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The rise and rise of Lupita Nyong’o

Friday January 31 2014

What Google does not know — or what Hollywood does not want the world to know — is that Lupita is home-made. She may have been born in Mexico, but she is made in Kenya. PHOTO/COURTESY

What Google does not know — or what Hollywood does not want the world to know — is that Lupita is home-made. She may have been born in Mexico, but she is made in Kenya. PHOTO/COURTESY 

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Google does not know everything. At least not about Lupita Nyong’o, the undisputed new kid on the Hollywood block.

If you type her name on the search engine, in a nano-second you are overwhelmed with information about her tens of nominations, the awards she has bagged so far and those she is likely to win, her experience and role as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, her yet-to-be-released and yet-to-be-shot movies, and her being one of the faces of Miu Miu, a high-fashion brand of women’s clothes and a branch of Prada (whose previous faces include Lindsay Lohan, Vanessa Paradis and Katie Holmes).

Speculation about her love life is also rife online, while her style is a top trending topic. No one has worn clothes with such ease before, the fashionistas say.


What Google does not know — or what Hollywood does not want the world to know — is that Lupita is home-made. She may have been born in Mexico, but she is made in Kenya.

And no, her talent did not spring up in Hollywood, even though that famous American address elevated her to the world stage. And so, although the critics may write a little about her prominent family, touch a little on her role as a production crew in The Constant Gardener and Shuga, not to mention her documentary In My Genes, the girl is, for all intents and purposes, Kenyan to the core.


Lupita’s journey to stardom, however, has been long and certainly not easy. She worked harder than everybody around her, always willing to start from the bottom and serve tea to film crews just to be close to movie makers and subsequently learn from them.

She had family support worth anyone’s envy; they attended every show she ever appeared in and, before she could drive, either of her parents would chauffeur her to and from wherever she needed to be.

That is why, when the accolades started streaming in recently, she dedicated an award to an uncle and acknowledged her parents — her father is Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, a prominent Kenyan politician, and her mother, Dorothy Nyong’o, is the managing director and head of public relations at the Africa Cancer Foundation — thanking her family for keeping it real.

They were with her when 12 Years a Slave premiered to rapturous applause at the London and Toronto film festivals in the fall.

Her brother Junior, a college student, has made some awards rounds with her, and her friend Kahn, who used to direct her in plays when they were undergraduates at Hampshire College, was her date to the Golden Globes.

Today, we talk to four people who had the opportunity to work with Lupita before she hit it big. They all have fond memories, and they all assure us that their pleasant recollection of their time with Lupita has nothing to do with her current status.

George Mungai has watched Lupita’s success with fascination. Now working with M-Net, George was involved with Phoenix in different capacities as director, producer, actor and manager, and he is certainly not surprised by Lupita’s achievements.

When he first met her, he was James Falkland’s (the late founder of Phoenix Theatre) right-hand man, while Lupita was then a 14-year-old student in Rusinga School who “made her mark very fast and soon became the envy of many veteran actors at Phoenix”.

She approached her parts with gusto and always did intensive prep work even before the first rehearsal, says George, remembering Lupita auditioning in 1998 for a role in Romeo and Juliet (she easily got the part of Juliet; while George played Romeo).

“I remember her very young, very slim and very boisterous self. On top of that, she was fearless and ready to plunge into the play. She got her lines before the first rehearsal, which was rather unsettling for me. I was supposed to be the veteran and it took me 10 days to learn the difficult Shakespeare lines. At rehearsals, I would be holding the book as I read my lines, while she calmly delivered line after line perfectly.

“It did get awkward because in Romeo and Juliet, the two share a kiss twice. I was in my mid 20s, she was only 14 and, although when Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet they were more or less the same ages as me and Lupita, it did not make me feel more relaxed. I remember asking James (Falkland) how I was supposed to kiss a 14-year-old without feeling like I was infringing on a minor’s rights. James suggested I discuss it with her. Lupita, without flinching and staring at me straight in the eye, said she had no problem with the kissing because the scene would not really work if it was faked. It took me a few days to get this right without going overboard.”

Lupita was in James Falkland’s last production at the Phoenix, On the Razzle, while her last show at Phoenix was There Goes the Bride. She then went ahead to volunteer as a crew member for The Constant Gardener.


“I have seen her grow from the teenage Juliet to the young powerful performer she is today, and I am extremely so proud of her,” concludes George.

Another actor who has fond memories of Lupita is Eddie Mbugua, the banker famous for his participation in the African version of The Apprentice in 2008.

“I met Lupita in the dressing room after her stunning performance in Romeo and Juliet. One took an instant shine on her because she was so warm and humble. Theatre sometimes conjures an amalgamation of various personalities so you never know what to expect. She would smile with her entire face and had a very contagious giggle. Once I was on stage and she was in the audience — I knew where she was seated because of her laughter. I told her the same when she came to congratulate me backstage.”

Eddie shared the stage with Lupita, Angela Mwandanda (Shinde), Lizz Njaggah-Konstantaras (another amazing Kenyan actress making the waves with her awards in various capacities), TK Katana (Tahidi High), and Victor Gatonye (actor/director) in Falkland’s last production.

“She was the youngest, but that did not intimidate her one bit,” says Eddie. After that they went their separate ways, but would still bump into each other as audience.

“The world is currently mesmerised and hypnotised by Lupita, but for those of us who got to watch and work with her on stage, that success comes as no surprise. Her verve, diligence, humility and pleasant personality were always going to propel her to the top. My hope is that the world knows that Kenya has great talent, and that we Kenyans realise that too.

So many people opt to consort in bars instead of theatres and this creates a vacuum of indigenous talent. If Lupita had not whet her talent in a professional theatre company, then we would not be celebrating her. We need to support the arts.”

The journey to Hollywood for Lupita, according to the Western press, started during her involvement with the making of The Constant Gardener, thus this would not be complete without a couple of anecdotes from Mwaniki Njache, an actor and director who worked alongside Lupita on the set as an Assistant Director.

Although they had rubbed shoulders before at Phoenix, they got to know each other better and became friends at the set.

“Many people in the crew wondered why a girl from a privileged background would work on a film set as a runner,” remembers Mwaniki. “But, within a very short time, she proved to us all that she was a dedicated hard worker.

While filming in Loiyangalani, for instance, temperatures would rise to the 30s and some people in the crew, both foreign and local, were unable to handle it. Many opted out, but not Lupita. Although she suffered nosebleeds due to the high temperatures, she refused to back down and continued working. Not even dangerously high temperatures were going to dilute her dedication.”

So, what is the mood at Phoenix Theatre, where, as it were, Lupita’s story really began? David Opondoe, the manager, says they are all elated, and that he is personally proud to hold the position when the theatre is turning 30. Coincidentally, so is Lupita.


Does Opondoe think there are more Lupitas out there? “Many more,” he says. “We see them everyday on our screens and we hope they can go international too. I feel lucky to have co-acted with Lupita in There Goes the Bride.

I remember her as a down-to-earth girl who was keen to follow instructions. She was very social with the whole crew, who were all much older than she was.”

Opondoe’s immediate wish it to see Lupita as a brand ambassador for Phoenix and do at least one more play at the Phoenix stage. “My other wish is for me and some of my team to go to the Oscars to support our girl, unfortunately we have to see whether there are sponsors willing to push us.”