Lupita’s rise from Kenya to Hollywood

Lupita Nyong'o poses on arrival for the 86th Oscar's Nominee's Luncheon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on February 10, 2014. Photo/AFP

What you need to know:

  • As the March 2, Oscar Night approaches, the buzz created by Kenyan Hollywood newbie Lupita Nyong’o has gone into overdrive from Hollywood to London.
  • Her Oscar nomination in the category of Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her role in ‘12 Years a Slave’ is a culmination of a career that started in childhood.
  • Whether she wins or not, she has made history. But who is Lupita and how did she get here? Kingwa Kamencu spoke with family, friends, peers and mentors of the actress in Kenya.

Sometimes in life, people struggle to find their calling or what spiritualists call their true path. Others, on the other hand, are born with a single-mindedness, as if they had been handed a “life-map” at birth.

Interestingly, such people come to excellence in life early, something social science author Malcolm Gladwell explores in his book Outliers, where he puts forward the “ten thousand hour rule” as the secret for such achievement.

Good examples in popular culture would be the late king of pop Michael Jackson, who grew up singing and dancing with his brothers in The Jackson Five from the time he could talk.

And now there is Lupita Nyong’o. Those who know Lupita before she took the world of movies by storm with her performance as Patsey in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, believe that nothing could have stopped her from hitting that pinnacle in her career.

The 30-year old actress is the “It” girl of Hollywood, her success having created today a buzz from Hollywood to London, making her life-journey an interesting exploration of the question of what makes some people major achievers.

Is it chance? Opportunity? Hard work? Personality? Being in the right place at the right time? Or is it perhaps, a combination of all of these?

Talking to people who know Lupita from childhood she certainly clocked her “ten thousand hours,” Gladwell style. And it is because she earned it the hard way that she seems so unfazed hugging Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio among other Hollywood stars, and calmly engaging interviewers on camera.

Lupita’s father, Kenyan politician and Senator for Kisumu in Nyanza region, Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o, avers that, her interest in acting started from early childhood.

“She started acting very young, right from kindergarten and even at home with just the family, she would come up with make-believe stories and perform them for us. She was always imaginative and creative.”


Prof Nyong’o recounts how this interest continued in primary and secondary school, propelling the young actress into the local theatre scene at the young age of 14, when she joined Phoenix Players, playing Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Nevertheless, the family did not imagine she would go so far, so early.

“We did not see this coming; it really all came up after training at Yale,” he says.

David Opondoe, the general manager of Phoenix Players in Nairobi, on the other hand says that even though Lupita started acting early, it was not something she did simply to pass time.

Rather than spending evenings swooning over boy bands or letting her hormones loose in rebellion like most teenagers, she was cramming lines. He remembers Lupita’s first rehearsal. “One notable thing about her was that by the time the cast was doing its first read-through, she had all her lines, unlike many of the professionals then.”

He laughs out loud as he recalls, “People noticed it and were surprised. At first, it looked like the usual teenage excitement and many thought the steam would cool off. But we later realised that that’s how she was, she was very ambitious.”

All along as well, there had also been an innate talent.

Opondoe who co-starred with her in her next performance at Phoenix, There Goes the Bride, remembers that even though director James Falkland honed her acting, she was a natural at it and did not give him much trouble.

“She pulled off very tricky parts, like acting as the invisible lover to someone possessed. It’s a very tricky part, because you are there yet you’re not supposed to be there. She did a brilliant job and still surprised people,” he says.

Indeed, Lupita’s two major performances so far have seen her in roles that are at two extremes, revealing her versatility. In the much acclaimed 2008 soap Shuga, she plays Ayira, the go-getting, hard-nosed, street-smart, career climber, while in 12 Years a Slave as Patsey she is innocent, retiring and timid, more victim than vixen but with a stubborn streak.

Shuga is a sex and relationships urban drama — produced as part of MTV Base’s Staying Alive Foundation funded by Unicef and Bill and Melinda Gates, whose objective is to reach young people through popular culture.

The production started in Kenya and is now in Nigeria.


By the time Lupita joined St Mary’s School (in Nairobi) for a two year IB course in the year 2000, she was well into her element.

Dorothy Osir, the IB co-ordinator who worked with Lupita when putting up the school musical that year, says, “We remember her for her sterling performance in Cinderella in 2001 where she played the main character. It was then that we saw the talent.

We didn’t know that she could sing, and already the school had many singers. When we gave her the role of Cinderella, she was new to us and we were taking a chance. But she didn’t let us down. That was one of the biggest and best musicals we have had in St Mary’s to date. She was taught by two teachers who deserve credit, Beatrice Bwali and Oloo Nyamwewa.”

Mrs Osir remembers Lupita as determined, pointing to the role of personality in the life journey. “I knew her as a tough girl. I mean you could see she was a girl that was going to go places. She was one of these extraordinary talented girls, people who never gave up on what they wanted to do.”

Among those in the acting fraternity in Nairobi who were close to Lupita is Antony Mwangi aka “AntoNeosoul,” who played the role of Kennedy against Lupita’s Ayira in Shuga and remembers some of the fears she shared with him over dinner in Nairobi mid last year, when 12 Years a Slave had already been shot and was in post-production stage.

“She told me there were already actors and actresses in the US, and the odds were against her. Her dark skin tone, her short hair, her Kenyan accent, her name. She didn’t have the traditional feminine look of long weaves. People couldn’t pronounce her name right; every time she spoke, people would be like ‘What? What did you say?’”


Her determination however saw her learn different accents to be more competitive during auditions. Mwangi says, “She didn’t want to be tied to only particular roles, she wanted roles that would blow people away, that they would forget she was African.

She wanted to be seen as a professional before anything else. She told me that if someone came casting for a character with a British accent, she knew she could do it so well that she could nail it.”

Lenny Juma, an actor and international casting agent who has been in the industry in Kenya for over 40 years, recommended Lupita to play the main character in Shuga. He gives another angle to it. “Casting is not just about looking for a good actor, it’s about looking for a particular type of character. For Lupita, it is that certain things are made by God for certain situations in the world.”

Even as he points to fate, he also speaks of her acting ability. “That girl is talented. But God sculpts people to fit into a certain way; it’s he who makes us what we are. Sometimes we say we work hard but it’s not always that. If Lupita was in Kenya, she would never have got that part. All these things are things God put in her way. She was in the right school in the US, at the right time. It’s one of those things that are made for you and no one can snatch them from you.”

While many African parents may be afraid for their children in the precarious world of the arts, Lupita’s parents’ attitude was laid back and encouraging, rather than doubtful or fearful. They nurtured her ambition by encouraging her, supporting her and watching her plays, both in Kenya and the US.

This in itself may have played a big part in giving her the confidence to pursue her dreams and actualise herself. Says her father, “We were not afraid at all, we knew she was pursuing her interest and that’s what was important to us. You must understand that my family, and my wife and I are theatre lovers; we have ourselves acted in the past.”

In the meantime, her success has given Kenya’s acting industry a major boost and something to smile about.

“For a long time, people have taken acting as a waste of time. Now people are seeing it as a career they can encourage their children to pursue. We are also getting more people coming in to watch our plays, out of curiosity. It’s given us a boost, a good spotlight which we needed,” Opondoe says of Phoenix.

Lupita’s wild success has also thrown a challenge to other actors. Mwangi says, “She’s shown that if acting is what you want to do, you don’t sit on your laurels, go out and get it.”

How do parents nurture excellence in their children, how do we get our own children to “make it” and hit “the big time” in whatever field they are in?

Prof Nyong’o has some advice. “Support your child in what you think he or she is good at. Discuss with them, guide them, advise them, that’s what they need. The worst thing would be to impose on them your own ideas of what they should do.”
To date, Lupita has won almost 30 awards from film critics, producers and acting societies across the US.

This article was first published in the East African .


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