Spy Spunk

I was a total fan — Lupita Nyong’o has jumped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe to play Nakia in Friday film Black Panther

  • Published 12.02.18
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Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia in Black Panther, releasing this Friday

Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar on debut for her searing portrayal of a slave called Patsey in the America of the 1840s in the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave. She followed it up with Mira Nair’s 2016 film Queen of Katwe and voiced the wolf Raksha in Jon Favreau’s blockbuster The Jungle Book the same year. This Friday, the 34-year-old Kenyan-Mexican actress plays spunky spy Nakia in the Marvel superhero biggie Black Panther, starring Chadwick Boseman as the eponymous hero. A chat with Lupita.  

What was your initial exposure to Marvel?

I’d seen The Avengers (2012) with some friends and absolutely loved it. I remember saying then, ‘I have to be a part of that world! Even if it’s just as an extra in the background!’ I was a total fan.

Were you familiar with Black Panther?

I made myself familiar very quickly! I became really fascinated with the world of Wakanda (the fictional African nation of which T’Challa/ Black Panther is king), right from its origin in the ’60s, and the series started by Ta-Nehisi Coates. So I’ve definitely sampled the Black Panther comics.

Did you see the Black Panther portrayal in Captain America: Civil War?

I definitely saw it. By the time Captain America: Civil War came out, I was already signed onto the project. So it was my first homework. It was really cool to see Chadwick embody T’Challa and see what he brought to it. It was also really exciting to get that glimpse of what Wakanda could be in the future as well.

What was appealing about the project?

So many things. First of all, I had been wanting to work with Ryan Coogler (the film’s director), who I think is brilliant, in addition to wanting be a part of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). And then the fact that this was going to be Marvel’s first black superhero, and that he is an African king, and the fact that we were going to be creating this really dope African country and populate it with all sorts of badass African characters — it was a no-brainer, honestly!

Chadwick Boseman

What does Chadwick Boseman bring to the character?

What doesn’t he bring?! Chadwick is just so stately, so regal, and has so much depth and gravitas as an actor. I really think he was destined for this role. He’s extremely handsome; easy on the eyes. He also has incredible martial arts training as well, and he brought that to the role. Also he is an insane drummer — people might want to know that! He has incredible rhythm. So all of this feeds his T’Challa. I think he wears the crown very well, so to speak.  

Tell us about your character.

Nakia is a bit of a rebel but also a loyalist to her country. She is in conflict with some of the ideals of her nation and wants to go her own way, but she is also really eager to serve the country she loves so much. She and T’Challa, now that he is king, are at odds as to what the way forward is for the nation. But they also have some history together, so they have to come to terms with that and figure out how to forge ahead.

How did you connect with your character?

I connected with her free spirit, and her sense of duty, honestly. I love a woman who goes her own way and is independent, and I am also really someone who depends on my family and friends and feels a connection to my people, and maybe has a sense of responsibility to “make them proud”. So I really related to that balancing act within oneself.

What was the stunt training like?

The stunt training was intense, to say the least. But as I got my ass kicked, I felt more connected to Nakia’s warrior spirit. She is a woman who has travelled the world, and so her fighting style is informed by her experiences in the world. 
Nakia’s fighting style is mixed, and as Ryan described it, “street”, which is a contrast to the Dora Milaje (a special force that fights for Wakanda) who have a way more graceful, more traditional style of fighting.  She is a ‘by any means necessary’ kind of girl! So there was judo, jiu-jitsu, Filipino martial arts, Muay Thai and a bit of Capoeira thrown in.

What conversations did you have with Ryan Coogler about your character?

Ryan is a director who’s very devoted to the characters he’s written on the page and really interested in making them as well-rounded as possible. So we came at Nakia from all sorts of angles — her history, her inner life, her style, her relationships. It was great to have a partner like Ryan to flesh that out. He’s really interested in working with what the actor has to bring to the table to deepen and flesh the character out all through.

What can you say about your character’s look?

I love Nakia’s look. She is this world traveller, so her style is definitely influenced by the experiences she’s had. It’s grounded and pragmatic, but it also has a funk to it. I love that about her. Also, she wears the colour of the River Tribe, which is green.

What kind of a society does the film present?

We have here a Marvel universe that is unapologetically black. And to see us occupy an African country with kings and queens and warriors is so inspiring. It’s an aspirational nation that is rejuvenating to the human spirit. 

It’s just an incredible world to occupy. And I hope that people who see this can be equally inspired. It was healing for the African child in me to see this version of an African nation that is at the top of its game and that really has to reckon with itself what role it’s going to play with and to the rest of the world. It’s extremely exciting.

Tell us about the cultural diversity of the cast.

The cultural diversity is that the cast that has been put together to bring Wakanda to life comes from all over the globe. We’re talking Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Kenya, Uganda, Germany, America, England, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. There is so much African cultural diversity in this film.

Not to mention the Asian angle, the European angle, and the American angle, so I think this film has us look at the word ‘diversity’ differently. I think often times diversity is a word that we use to describe anything that’s not white. But in this film we’re talking about the diversity within a very, very large African population that has been assembled to bring this one nation to life. And I think that’s extremely important and something worth celebrating in and of itself.

Do you feel that Marvel is culturally and ethnically inclusive?

With the power of fantasy and sci-fi that Marvel offers us, we get to project our world into a fantastical space, and in so doing we’re able to better look at ourselves. The fact that Marvel has populated that fantastical world with people who look like the people on earth is commendable. Because it is as it should be, and I’m glad to be a member of that fantastical universe.

What will set this film apart?

I hope that Black Panther isn’t separate from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and that it just offers itself to the very intricate and elaborate universe that is Marvel. This film presents a different aspect of it, and I hope that people are able to identify with it specifically but also to celebrate it as being part and parcel of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.

How important is it to tell this story now?

I think we could all use a dose of fantasy and an awakening of our imaginations. Wakanda is something to aspire to. In a sense it’s what we could be, should be, and may become. That’s worth looking at. I feel right now the world is in a moment where we could really use some rejuvenation and some inspiration, and also just a moment to forget how difficult the real world can be and focus on how hard things are for this imaginary nation called Wakanda. What I love is that Wakanda is a country that anyone in our world can become a citizen of.  It’s a country that you become a citizen of if you just buy into the imagination of it. And that is powerful, especially now.

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