Going from unknown struggling drama school grad to Oscar front-runner in a year and a half would be a tempestuous experience for anyone. But for Lupita Nyong’o, who is nominated in the supporting actress category for her role as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, her Oscar campaign run has been an example of grace and gratitude. From the endless screenings and press events to the numerous awards shows and appearances, the Mexico-born Kenyan is an equal measure of confidence and humility.
“I didn’t know there was an awards season before I started this thing,” says Nyong’o during a candid chat with fellow nominee and Oscar veteran Cate Blanchett. “All of it is a first for me. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s got a culture of its own.”
For Nyong’o, who happily shared a plate of sushi with Blanchett following an energetic cover shoot for this week’s Entertainment Weekly, stepping onto the set of Steve McQueen’s harrowing slave drama was an exercise in self-confidence. The actress, chosen after the British director looked at close to 1,000 women, had experience on the stage and even writing and directing her own documentary but had never worked on a movie set, except as a production assistant on the 2005 drama The Constant Gardener.
“It was very stressful,” says Nyong’o of her long days on the southern plantation. “Acting is an exercise of deep trust in yourself and an exercise in letting go: Do [all of your preparation] and then trust that when the [filming] day comes, and you’re in the room with Michael Fassbender, what you need will come through. That’s what’s magical about acting — it’s something you never do on your own.”
Nyong’o has a small role in the upcoming Liam Neeson actioner Non-Stop, but the actress is interested in creating her own destiny going forward. “I’m interested in generating work for myself,” she says. “I have trouble with this waiting-for-the-phone-to-ring lifestyle, especially after drama school, which was so creatively fulfilling.”
To read the full interview with Nyong’o and Blanchett pick up this week’s issue of EW. And for more on the actress’ head-turning role check out this exclusive clip below.
For more on this year’s Oscar race, pick up the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Friday, Feb. 21.