Oscar Winner Lupita Nyong'o on the Unexpected Advice from Ralph Fiennes That Changed Her Life

Oscar Winner Lupita Nyong'o on the Unexpected Advice from Ralph Fiennes That Changed Her Life

Jan 16, 2014

One of the unfamiliar names you see in today's list of Academy Award nominees is that of newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, who made her acting debut in the terrific 12 Years a Slave. As the character Patsey, she plays a broken girl -- a slave forced to endure unspeakable horrors at the hands of a man whose grisly obsession with her grows more disturbing by the minute. And Nyong'o delivers a performance that will shake you to your core, as you watch her tackle some of the most difficult scenes you've ever had to watch in a movie, and she does so with such an incredible sense of peace, spirituality and heartache. 

When we spoke to Nyong'o a few months back after the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, she walked us through the filming of "the whipping scene," which is a moment we consider to be the film's most difficult to watch.  

"So in getting ready for that scene -- I mean, how does someone get ready to be whipped? All I could do was be present in that moment," she admits. "And the humiliation and the heartbreak on that day was real, because I was literally stripped naked in front of I don't know how many people and tied to a post. It was all very real and immediate, and all I did was be present. The heartbreak from there… was just a matter of course."

You can read the rest of that part of our chat here, but let's back up. How does an unknown actress even find herself in a star-studded film like this, let alone the recipient of an Oscar nomination? Well, yes, she graduated from the prestigious Yale School of Drama, and then went through a number of auditions in three different states to land the part of Patsey. But even earlier than that Nyong'o was a lowly production runner on the 2005 movie The Constant Gardener, and it was on that set where she received some life-changing advice from the film's star Ralph Fiennes.

"They were literally just filming it in my neighborhood, and I went with a friend and was like, 'Please can I work on this film?' and they hired me [to be a production runner]. So I was talking with Ralph Fiennes at one point, and he asked me what I wanted to do. I said, 'Well, I'm kinda thinking I might want to be an actor.' And he said, 'You know Lupita, only act if you can't imagine doing anything else. Act as if your life depended on it. And if not, don't do it because this industry will eat you alive.' [Laughs]

"So it took a few years of meditating on those words to get to the point where I could admit to myself that if I woke up at the age of 65 and looked back on my life and acting wasn't a part of it, I would regret it. That was the point where I said, all right, I'm going to apply to the best schools I know of in the U.S. and audition. If I get in, I'll know I'm on the right path. If I don't, I'll go back to my plan B. And I got in!"

If Nyong'o's story proves anything, it's that you should not only trust your gut, but also those with a lot more experience than you. If it wasn't for that little chat with Ralph Fiennes on set back in 2005, who knows where Lupita Nyong'o would be today. Thankfully for us, this Oscar nomination will guarantee we see a lot more of her on the big screen in the future. 



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