Lupita Nyong’o burst onto the scene in 2013 when she starred as Patsey in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave. Her powerful performance went on to win her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress the following year. She also immediately captivated the world with her intelligence, poise and style.
Two years later, the Yale School of Drama alum has taken on her biggest role to date. Nyong’o plays Maz Kanata in the highly anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens, out this Friday [December 18]. The character has been shrouded in mystery due to the beauty not appearing in any of the lead-up trailers.
Kanata is a CGI character, created using motion capture technology. This is the same methodology director Peter Jackson used to bring Gollum (played by Andy Serkis) to life in Lord of The Rings. Serkis worked with Lupita on Star Wars, advising her on using motion capture.
We had the opportunity to exclusively interview Nyong’o about working on The Force Awakens.
Tell us a little bit about your character, Maz Kanata.
“Maz Kanata is a pirate and she runs the bar and she has colorful past.”
What can fans expect?
“To meet her! I’m afraid I can’t tell you much about her, but I think fans can expect it’s a continuation as far as I’m concerned of the Star Wars saga and I think [J.J. Abrams] does a really great job of keeping the integrity of the world that we’ve grown to know and love and still be able to integrate new technology and new storylines into it.”
Your character is 100 percent CGI. Can you talk about the process of working on the character?
“It was a steep learning curve, and I was fortunate enough to have Andy Serkis on the project as well and he offered me some advice. His advice was to go about playing the character as you would any other character you’ve played. The actor’s the same, there’s just all of these technical things added to it you have to adjust to. Of course I had to adjust to not having hair, makeup, or costumes to rely on, to know who I was as a character. In their place I had lots of dots all over my body the cameras then captured, and calibrated that and transferred my performance onto my computer generated character.”
Were there any particular challenges with this process?
“The whole process was very challenging. Just getting used to the fact I wasn’t gonna be in costume, as I didn’t have that to rely on to know who I was. It’s an added challenge to the imagination to keep in mind who you are in your character and how that body would navigate and relationships.”
What do you think makes this installment of Star Wars unique?
“For the first time, we’re carrying on the story we were introduced to 30 years ago and it’s unique in the sense that this time there’s more female characters. I think it’s a reflection of the world we live in, where females do play a major role and are at the forefront. I think there’s a lot of diversity, cultural diversity in the cast as well, which is very exciting.”
Star Wars is known for its universal messages. What do you love about the themes in this film?
“I think why we all love Star Wars, why it appeals to so many people, is it’s a classic human journey where there’s a boy who goes on a mission to find his purpose and he goes on this odyssey and he meets all of these interesting creatures and characters on his way. That’s a playground for the imagination. I think we like that and we identify with that desire to find a higher calling, a purpose, a drive in our lives. I think all of these relationships are relationships we can recognize, even the relationship between R2-D2 and C-3PO, these droids, one of whom we can never understand really, but we grasp his sentiment. That relationship was always very meaningful to me.”
Did you ever think when you were a student at Yale you’d be in Star Wars?
“I never thought when I was a student anywhere that I would be in Star Wars. [laughs] This is really something I’m still trying to come to terms with, the fact that I’m really in Star Wars and I feel blessed and honored to be part of it. And to do so with the original cast! Even all these years later, they were able to come back and reprise their roles. That I get to be a part of that is really special.”
Can you speak about collaborating with J.J Abrams to build the character and what you admire about him as a filmmaker?
“What I admire about J.J. as a filmmaker is he has a vision and it’s very strong and sweet. He knows how to go about executing that vision. Along the way he was able to welcome the actors into the process. I was welcomed into the conversation about Maz and her evolution when I got the role, which is a really unique thing J.J. does. He has this confidence in his work where you can really rely on his skill and his intention. He’s very empathetic and he has a very big heart, so you know at the heart of this it’s going to be something that will be moving as well as entertaining.”