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Why Lupita Nyong'o Is Every Star Wars Fan's Dream Girl

Photo: Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic.
Here’s a tip: If you’re ever looking to unburden yourself of some juicy information, but only want to share it with a single soul, Lupita Nyong’o is your woman. Not only can the Oscar-winning actress keep a secret like a human safety deposit box, she gets a certain thrill out of doing it.

The proof? Our recent conversation about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in which she plays Maz Kanata, a motion-capture alien pirate who has lived more than one thousand years and owns a bar. Director J.J. Abrams divulged those details to Entertainment Weekly in November, but if you ask Nyong’o, 32, to expand on them, she will give you only this: “I can tell you that she has a colorful past and she is a strong character.”

Fabulous! What else?

Forget it. Nyong’o does not budge, explaining that not even the woman who gave her life gets special treatment when it comes to Star Wars. “My mother wants to know [the plot]. I haven’t even told my mother,” she says. “I haven’t told anyone. I enjoy keeping a secret, so I’m thriving on this. I’m thriving! I love it. It’s not hard at all.”

Still, like Luke learning to use the Force, we persevered with our questions — and even managed to surprise Nyong’o with intel on her character’s presence in previous Star Wars movies.

Let’s rewind a bit to how you were cast. J.J. reached out to you when you were on vacation?
“Yeah, I was on vacation in Morocco, and he called and wanted to talk to me about this part. He told me a little bit about the part, and I was interested, and he sent the script over for me to read. Upon reading it, I was really interested in the essence of who Maz Kanata was, and the opportunity to do a motion-capture character, and of course to work with him.”

What did you think about the motion-capture of it all?
“Motion-capture is something that I’ve had my eye on ever since seeing Andy Serkis in Lord of the Rings, and then going on to see Zoe Saldana do it, and Benedict Cumberbatch, and folks like that. It looked like an opportunity to really play as an actor, because you’re not limited by your physical circumstances. And after playing Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, which was so much about the body, here was an opportunity where I was completely relieved of that. And I liked it.”
J.J. has explained that Maz’s eyes have special meaning and power. Did that help you connect with her when you did the motion-capture?
“As an actor, you’re always looking for clues as to who your character is and to build around that, so for me, that was a valuable thing to do. At the end of the day, when you’re playing a character, even when you’re using your body in live-action, so much of who you are and what you want to communicate is through the eyes. So that was definitely a free gift that was given to me, especially doing motion-capture, to know that the eyes would be the strength, if you will.”

People have been comparing Maz to Yoda. What do you think about that?
“I don’t. [Laughs] That’s the safest answer.”

You really have to master the art of the creative deflection being in this movie, don’t you?

Did you grow up loving Star Wars?
“I grew up watching Star Wars, yes. Star Wars would come on TV on public holidays when I was at school, so I related to it as being time off from school, and we only had two channels of TV growing up so everyone watched it. Everybody knew about the galaxy far, far away. So I really didn’t know that there were people who didn’t watch Star Wars, who didn’t know C-3PO and Han Solo and Princess Leia. [Ed. note: Nyong’o was born in Mexico and grew up in Kenya.]

The first three movies were pretty male, save for Princess Leia. The Force Awakens feels very different, with key roles for you, Daisy Ridley, and Gwendoline Christie. Was this something you were conscious of while filming?
“Um…to be quite honest, no. I wasn’t aware of it, really, until looking back and consciously considering how the characters that have been created in this episode are basically changing the demographics of Star Wars. But it wasn’t something I was thinking about at the time I was making it. Making the film, I get very narrow-minded. I see things only through the lens of my character, you know? And I leave the rest to the director and the other people doing their jobs. And then later, you can pull out and think about the grand scheme of things.”

I’m sure you’re aware of all the fan theories out there. One eagle-eyed fan believes there is a statue of Maz in Anakin’s bedroom in The Phantom Menace. Were you aware of this?
“Yo, yo, yo…! [Laughs] No, I was not! I don’t know what I think of that. [Laughs again, heartily] What I think of that is, it’s absolutely fascinating how much investigative journalism is going on for this movie. This could be a course in school, just how people are trying to piece things together. It’s amazing. That’s fascinating.”

You can Google it and see the screenshots. There’s a statue of a little creature that does look like Maz.
“Sure.” [Laughs]

The intertextuality of the movies!
“Yes. I’m sure the creators of Star Wars are extremely flattered by how dedicated people are to this story and this world. And it’s almost a celebration of the suspension of disbelief, really, to have the world engaging and committing to it even before it comes out, at this level.”

Yeah, and a celebration of imagination. Switching gears a bit, you experienced a whirlwind of attention and accolades around 12 Years a Slave. How does this compare?
“I feel really honored to be a part of this. To play any small role in it is an honor and a blessing, and it’s something I just never dreamed of being a part of. It never crossed my mind. So the fact that I’m a part of it and I get to witness it from this other side is really, really, really cool. I’m a little scared, obviously. I’ve been quite isolated from it because I’ve been working on a play for the last 10 weeks, so I’m only now starting to talk about Star Wars and meeting the people who are in love with Star Wars, so this is my orientation to what exactly all this means.”
You mentioned your play, Eclipsed. How did that go?
“We closed on Sunday [November 28] and we move to Broadway in February. It’s been so good for me. I thoroughly enjoyed telling this story every day and with the group of women that I’m so lucky to play with, it was good to get back to the theater and flex those muscles — the theater muscles.” [Ed. note: In Eclipsed, written by The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira, Nyong'o plays one of four women held against their will by a Liberian rebel officer.]

You spoke so beautifully when you won the Oscar about what the moment meant to you, and the historical significance of it. Do you feel now, almost two years later, that the win changed your life professionally?
“Well…it’s not an obvious thing. It’s very hard to tell for sure, seeing as [12 Years a Slave] was my introduction to the world, to the film industry. So I don’t have a before and an after. I just have that as my first experience, so I’d like to believe that it has afforded me choice. I feel like I can make certain choices and I can go after things that I’m passionate about and kind of see them happen. Like, Eclipsed is an example of something that I feel my winning the Oscar made possible to do. It was a role that I understudied back when I was at the Yale School of Drama, and I fell in love with the role and the play back then. Winning the Oscar, I had people asking me whether I wanted to do theater and if I did, what I wanted to do. I was able to say Eclipsed, and the Public [Theater] and the Broadway producers, they made it happen.”

You also have spoken about your struggles with self-acceptance as a young girl growing up and believing your skin was too dark to be considered “beautiful.” Now you are a role model, especially for darker-skinned girls who don’t have as many women to look up to in this industry. How does that feel?
“It feels good! I’m glad I’m in the position I’m in and I’m glad I get to be an example for all the younger people who may not have that many examples of my complexion. So I feel privileged to be in that position. I feel like I’m on the right path for whatever it is I’m meant to do. I’m just going to continue doing that. And the role model aspect of it will take care of itself.”
You have The Jungle Book coming out next year and also Queen of Katwe, about a little girl in Uganda who becomes a chess champion. Mira Nair directed that one — how did you like working with her?
“Oh my goodness, that has been the joy of my 2015. Oh my goodness, such a highlight for me — working with Mira and working in Uganda, working with children. So many new experiences in one film and it was so rewarding, so fulfilling. And I am soooo excited for the world to experience that story when it comes out. It’s such a heart-lifting story, and we had so much fun telling it. I don’t think it has a release date yet.”

Did you learn to play chess?
“No, I play the mother of the chess player who has no knowledge of chess at all. I did learn anyway, just for my own sake. I’d played chess before, but I got lessons from the coach behind this whole story that David [Oyelowo] plays.”

Okay, final question. Have you seen The Force Awakens?
“No, I haven’t!”

Really? When are you seeing it?
“I’m going to see it with everyone else [at the cinema].”

Really? Wow. So not only can you keep a secret, but you’re patient, too?
“[Laughs] No, that’s the fun. This film was made to watch in groups.”

This is the second in a series of three interviews focusing on the women of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Click here for our chat with Daisy Ridley and here for our sit-down with Game of Thrones' Gwendoline Christie.