotion, either. The kookiness of Fargo, Legion, and Maniac is utterly mesmerizing and a great challenge for any actor, especially one of Nyong’o’s caliber.

Something with Music and Dance

Maybe this could tie into the whole Legion thing, but time and time again, the world has only been blessed with snippets of Nyong’o’s dance moves. Commissioning a project that really utilizes her skills on the dance floor would be unabashedly fun and an undeniable ruckus.

As Nyong’o tells IndieWire, “I was so fortunate to have the luxury of choice, […] And I decided to exercise that, and actually be selective even at a time when everyone was saying, ‘It’s now or never, so seize the moment!’” Her insistence to steal a different kind of opportunity from Hollywood — at once defining her universal currency as an actor — makes her one of the most formidable and exciting actresses today.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)