By Hillary Busis
Updated December 12, 2013 at 07:12 PM EST

In the spring of 2012, Lupita Nyong’o graduated from the Yale School of Drama. Then she was cast in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave — and her life changed almost overnight.

The Kenyan actress and filmmaker has won numerous accolades for her powerful performance as Patsey, a slave who faces unfathomable cruelty at the hands of both a plantation owner (Michael Fassbender) and his wife (Sarah Paulson). And as of this morning, she’s also a Golden Globe nominee for Best Supporting Actress. How does it feel? “I haven’t yet found a suitable word in the English language that captures how it feels,” Nyong’o tells EW. “It’s overwhelming. It’s exciting. It’s humbling. It’s a lot.”

It’s also a bit of a relief. “I felt in playing Patsey that it was a great responsibility, and so these things are reminders that I was in some way successful at portraying this incredible woman,” she explains. “And for that, I feel relief. Because I was just so blessed by that whole experience, and it was so rewarding in itself. All this is just a welcome, welcome bonus.”

Immediately after filming, Nyong’o found it difficult to readjust to normal life — her harrowing, emotionally draining role “definitely lingered in my system for some time,” she says. Nyong’o found her way back by doing “what I could to take care of myself — massages, and acupuncture, and all those things I know are useful for me to center myself,” and by necessity: “When I finished the film, I had to move out of my apartment. So I had to shift gears very quickly.”

Now she’s shifting gears once more, traveling the awards circuit with her 12 Years cohort. But even though Nyong’o is a fresh face onscreen, she’s got more movie experience than you may assume: Prior to her stint in drama school, she made her own short films and served on the production crew of projects including The Constant Gardener and The Namesake.

It’s an experience she says has proved invaluable to her work as an actress: “The thing that I learned, being a production assistant and working on my own stuff,” Nyong’o says, is that “so many other things that have to be in place in order for the actors to do what they do. I wish every actor had that experience, because it just puts things in perspective.” Her story should also serve as inspiration to assistants all over Hollywood — with talent, hard work, and a little bit of luck, perhaps you too could snag a Globes nom someday.

12 Years a Slave

  • Movie
  • R
  • 134 minutes
  • Steve McQueen