The Mexican-Kenya actor has carved a career out of representing culturally diverse characters on screen, first coming to attention as Patsey in 12 Years A Slave, for which she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Recently, she played female warrior Nakia in Black Panther, a watershed moment for screen representation with the black-dominated superhero movie going on to gross $US1.3 billion.
Her lauded double role in Jordan Peele’s Get Out follow-up, Us, has some quarters buzzing about another Oscar nomination, but there’s another group that’s pretty miffed.
In Us, Nyong’o plays two characters — Adelaide Wilson and her shadow doppelganger, Red. One of the ways Red is distinguished is by her voice, a whispery, several-octaves-lower tone that, on the surface, conveys malevolence and ill-intent.
It’s what Nyong’o took as inspiration that has a disability group crying foul.
Talking to news.com.au days before the “scandal”, Nyong’o said she had been inspired by a condition known as spasmodic dysphonia, a condition she described as “where because of a trauma, sometimes emotional, sometimes physical, your vocal cords can begin to spasm as air is released in irregular ways”.
Nyong’o repeated the comments to several media outlets, which was then picked up by American group the National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association, which took offence their disability had been used to be associated with “a haunting”, attacking Nyong’o for turning it into a “creepy voice”.
Nyong’o worked with her doctor and her voice therapist to craft the voice safely, taking among her influences a note in the script that said Red “hadn’t used her voice in a long time”.
Nyong’o has since apologised on The View for any offence she may have caused people with spasmodic dysphonia, saying she had crafted the character with love and care.
(Mild, potential spoiler in next two paragraphs)
What hampers Nyong’o from a full-throated defence of her acting choice is the necessity to stay away from spoilers for those who have not seen the movie, which opened in Australia last Thursday.
For those who have, well, let’s just say even the National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association might take a different stance if they made it to the end credits.
(End of mild, potential spoiler)
Nyong’o, 36, is very mindful of spoilers, and even asked we stay away from any questions that might venture into that territory when news.com.au spoke to her on the phone just before the movie’s release.
But what’s clear from our conversation is Nyong’o is an actor who likes to put in the work, such as she did when working on Red’s voice.
“I love the process of preparing for a film, it’s my favourite part,” she said. “It’s also the hardest part and requires the most of me. It’s the most uncomfortable thing, and it’s the most sacred thing.”
And she only had the time she would normally have to prepare for one character to apply her process for both — two characters she described as “completely distinctive but connected”.
For Us, the voice work was only part of it. She and the actors who make up the rest of Red’s shadow family — Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex also play double roles — had to adopt the physicality of cockroaches for their skittish movements, while Nyong’o also took ballet classes because her character Adelaide had been a dancer.
“I did classes so I could have the residue of ballet in me. But I could never get that good!
“That was actually a concern of mine when I was preparing. I called Jordan and said, ‘Do you expect me to do the dance?’ and he said ‘no’ and I thought ‘Hallelujah!’”
But in order to go through her process properly, first she had to get over her reverence for Peele and the pressure attached to working on his next project, after the phenomenal success of Get Out.
“I was very intimidated by that aspect of it,” she said. “I was also hugely intimidated by the idea of Jordan because I think when I started I had a reverence for him.
“But I quickly learnt that reverence kills creativity, and I had to get over that and get to a place where I could respect him but also respect myself to offer up what I had to give to this project so I could be more of a collaborator and partner than a worshipper.”
Born to Kenyan parents in Mexico when her father was a visiting academic in Mexico City at the time, Nyong’o and her family returned to Kenya when she was an infant. She mostly grew up there until moving to the US for university.
She worked as a production assistant on several movies including The Constant Gardner before later attending the Yale School of Drama. Not long afterwards, she scored her breakthrough, Oscar-winning role on Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave.
But while she’s impressed in supporting roles, Us feels like a true coming out party for Nyong’o as her first mainstream lead role. She’s also the lead in Australian director Abe Forsythe’s Little Monsters, which debuted at Sundance in January, but that will definitely not have the exposure Us brings.
After less than a fortnight, Us has already raked in $A180 million ($US128 million) at the global box office. According to distributor Universal Pictures, Us had the second biggest horror opening in Australia after 2017’s It. Locally, it took in $3.85 million with a strong screen average of $15,714.
That’s the kind of might Peele brings. But it’s not Peele’s box office potential that enticed Nyong’o to the project.
“I remember thinking (when I first read the script) how lucky I was to have the opportunity of working with Jordan Peele and playing two very three-dimensional characters in one story,” she said.
“I remember understanding (the script) on the surface level and being very aware that there was more to this than meets my eye and feeling like I really needed to get Jordan on the phone ASAP to start talking about all the other things that were deeper in the script.
“Jordan is really interested in the cultural conversation that occurs after his films. They’re made for interaction and interrogation.
“He puts a lot of time, effort and skill into creating that kind of tapestry where you can go and watch it again and take new things out of it.”
For someone who’s just scared the bejesus out of a lot of people, Nyong’o is no personal fan of horror herself but had to cop catching up on the classics when she took on the project.
Even after watching so many of them, her anxiety did not abate sitting through the bone-chilling experiences.
“I love to scare people. I do not like to be scared,” she said.
“So I’ve always imagined it would be nice to be in a horror film, but I hadn’t been into them in the previous two decades of my life. This was a film that required me to watch other films and I realised that too late!
“It was unnerving.”
Us is in cinemas now.
Share your movies and TV obsessions: @wenleima