Memo to Hollywood: Why you should handle Lupita Nyong’o with care

"12 Years a Slave" actress Lupita Nyong'o on the Oscars red carpet.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

For anyone in Hollywood or the heartland who didn’t fall in love with Lupita Nyong’o’s talent after seeing her performance in best picture winner “12 Years a Slave,” or was somehow unmoved by the supporting actress’s heartfelt acceptance speech Sunday night -- which will stand as one of Oscar’s most memorable moments -- here are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about what comes next.

In the wake of Nyong’o’s Oscar win, there exists a brief moment in time where her future remains in flux, before her career -- the long one I hope the talented newcomer will have -- begins to snap into place. She has a very small part in the new Liam Neeson thriller “Non-Stop,” but after that her dance card seems relatively clear.

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Although I hope many smart moves will be made on both sides of the negotiating table in the coming months, I realize mistakes will be made. But in the meantime, with the slate still clean and with the rising star still on the cusp, a few observations for your consideration:

1. The actress is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, which has a history of turning out well-honed talent. The actors among the school’s alumni comprises an impressive list that includes Oscar nominee Angela Bassett, Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti and, ahem, 18-time Oscar nominee, three-time Oscar winner and new Twitter buster Meryl Streep.


2. Nyong’o is magnetic on screen. There is something so compelling about the way she carries herself when she is in front of a camera that makes her impossible to overlook. Take “Non-Stop.” In the new terror-in-the-skies box office hit, Nyong’o is barely there. Yet anytime the flight attendant she plays is in the frame, it’s nearly impossible to look away. Just a single, simple turn on the Oscar red carpet Sunday night created a photo sensation. The camera officially loves her.

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3. There is a fearlessness in the way Nyong’o goes at a performance that given good choices might make for an unstoppable career. That soul-stirring quality was very much on display in “12 Years,” but dramas allow for that. As the horribly abused slave Patsey opposite a sadistic slave owner, chillingly portrayed by Michael Fassbender, the actress took the character to -- and over -- the emotional edge.

But for a more nuanced side of her talent check out the 2009 Kenyan miniseries “Shuga” (it’s partly subtitled).


The stage is contemporary Kenya, with all the complexity of an evolving country and the generation that will shape it. Nyong’o plays Ayira, a determined young woman navigating relationships, family and career. She is whip-smart, winning and wise beyond her years, and the performance showcases an entirely different side of Nyong’o. There is a very dynamic way the actress exists within scenes that makes for fascinating watching -- while she shares the space beautifully, she also controls it.

“12 Years a Slave” will always be a high point in the actress’s career. But like a certain other, ahem, Yale alumni, I am hopeful that Nyong’o’s Oscar-winning performance, as striking as it was, will be only the first of many defining ones in a very long streak.