Lupita Nyong’o doesn’t appear onscreen until nearly an hour into 12 Years a Slave. And when she does–as Patsey, a slave whose curse it is to be both industrious and beautiful, desired by the man who claims to own her and jealously hated by his wife–she is indistinguishable, at first, from a long line of black men and women waiting in fear while the cotton they have picked for hours in the brutal sun is weighed by white men with ungodly power over their lives.
It takes barely a minute, though, for Nyong’o to shape Patsey into a full person. First with the set of her shoulders, then with the tilt of her head, then with the look in her eyes as she endures violent abuse and resigns herself to survival. Of all the slaves in the blighted world of 12 Years–a riveting, coolly unflinching movie that immerses viewers in a painful chapter of American history and is up for Best Picture at the Academy Awards on March 2–Patsey has the most harrowing story.
Nyong’o’s story, on the other hand, is the most exciting–an Oscar narrative in perfect sync with a visually voracious world. The 31-year-old Kenyan newcomer, fresh out of the Yale School of Drama and cast in her first movie role, is the girl of the moment. Everywhere. She’s the striking face and figure celebrated in a hundred photo shoots. She’s the gloriously dark-skinned muse to a traditionally pale-skinned fashion industry. (She stars in the spring 2014 ad campaign of Prada’s high-design label Miu Miu.) Nominated in the normally wild-card category of Best Supporting Actress–along with Sally Hawkins, Julia Roberts, June Squibb and Jennifer Lawrence–Nyong’o has the inside track to take the prize. On the red carpet, styled in bold colors, modern silhouettes and fabulously sculptured jewelry, she has won already.
That’s a lot to carry on slender shoulders that today, just after a photo shoot, are clad in a slim black pullover sweater splashed with a bright pattern of flowers. “It’s just a very surreal experience,” she begins to explain. “It’s like when you experience a trauma …”
No, start again. “I’ve never given birth, but people say that when you give birth, it’s a huge event and your body doesn’t know what to do until you’re doing it. You don’t know until you’re actually in the situation. That’s been my experience this whole awards season. People would say, ‘Are you ready?’ No! I was never ready!”
But while the dazzle of the moment is new and indeed surreal, Nyong’o’s commitment to her work as an actor is grounded in impressive self-knowledge. The second of six siblings, she was born in Mexico City–hence the Spanish flavor of Lupita–while her father, prominent Kenyan politician Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, was teaching at the Colegio de México; the family moved back to Kenya before she turned 1. “My parents, they’re a unique duo,” she says. “They drum to their own beat. It’s funny, because I don’t think of them as liberal–they’re not–but they’re experimental, I’d say. They make their own rules.”
They also encouraged their children. “They raised all of us to listen to what we think our calling is and then do it. Do it. And do it well. With a sense of purpose. And so when my interest was in acting, they were very supportive. My mother drove me to rehearsals every day at school. My father was a thespian, so he can live vicariously.”
At the recommendation of some of her father’s professor friends who taught there, Nyong’o spent her university years at Hampshire College, a small, alternative liberal-arts college in Amherst, Mass.; an older sister had gone there too. “A culture shock!” the 2003 graduate declares. “Just the liberal nature of the school. I came from a very structured and traditional place. Those places, you either lose yourself or you find yourself. And I am pleased to say that I found myself at Hampshire rather than losing myself.”
A summer job as a production assistant on the set of The Constant Gardener and a conversation with Ralph Fiennes helped clarify her calling. She applied to Yale’s esteemed and highly competitive School of Drama, entering with a class of 14 other acting majors–they were “uniquely close,” she says of her classmates. (You can see a 90-second clip of Nyong’o as a third-year student on the school’s website, talking about the curriculum.) She was a few weeks short of graduation when she auditioned for 12 Years. Casting director Francine Maisler put her on her knees and yelled at her “like a drill sergeant to start again and again and just to deepen the sense of despair. Immediately, the status dynamics were established–that I am less powerful than she was,” Nyong’o recalls.
The audition wowed Maisler and director Steve McQueen in a know-it-when-you-see-it way. “Patsey is the humanity, she is the dignity in the tale. She is the grace in the film, and you can’t make that up–the person just has to have it,” McQueen says. “Lupita is the real deal. She’s a real artist. I saw lots of beautiful girls. But there are not a lot who can do it from the inside out.”
“‘Patsey is simple. She’s not noble,'” Nyong’o recalls McQueen’s telling her. “He wasn’t interested in a portrayal of [her] as the noble savage. I had to move away from sympathy to a place of empathy, rather than just commenting on her situation, trying to buy people’s love for her. Because she was just trying to get by on a day-to-day basis.”
On a day-to-day basis herself right now, Nyong’o is crossing paths with all manner of the famous and celebrated in her profession who want to meet her. The word surreal comes up again: “You’ve watched them on the big screen, you’ve watched them on TV, and they’re just way over there. But they’re actual walking, talking, living people.” Anyhow, she points out, “I grew up with a very famous father. So I knew that the person who was on TV and in the newspaper was an edit of the man who walks in the door.” The movie newbie is enjoying what she calls the current “gushfest” of celebrating actors she has long respected and admired just as they celebrate her.
She’s also figuring out what she wants to do next, in this precious time of career power, even as she can be seen, beginning Feb. 28, as a flight attendant in the terrorism-on-a-plane thriller Non-Stop, starring Liam Neeson in one of his Neeson! Does! Growly! Action! roles. (She shot the movie in November 2012, a few months after wrapping 12 Years.) Otherwise, no, there’s nothing in the works she’d like to speak about right now. “I think of Emma Thompson when she said that acting is actually not really a career, it’s just a series of experiences,” she explains. “There’s no way of mapping out what your career is going to look like. But there are actors whose body of work I look up to. Like Cate Blanchett. And Charlize Theron. They have managed to do the big and the small, the weird and the not so weird, the bomb and the major success. If I could be so lucky, I’d have that kind of variety.”
It can be a blinding, distorting flash of light, the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Academy voters have been known to award it to the surprisingly young and the notably old, the newcomer and the underdog. Nyong’o is talking about performance process but might as well be talking about life when she reflects, “Having stamina. I think that’s what my three years at Yale rewarded me with, a kind of stamina. And also building a kind of confidence in myself. At Yale they say, ‘Hold on tightly, let go lightly.’ That’s it. You hold on, and then you just let go with it and trust that when [the director] says ‘Cut,’ and when he says ‘Action’ again, it will be there.”
This appears in the March 03, 2014 issue of TIME.