Lupita Nyong'o shows up early for lunch at a waterfront restaurant in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Dressed in a belted coat, midnight-blue turtleneck, and plaid shawl jacket, her hair braided into a crown laced with a thin golden thread, she looks like a movie star but presents as the flawlessly chic friend you’ve known since your teens. As if you remember how gorgeous she was at the prom, but you also recall long nights throwing down on the dance floor and laughing till you cried. As we go back and forth about domestic affairs (“I would love to just be Martha Stewart and host and stuff, but I’m too shy to do that,” she says) and the elegance of having a piano in your living room, I find myself imagining the two of us in a Black Girl Magic version of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.
There’s something so still and enchanting about Nyong’o, 35, that you start imagining movie scenarios. Famously, when the actor sat next to Rihanna at a Miu Miu fashion show, Twitter took one photograph of the pair and dreamt up an entire narrative in which they were high-tech grifters. In their infinite hive-mind wisdom, the social-media-platform users went on to suggest that Ava DuVernay would be the perfect person to direct such a film and that Issa Rae would be, should be, the one to write it.
But first, on March 22, we’ll get Us, Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort after his stunning directorial debut, Get Out, the horror film about white people who transplant their brains into black people’s bodies, which earned Peele a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. The trailer for Us shows Nyong’o as the mother in a family terrorized by another family that looks identical to them. The project was a perfect follow-up to last February’s Black Panther, and it was a path that seemed to extend directly from her days in the fictional world of Wakanda. As she explains, “I’d, of course, watched Key & Peele. I didn’t know he was a filmmaker at the time, but [Keegan-Michael] Key and Peele were definitely on my list of artists I wanted to work with somehow. I saw the trailer of Get Out before Black Panther even started, before I met [Get Out lead actor and Black Panther costar] Daniel Kaluuya. It was the first time I put the release of a movie in my calendar.
“I went opening night, and I was blown away,” she continues. “I kept going back as though I didn’t have anything else to do. I went to the cinema five times to watch that movie. I went with [film producer] Will Packer. Then I gathered the Black Panther cast and we went. Then I went with my best friend. And then I went by myself. I could not get enough of that movie. And then Daniel said to me, ‘Jordan would love to be in touch with you.’ I was like, ‘Why are you even telling me that? You need to make it happen.’”
After meeting the writer-director, Nyong’o told Peele, “‘I will hold the boom for you. I will drag cable. I’ll do it all and anything.’ I knew I had to work with him. In that meeting, he asked me, ‘What is your process as an actress? What do you need from a director?’ And I just started to cry. He was like, ‘What happened?’ And I was like, ‘I’ve just never been asked that.’ I could just tell in that question was a man who understood what it meant to be an actor, what is the vulnerability, and the support that is most fruitful to get the most out of a creative, artistic encounter. And that was just, ‘Oh my God, why can’t he direct every movie I do?’”
“I was charmed out of the gate,” Peele says. “She is a singular performer, and to have her in this role would be an iconic fit...What she does in this movie is explore a darker side of herself than I’ve seen before. She brings her trademark passion and thoroughness to the role. As a director, I found myself challenged by her because she pushes her specificity. She digs into the words and asks the right questions and inspired me to rewrite sections.”
The world of Us is a world apart from the Marvel cinematic universe and the galaxy of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in which she starred in 2015. “What do horror films tell us about ourselves?” she wonders aloud. “How do they help us project our worst nightmares and then realize them? It’s fascinating to talk to Jordan about this stuff because he’s a complete scholar on this subject.”
Sounding like a scholar herself, she notes, “Horror movies give us permission to be afraid in a world where you’re not often encouraged to be fearful. Fear is something that is suppressed. And it’s an emotion to be overcome. It’s never an emotion to just experience. And in horror films, we give ourselves permission to do that. We all get into a room, and we know what we’ve signed up for. We go through it together, and it’s cathartic.”
Scary movies were kind of her jam as a kid. “I used to watch a whole lot of horror when I was younger. It was almost like I was daring myself. I had an older sister and older cousins, and I didn’t want to be the scaredy-cat. You hold yourself together to prove something to yourself and to others. My siblings would tell you I love to scare them. I still to this day get such a kick out of frightening my siblings. But I stopped exercising that scary-movie muscle.”
Prepping to film with Peele meant building back up her tolerance for fear. “When Jordan approached me for this role, I knew it meant that I had to start watching horror films again,” she says. “As a filmmaker, he pays so much homage to the genre. The film credits read, ‘From the mind of Jordan Peele,’ and it’s really from his crazy, warped mind that he tells these stories.” While doing her homework, she realized a very particular type of movie instills fear in her: “I can tell you gory horror doesn’t scare me. The horror that scares me the most is psychological. I think that’s why Get Out resonated with me so much, because what’s so scary is that the protagonist is going through some mind-warping situations. The world as he knows it is not what it seems to be. And that is terrifying. Racism was the thing on the table for Get Out, but whatever it is, when you’re experiencing something that nobody else is acknowledging, that is maddening and frightening.”
For Nyong’o, it has been a year of both confronting her fears and, for lack of a better term, finding the peace within. “Meditation is something I’ve always been interested in. It always has felt a little mysterious and out of my reach. Right after Black Panther came out, the day after the Oscars, I went on a 10-day silent retreat.” It was as hard as it sounds: “It was a gift. I did it for my birthday. And it was the best gift because, the thing is, my job has two main parts. There’s the acting, and there’s the celebrity. And the celebrity involves a lot of giving. After talking so much, and just expend, expending, expending, to sit with myself and just listen. Our lives are so full of distractions; you go from one distraction to another.”
I ask if at any point she wanted to escape that silent retreat in Texas. But she had forfeited her phone, signed an agreement to stay, and didn’t have a car. “I was constantly wanting to leave and then daring myself to take one more hour and another hour. And oh my God, it was crazy and beautiful, because after the 10 days, it wasn’t talking that I missed...The heart of the program is about unclutching from attachments to pleasure and aversion, the idea that we attach to things that we love and to things we dislike. And our identities are built on assembling these things to basically write the stories of our lives, but learning to unclutch from that control makes it easier to live, to exist.”
She made it through like the queen that she is, and after the silence, “the friend who recommended I go said, ‘Do yourself a favor and right after you get out, listen to an album you love.’ And I listened to Kendrick Lamar, his album Damn. Usually I listen to music and it’s backdrop. But after that retreat, I was able to focus solely on that and for it to fill my existence in that moment. I listened to him on the flight back to New York. I loved the music, but rap sometimes comes at me too fast and I’m not really able to hear it fully. But this time, I heard every word Kendrick Lamar said. I heard the musicality. I heard instruments I’d never heard before. It was like clarity. And I was just, like, wow. I imagine that people sometimes get that from drugs. But it was really nice to get that just from spending time with myself.”
Everyone needs a refresher course now and then, but Nyong’o has always seemed like someone very clear about herself. She wrote a New York Times op-ed about her experience as a student at Yale School of Drama with Harvey Weinstein in the wake of the sexual harassment and abuse allegations; called out a magazine for airbrushing out some of her hair on its cover; and wrote a children’s book, Sulwe, about a girl who comes to terms with and learns to love her “midnight skin,” due out this year. “In no way do I imagine that a child will read this and never have a problem with the world discriminating against their skin or themselves discriminating against the skin,” she says. “But at least you have a foundation. You have something that reminds you that you are enough. For me, I have my parents who do that.”
Raised in Kenya by a politician father and a mother who is managing director of the Africa Cancer Foundation, Nyong’o and her five siblings were encouraged to exercise opinions, nurture their talents, and pursue their interests. “It makes a huge difference to have a father who champions you. My dad was a feminist before it was cool for men to be feminists—his father too in many ways. My father’s father married my grandmother in her late teens, and he had her go to school. All his girls went to school. All my aunts are extremely educated, leaders in their fields, incredible women. And my father came from that.”
He acted as mediator, once convincing her mother to let her relax her hair (“I had the sesad-looking braids”); disapproved when she dropped French (she took up Swahili instead); and sent her, at 16, to her birthplace of Mexico for seven months to learn Spanish. She likens her favorite American city, New Orleans, where 12 Years a Slave (2013) was filmed—she won a best-supporting-actress Oscar for her role—to Africa for its focus on food, music, and family. “When you go to New Orleans, you feel this history, and you feel the pain, and I think that’s what makes it such a joyous place. It’s a place that is confronting its pain, it seems. Joy is not the absence of pain, it’s happiness in spite of it.” She chose to live in Brooklyn, which reminds her of Nairobi, despite her dislike of the cold. (“I will never go skiing.”)
Her next films will be zombie thriller Little Monsters (which premiered at Sundance), Star Wars: Episode IX, and spy thriller 355 with Jessica Chastain, Marion Cotillard, Bingbing Fan, and Penélope Cruz. She also optioned the rights to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s award-winning novel, Americanah, for a television miniseries. For Nyong’o, the projects she says yes to these days must pass a very specific bar. “Go where you are loved and you’ll do your best work” is advice she received from actor and playwright Danai Gurira, her Black Panther costar.“I stole it from Danai’s mouth really. I heard her say it, and it just resonated so deeply with me, and it’s something that I’ve taken with me since.”
“She is so very deeply intelligent and able to effortlessly express herself in a way that hits at things I needed expressed and didn’t even realize it till she said it!” Gurira says. “She is so smart, I feel covered if she is present. I know her brain will brilliantly fill in where mine may lack. She is also deeply courageous and truthful to her own mission and integrity. Without compromise. I lament that our feet are so different in size. Her shoes, man...”
Going where you are loved could apply to any of us in our careers or in our relationships. Nyong’o agrees. “You must always go where you’re loved, because I deeply believe in the principle that the perceiver affects the perceived. So if the person’s perceiving you with love, you’re more likely to do a better job. Have you ever experienced this thing where you feel you’re with someone who thinks you’re stupid, and then you start to do really stupid things? Or someone who thinks you’re clumsy, and then all of a sudden you become clumsy? With my family, I’m the ditz of my family. And they’re like, ‘Oh boy. Look at you. How do you make it in the world?’ And I say, ‘But I’m not like this in the real world!’”
The real world is something Nyong’o spends a lot of time thinking about. She was raised to believe that every vote counts, that it’s our responsibility as citizens to use our voices. “It’s easy to think that there’s so many broken systems. I’ve been heartbroken by the systems [in Kenya]. I take it really personally. My father’s a politician. So I do not know how to take politics any other way but personally. So the systems are broken, but we cannot wait for them to be fixed in order to participate because it’s participation that fixes it...Right now it’s a very, very polarizing environment. The pendulum has swung to the nth degree. But it’s important that we still find vigor when things are not that extreme because it’s in those moments when the pendulum is just swinging side to side that the most damage can be done. That’s when you get passive, when things aren’t that bad. Before you know it, things are terrible again, because we fell asleep at the wheel.”
We’ve talked so long that the lunch staff has left and the dinner crew is arriving for its shift. She remembers the “first food I learned how to really cook was Italian because I was dating an Italian. He was so good in the kitchen. I would just observe, and he would cook and clean at once. What I would do, when I was growing up, was just make the biggest mess. I would use every knife in the kitchen, every spoon; it would just be a royal mess by the time I was done cooking a simple meal.”
It’s kind of a “celebrities, they’re just like us” moment as we talk about the ex and the pasta memories that linger. “He made a mean carbonara and lasagna. All these things, just wide in the hips,” she says, laughing. And with that, she is off into the Brooklyn night and neighborhood that feels like home.
Correction: This article previously referred to Danai Gurira as Danai Gurai. We apologize for the error.
This article originally appears in the March issue of Marie Claire, on newsstands February 19.
Lead photo: Valentino dress; Dior headband