Lupita Nyong'o: The Front Runner

Her harrowing turn in 12 Years a Slave brings ­the Kenya-born actress accolades she couldn't prepare for

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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."

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