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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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."

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