Standing ovations get thrown around at the Oscars like confetti at a wedding, though it's usually geriatrics and barely-living legends on the receiving end. But when 31-year-old Lupita Nyong'o won the best supporting actress award on Sunday for her role in 12 Years A Slave, the crowd of 3000 or so in the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles took to their feet as one.
Lupita Nyong'o wins Oscar
Listen to Lupita Nyong'o acceptance speech after winning the Oscar for best supporting actress for her role in "12 Years a Slave" at the 86th annual Academy Awards.
They may have struggled to say her name, they may have been confused about where she had come from, but they were clear about one thing: the woman had arrived.
Lupita Nyong'o was born in Mexico in 1983, the daughter of Kenyan parents who fled their homeland to avoid political persecution (the family returned to Kenya when she was just one-year old, though she returned to Mexico aged 16 to learn Spanish).
“My father was a professor of political science and he was fighting for democracy in Kenya before I was born, and we had an autocratic regime and they weren't very happy with him,” she told Fairfax late last year. “So after a series of events that included the disappearance of his brother, who has never been found, my father went into self-exile and went to teach at Colegio de Mexico.
“Every time I say I was born in Mexico,” she adds, “everyone goes, 'What?' And it was precisely for that reason that a Kenyan went to Mexico – because no-one would look for him there.”
These days her father, Peter Anyang Nyong'o, is a member of the Kenyan senate, and a former minister for medical services in the government. Her mother Dorothy runs a communications consultancy in Nairobi; her sister Zawadi is the CEO of the Africa Cancer Foundation.
Hers was a relatively privileged upbringing and, she readily admits, a long way from the experiences of her character Patsey, a woman so brutalised by Michael Fassbender's slave owner that she begs a fellow slave to kill her (God will be merciful to him, she insists, because He would see her as an act of mercy).
“I constantly remember that I had the privilege of doing this in an imaginary world and the woman that I was playing did not,” Nyong'o told Fairfax. “She was real and she actually went through those horrors and that always grounded me.”
Nyong'o says she was bitten by the acting bug when she was a small child. Her aunt would stage impromptu revues for the family. “And one time in the skit I died and my mother cried out for her daughter and I was so tickled that I was like, 'I want to do this all the time'.”
But her first steps in the business were behind the camera rather than in front of it. In 2005, she moved to Uganda to study film production at Maisha Lab, a workshop-studio established the previous year by Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair.
“To do anything in film, you need to be trained, but you also need the fire in your belly, a passion that cannot be ignored,” Nair told Uganda's New Vision last month. “Lupita had focus, drive, passion and above everything else, talent.”
In 2007, Nyong'o made the documentary In My Genes as part of her undergraduate studies (in film and African studies) at Hampshire College in the US. A study of albinism in Kenya, it became, she proudly says, “the first film to be tabled in Parliament to try and change legislation”.
But by 2009, the pull to acting was becoming stronger. She landed a leading role in the first season of Kenyan AIDS drama Shuga. After that, she enrolled in the post-graduate acting program at Yale School of Drama.
Patsey was her first role after graduation.
She also has a small role in the Liam Neeson action drama Non-Stop. It's an incidental part but significant in one respect at least: unlike the 12 Years a Slave role, her racial identity matters little.
In fact, she says, until she moved to the US that's how it has always been in her life. “I don't think I really appreciated or identified as black until I came here because I grew up in a predominantly black world where everyone was black,” she says. “I was many things before I was black. I was a woman. I was a Luo, which is my ethnic group. I was middle class and many things before the word 'black' came up.”
After her win on Sunday, Nyong'o said backstage that she felt “like Willie Wonka in the chocolate factory”. She was conscious, too, of the broad support for her triumph. “The fact that I won in so many people's hearts, that is incredible, and I am so grateful for that,” she added.
Having feigned ignorance of all things showbiz, her father finally let the veil slip, she said. “I saw him after I got this young man (the Oscar), and he hugged me, and he said, 'Thank you',” she told reporters backstage.
So, what is next for Lupita Nyong'o?
“I love fantasy and action,” she says. “I hope to be in a fantasy-action one of these days. A super villain or a superhero, that sort of thing. But also comedy. Comedy is something that really terrifies me and that's exactly why I want to do it.”
Whatever future roles may come, she insists her life as an actor is one of boundless opportunity.
“I don't only get to play middle-class Kenyans born in Mexico,” she laughs. “I get to experience other things, and lend myself to other stories.”
- with Jenny Cooney Carillo