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This story first appeared in the April 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
UPDATE: On June 2, it was announced that Lupita Nyong’o has joined the cast of J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII, which is set to hit theaters Dec. 18, 2015. THR reported in April that she was in talks to join the live-action/CG hybrid adaptation of The Jungle Book.
She was a veritable awards-season Cinderella. In only a few short months, Lupita Nyong’o went from being a complete unknown to a red-carpet princess, applauded for both her impeccable fashion sense and her undeniable acting abilities. The 31-year-old — who was born of Kenyan parents in Mexico City, raised in Nairobi and then graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 2012 — triumphed at the 86th Academy Awards, where she was awarded the Oscar as best supporting actress for her unflinching performance as Patsey in Steve McQueen‘s 12 Years a Slave.
But now that the ball is over and the applause is dying down, what can Nyong’o really expect from Hollywood? While the stage would appear to be set for her to ascend to the A-list — just as Jennifer Lawrence did after her best actress win for Silver Linings Playbook last year — it’s not that simple. For while there have been a handful of African-American actors, from Sidney Poitier to Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington and Will Smith, who have reached that status, there’s never been a black actress who has become the equivalent of a Julia Roberts or Angelina Jolie. Whoopi Goldberg came closest, following her best actress Oscar nomination for 1985’s The Color Purple and supporting actress win for 1990’s Ghost, but despite an occasional hit like 1992’s Sister Act, she didn’t maintain that momentum. Hollywood also flirted with Angela Bassett, Thandie Newton, Halle Berry and, most recently, Mandela‘s Naomie Harris, without ushering any of them into its very top tier.
Nyong’o may have charmed Hollywood as she skillfully navigated awards season, but whether or not she’s endeared herself to the larger public — with just $56 million in domestic box office, 12 Years was an art house hit but no blockbuster — remains an open question. “I don’t think she has an audience — not yet,” says one studio executive. “And there are so few roles for women of color; those roles are just not being written.”
Further complicating Nyong’o’s prospects is the fact that her dark skin challenges an industry prejudice that traditionally has favored black actresses and performers with lighter complexions. “Would Beyonce be who she is if she didn’t look like she does?” asks TCA Jed Root talent agent Tracy Christian. “Being lighter-skinned, more people can look at her image and see themselves in her. In Lupita’s case, I think she has two-and-half, three years. If she can find a franchise — a Star Wars or a Bourne Identity — a big crossover film, or if she’s cast by a significant filmmaker, then she’s golden, she’ll have carved out a unique path for herself.” Yes, she faces obstacles, agrees a prominent casting agent, but they are not insurmountable. “For someone who looks like her, with a distinctly black, African face, maybe she’s someone who can change the direction for darker-skin actresses, actresses who are definitely not European-looking, but it may require some forward-looking director to push for her.”
It’s an issue Nyong’o herself confronted head-on during Oscar week when she spoke at an Essence luncheon about how, when she was growing up, she prayed for lighter skin. She viewed her own complexion as “an obstacle to overcome” until, inspired by Sudanese-British supermodel Alek Wek, she began to appreciate herself. “I hope my presence onscreen leads other little girls on a similar journey [to] feel the validation of your own beauty inside and out,” she said as many in the crowed dabbed at their eyes. The fashion world appears ready to promote her beauty, even if to some it seems exotic. She served as the face of the Miu Miu spring ad campaign and sat front row at the Calvin Klein Collection show with Anna Wintour during New York Fashion Week. And that could, in turn, force Hollywood to acknowledge her appeal. “Frankly,” says Christian, “she’s hot enough that she can play a love interest to a Caucasian leading man, and it won’t be an issue. Lupita is to film and television what Obama was to politics. She made Hollywood feel good about itself. She was a little bit of ‘we shall overcome’ — charming, young, gorgeous.”
Still, industry prejudices remain deep-seated. Todd Boyd, who teaches about race and pop culture at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, points to Berry’s career as an object lesson, since Berry didn’t fully capitalize on the best actress Oscar she won for the 2001 drama Monster’s Ball. Instead, her follow-up film was the James Bond movie Die Another Day, which led to ongoing appearances as Storm in the X-Men series and 2004’s disastrous Catwoman. If anything, he argues, Berry should have had it easier because she belongs to a line of lighter-skinned performers such as Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge that Hollywood has favored, offering them more glamorous roles than those that go to darker-skinned actresses, a line that stretches from Hattie McDaniel, the first black Oscar winner, to Octavia Spencer and nominee Gabourey Sidibe. “If it didn’t benefit Halle Berry, who would seem to have, appearance-wise, the kind of package Hollywood likes, it’s hard to imagine things are going to materialize for Lupita,” says Boyd.
But, argues Stephanie Allain, who recently served as executive producer on the Sundance hit Dear White People, “I hope we’re really moving past that. I’ve met Lupita a few times on the circuit, and what fascinates me about her is her intellect.” Nyong’o’s already proving she’s more than just a pretty face, possessing the sort of intelligence that attracts top directors. While at Yale, she played Shakespeare and Chekhov. And shortly before she jumped into the awards-season fray, the multilingual actress assisted on Bill Benenson‘s new film The Hadza: Last of the First, a documentary about a hunter-gatherer tribe living in Africa’s Rift Valley, by helping to translate some of the footage shot in Swahili.
“Everyone would love to sign her,” says one top agent of the impression Nyong’o has made on Hollywood. “I’ve hardly been in a meeting with directors where her name hasn’t come up. Right now, she should be having meetings with Spielberg and Scorsese. What she should do is just work with great directors.”
Nyong’o did have a small role as a British-accented flight attendant in the Liam Neeson thriller Non-Stop, which was released the weekend before the Oscars, but she has not yet lined up her next film. Represented by Innovative Artists and D2 Management (her reps declined to discuss her next move), she was up for the part of Tiger Lily in Joe Wright‘s upcoming reimagining of the Peter Pan story, but that role instead went to Rooney Mara. And she has met with J.J. Abrams, fueling speculation that she could be cast in his Star Wars movie. Says Allain, convinced that Nyong’o has a promising future ahead of her, “She could play a neurosurgeon or somebody with Asperger’s. I would imagine the opportunities that will present themselves to her will be varied and won’t necessarily involve a superhero outfit, though she would also be awesome in that.”
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