Despite growing up in Kenya, with a vibrant natural world “in our backyard,” Lupita Nyong’o says she learned plenty after she signed on to narrate the six-part Discovery Channel documentary Serengeti. Produced and directed by nature doc veteran John Downer and American Idol creator Simon Fuller, Serengeti chronicles daily life on the African plains, achieving a sense of intimacy with the natural world by following the film’s animal subjects for more than a year.
A passionate animal rights activist who was honored in 2019 by the global conservation organization WildAid for her efforts to protect wild African elephants, Nyong’o says there are lessons to be learned just by “observing and listening” to nature. She talked to The Hollywood Reporter about the discoveries she made while working on Serengeti, including how gender dynamics in the animal kingdom can mirror that of humans, finding her own voice as a narrator and why she had to rethink her attitude toward hyenas.
What about working on Serengeti intrigued you in particular? Have you always been a fan of nature documentaries?
I grew up watching nature documentaries. I loved them, they were quite comforting when I was younger, especially because we had so much of that nature in our backyard, so to speak. At the same time, I think I took them for granted. They were just naturally there. And in my adult years, I have enjoyed them from time to time, but when Simon approached me to do this, I realized I have never, ever heard a nature documentary narrated by a woman. And I certainly have never heard a nature documentary narrated by an African. For those two reasons I thought, “Wow, this is actually quite novel for me to take this on.” I was very excited by that, to be the one responsible for telling this African story. It was one small way to contribute to diversifying the genre.
The series also focuses on the role matriarchs play in nature.
I quickly learned that there is quite a focus on the female dynamics in nature. And that in itself is so natural. I don’t think that that is imposed by the filmmakers. As we see in the documentary, the females play a very, very powerful and integral role. That is a great thing to meditate on for human beings who sometimes forget their own nature.
There are also some interesting gender dynamics, especially in the way males “win” females through shows of dominance.
The thing that fascinated me was the relationship with the lions, where the lionesses have a very specific role that they play, and it’s an important role. They feed the pride. They are responsible for keeping the pride alive. And they are ruthless at it. But at the same time, the lion is powerful because it protects the pride from its own kind. That was really fascinating to observe. For the lion to do his job, he doesn’t diminish the female job. They are working in tandem with one another. So it was interesting because, in many ways, you see this kind of male dominance, but at the same time there is evidence of unity and democracy in this strange way.
Did you learn anything about these animals that really surprised you?
Because I’ve been on so many safaris, it’s hard to find something that I didn’t know about. But I will say that I haven’t really spent much time empathizing with hyenas. I grew up being told really scary stories about hyenas. We were told these bedtime stories to freak us out so that we would stay out of harm’s way. So I was always suspicious of them. [But] this documentary was great because that’s one of the storylines. I found myself actually rooting for the hyena, which is something that I have just never, ever imagined I would do. I love that — that this documentary makes you invest in both the predator and the prey in equal measure.
What was your approach to the narration? Was there a tone you particularly wanted to achieve or were asked to convey?
One of the things they asked is that I use my natural voice and my natural accent, which is all over the place. That was really exciting because my accent right now has been influenced by all my global experiences, so just to be able to have the freedom to do that, to bring myself to it, was great.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.