On Sunday night, Lupita Nyong’o and the cast of “Black Panther” won the Screen Actors Guild Awards’ top prize ― a moment that saw her jumping up and down in ecstasy on national television. Four hours later, she was beheading zombies at the Sundance Film Festival.
“Little Monsters” premiered at midnight, when Nyong’o was still reveling in “Wakanda forever” fever. She took a flight to Park City, Utah, at 6 the next morning to promote her zany zom-com, in which she plays a kindergarten teacher protecting her students from an outbreak of the walking dead during a sunny petting-zoo field trip. In between playing the ukulele during singalongs of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” Nyong’o darts around decapitating zombies and sparring with a deceptively selfish entertainer (Josh Gad) who works at the zoo.
It’s safe to say we have never seen the Oscar winner do anything like this.
You’ll soon see her do it too, as the crowd-pleasing “Little Monsters” landed a pricey joint distribution deal between Hulu and “I, Tonya” outfit Neon after an all-night Sundance bidding war. Obviously what Hollywood ― and the world at large ― needs right now is Lupita Nyong’o belting pop anthems and impaling bloody creatures. It’ll do the soul good.
When I met up with Nyong’o on Tuesday to chat about “Little Monsters” and the awards season attention that “Black Panther” has received, she talked about writing a letter to Taylor Swift to secure the rights to “Shake It Off,” the state of her career and the lofty expectations placed on Jordan Peele’s soon-to-be-released “Get Out” follow-up.
Are you exhausted after your celebratory weekend?
Tell me a little bit about your SAG night. Of course, we all saw you jumping up and down when the big award was announced.
I mean, I was really excited to be at the SAGs. And I was really, really, really praying that we would win, and then we did, and it was such an elating feeling to get that kind of recognition from our peers. For me, the SAG Awards is just a very special award ― a nod from your peers, who know what it is to make a film and everything like that. So for us to get that recognition, you know, it just helps to make sure that these kinds of films can continue to get made.
Did you party all night long?
We partied for a respectable amount of time. We partied like Michael B. Jordan.
And what was the morning of the Oscar nominations like for you, in terms of the recognition “Black Panther” both did and didn’t get?
Well, it wasn’t morning for me. I was in Benin [in West Africa], so it was afternoon. And I was in the middle of a project and in the hot sun. I was in a totally different world when I found out through my makeup artist that we had gotten seven nominations. And I was so excited. You know, it was actually on a day when I was working in a very remote area of Benin, and we had just planned a kind of last-minute viewing of “Black Panther” in this little village. Open air. It was right before that that we found out, so it was just like kismet, you know?
That evening, we were watching clips of “Black Panther.” The film hadn’t been released in Benin because they don’t have cinemas, and so they were watching it for the first time. And to just see an African audience of that nature glued to the screen, from 5 years old to 90 years old, it was just like, “OK, this film is powerful and meaningful in ways that we might not even be able to fathom for a few years.” I just felt so proud to be a part of it, and I was just filled with gratitude.
How did you feel about Ryan Coogler not being part of the Best Director lineup?
I was bummed, but I wasn’t surprised. Yeah, I was bummed. But at the end of the day, we did get a Best Picture nomination, and that nomination is about the entire film. It’s a recognition of all the efforts, I’d like to believe, of a film, and the meaningfulness of an entire film. So I was pleased with that, but I was disappointed that he didn’t get that recognition. But at the same time, I know that he doesn’t work for recognition. The recognition he wants is from audience members that go and feel like the film resonates with them.
And clearly, that was achieved in spades.
I’m curious what you thought of the conversation around the short-lived idea for a popular Oscar.
I haven’t give it any thought. I was working on “Us” when that whole thing came out.
Well, I’m specifically curious because that award could be read as a way for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to absolve itself from potentially snubbing “Black Panther” for Best Picture and relegating it to an award that is inferior to the traditional artful Best Picture accolade.
Yeah. Well, from what “Black Panther” has been able to do, I think it’s proof positive that a film can be both popular and powerful, that you don’t have to choose one or the other. You know, just because a film makes it big in the box office or if a film is catering to a mass audience doesn’t mean that you somehow have to dumb down the depth of it. I think that’s what “Black Panther” proves over and over again, that people will respond and embrace depth if it is done and done well. You don’t have to choose between one or the other.
So, for me, I’m glad that we have been recognized as part and parcel of all films of 2018, as it should be. I don’t think you should have a category for popularity because I think we make films so that they can be seen. I think everybody wants that, whether it’s a small film or a big film. You’re not making it to keep it in a drawer. You’re making it for an audience to respond to it. [Awards] recognize the power of a film, whether it made money or not.
Did you play the ukulele before “Little Monsters”?
What were ukulele lessons like for you? Did you pick it up quickly?
I did not. They were frustrating. But I think what I love about my job is that when you sign on to a project, you have to learn everything that goes with it, and for this, ukulele was one of the things I had to learn. I couldn’t give up. You just have to stick to it and keep trying.
I think there’s a breaking-into-an-instrument moment, right? [At first] nothing is happening. You’re getting no return from hitting the same note over and over again. Then you just have a good sleep one night, and the next time you touch it, it just works. It’s about the repetition. So, for me, it was the most frustrating for, I think, maybe two or three weeks, before I was kind of grooving on a G. And then after that, it’s like exponential growth occurs.
Did you always know that “Shake it Off” was the song you would perform?
Yeah, I did always know. It was written into the script, though I will say that they were having trouble getting the rights. So I wrote Taylor Swift a personal note.
Well, she gave us the rights, which was a response.
And for that, I’m eternally grateful because that song had been so meaningful to me at a time when I was having a hard time in my life. I was working on a project, and my best friend flew over to just be with me. And he played me “Shake It Off,” and so it became like my anthem, like how to just overcome this not-so-great moment. It had a lot of personal meaning for me, so I shared that with Taylor Swift, and she gave us the rights.
So you’re learning “Shake It Off,” then realizing that maybe that’s not going to be the song you end up performing because of rights issues. Did you guys discuss alternates in case it didn’t pan out?
I didn’t want to discuss alternates because I just felt that this film needed “Shake It Off.” I mean, it was the song. That song is fun, and it’s light, but there’s a depth to it. You know, sometimes you just need to shake things off. I just thought it was such a great thing to have a kindergarten class playing that song and that being, like, their anthem. It was written into the DNA of the project. So, yes, the producers were looking at other songs. They sent them to me, and I didn’t so much as listen to them. I didn’t. I was just like, “We really need to just get ‘Shake It Off.’”
I’m married to it. It was one of the reasons I wanted to make the film, because I responded to that, you know?
We’ve never seen you do a movie like “Little Monsters,” which is undoubtedly the most comedic role that you’ve taken. Were you attracted to it specifically because it was unlike the Lupita Nyong’o that we’ve seen over the past few years?
Most definitely. It was totally different from anything else that had crossed my table. I had really wanted to do comedy, but I just hadn’t found the right thing. Comedies that had been offered to me, I didn’t find funny. And so “Little Monsters” was the first time that I read a script where I was just dying of laughter. I couldn’t believe it. You know, it’s so absurd, because it has all this irreverent, just profane language, and then it has these innocent children in the middle of it. There’s just this tension between innocence and jadedness. You’ll go through the entire story, and then there’s these shifts of tone that are just so abrupt and kind of surprising, and they’re titillating.
All those things together, I was like, “Oh, my God, this is the kind of thing that I find funny, and therefore I want to see this made, and I want to be a part of it.” Ms. Caroline is a dream role for me because she reminds me of Fraulein Maria from “The Sound of Music.” And I absolutely adore “Sound of Music” and Julie Andrews in that role because she gets to be unapologetically sunshiny, and yet she has this mother-bear quality where she will do anything to protect the innocence of the children that have been put in her care. I wanted to play a role like that. I didn’t even know how badly I wanted it until it was on the page and I’m like, “Oh, my God, this is my fraulein moment.”
You don’t know it until you see it.
Yeah, exactly. But don’t judge my singing.
Well, I’m no Julie Andrews, and I’m not meant to be. But it’s OK.
Who is Julie Andrews but Julie Andrews? Right.
What does beheading zombies look like for you in the context of this set?
Well, there was a lot of blood involved. And that is always a good idea on paper, but the minute you start working with blood, it’s just so frustrating. I mean, it gets on everything. You can’t touch anybody. You can’t touch anything. And so there was a lot of that to deal with, to navigate. And then I was actually quite afraid of the zombies. I remember the first time the zombies came, because the guys who did “Fury” ― what do you call it? ― “Fury Road”? What’s the name?
“Mad Max.” They worked on the zombies, so they looked really realistic, even to the naked eye. It was just gross. I spent the first day the zombies were on set trying not to look at them. It was silly. Yes, it took some getting used to, the gore and stuff like that. But it was fun. I did all my own stunts. And yeah, I enjoyed fighting zombies.
From the outside looking in, it seemed like in the wake of your Oscar win, you were not getting the lead roles that you deserved. Only now are we seeing a turnaround, with “Us” coming and “Americanah” and your projects with Viola Davis and Rihanna. Did it feel that way to you?
You know, it’s funny, I keep getting asked this question a lot. Look, I knew, first of all, when I got “12 Years a Slave” and it took me on the journey that it took me on, that I was coming into an industry where the demographics did not represent people like me. And I knew with that would come a different kind of road for me. At the same time, what “12 Years” did for me is that it put me in a position where I could choose, where I didn’t have to do whatever came my way. I could actually commit to the artistry and find projects like “12 Years a Slave” that were meaningful to me, that I felt I wanted to invest my artistic spirit in.
So I didn’t have to hustle as much as I would have if I had had a slower start. What happened was that I knew there would not be projects that existed already with me in mind. What it took was getting in on the creation side, on the development. I had a lot of people with ideas who came up to me and said, “These are the kinds of projects we want to make. Would you sign on?” So I got in on a developmental path, which meant that I wasn’t going to be the lead the very next year or whatever. But those projects were in the pipeline, so what you see now is the fruit of that labor.
For me, I wasn’t sitting around feeling like I wasn’t getting what I deserved. I knew that I was just going to have to make what I wanted to make happen. I really also needed the time to adjust to the kinosphere that I’d been given. I didn’t know. I don’t think I was ready to be the lead in a movie right after that whole ― I don’t even know what to call it.
It was seismic. “Overnight fame” is such a cliché, but I assume, actually having somewhat experienced something like that …
Oh, yeah, no, it felt like that. My life changed completely. Every single aspect of my life changed, and I needed the time to adjust to that, so projects like “Jungle Book” and “Star Wars” gave me that time because it allowed me to continue to work but also kind of recede into the background so I could catch up with myself, you know?
Did you ever feel like you became a celebrity before the public truly got to know you as an actress? Your fashion became a huge focus for people, and you might not have had the time to really figure out who you were as a person within the industry before being vaulted so quickly.
Well, you know, while I was doing “12 Years” and in the promotion for that, when all that was happening and all that recognition, I was meditating on a daily basis on making room for abundance. In life we are often taught how to handle failure. We are not taught how to handle success, and it can be just as devastating. So, for me, it was about always checking in with myself, always having people that knew me before this around me to ground me and keep me centered and aware so that I didn’t go up in the storm that was being created around me. That, obviously, then also affected the roles that I chose to take. I wasn’t going to live someone else’s dream of who I was going to be. I needed to figure out what my dream was.
I had to check with myself: What am I in this for, again? Because to win an Academy Award for the first role I ever played on film is dizzying. And then you ask yourself, “OK, now that I’ve achieved that, what comes next?” And then, oftentimes, you’re robbed of the right to fail.
That’s a great way to phrase it.
I had to make sure that I allowed myself to fail, even if nobody else around me gave me that permission, you know? So that I stayed in the driver’s seat of my life, so that I’m not trying to achieve anybody else’s dream for me. I’m trying to figure out what it is for myself.
Did you see “Widows,” Steve McQueen’s latest movie?
I’m so disappointed that people didn’t pay more attention to the film. It isn’t getting awards recognition and didn’t do big business — especially coming off “12 Years a Slave,” which was sort of a surprise box-office hit. I’m curious about your impressions of that being left out of the conversation and how your relationship with McQueen has developed over the past few years.
I mean, Steve is like ― oh, my God. I love Steve. And I will always love Steve. And I’ll always feel the gratitude for him giving me my first shot because it takes that one person to just say, “Yes, I choose you.” He really was a player in — whatever — the path to my destiny. So I am eternally grateful to him for that, and I will always support him. I’ll always support what he does. And I still feel very close to him. I don’t talk to him every day, but whenever I do, it’s like it’s familiar. It’s loving. And he always gives great advice. He’s blunt, he’s direct, he’ll tell you what he thinks, and I love that about him.
We haven’t nearly seen the best or the most out of Steve. He’s still got more to offer. Even “Widows,” it was such a departure from anything else. That’s what I respect about him. He, like me, refuses to be put in a box.
Knowing what a phenomenon “Get Out” was, are you ready for the release of “Us” in March, given how many eyes are going to be watching for Jordan Peele’s follow-up. And for how, if it isn’t as much of a phenomenon, it will be commented on as such?
Yeah. I mean, I knew in accepting the role that I was walking into high stakes. Super-high stakes. I remember feeling so dwarfed, first of all. It was just like, “Oh, my God, this is my first honest-to-God lead role, and it’s with Jordan Peele, who I admire to no end.” I watched “Get Out” five times in one month. I feel the pressure for Jordan about what he does next, and I’m somehow going to be the vessel through which he does it. Oh, I felt the pressure.
But then, you know, it’s always about, “OK, OK, OK, these are all the expectations, but at the end of the day, there’s work to do.” And you have to roll up your sleeves and do it. I have to learn my lines. I have to get into character. I have to do the research. I have to do the work. And it’s intimidating. I read the script, and I love it, and I was like, “Oh, my God, this is amazing, this is about … wait, what is this about?” Because Jordan’s films are always layered. You see one thing, but there’s so many other things going on. And I remember getting on the phone and just talking to Jordan for hours and just taking down vicious notes about what he was saying, all the imagery and the themes. I was just like, “Oh, my God, this is so intelligent.” He’s a really intelligent man who really knows how to also tap into popular culture. When you have those two qualities, it’s magic.
It was all about just being able to live up to his expectation and really challenge myself to go to really new and uncomfortable places. That’s what it is with every role. I’m never equipped to play a role until I start playing it, so it was about that too. Now, I mean, I’ve done my job. There’s nothing more I can do.
It’ll be in the world’s hands, and what happens happens.
Yeah, and I don’t fret over that. I really don’t. Because I let go. Once I’ve done a project, I do. I choose projects that I want to be a part of and that I want to experience in the making, not in the receiving. So, however it’s received, I know I had a great time. I did my damnedest work. And I love Jordan to hell and back, so now we’ll see. I’m in it for the ride. I love it. I love it! You already saw with the trailer and how people reacted, so you know, whatever happens happens.