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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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.

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