It has been a busy time for Lupita Amondi Nyong’o. Last year the actress won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, for her portrayal of Patsey in “12 Years a Slave” (2013). This marks the first time a Kenyan and Mexican actress receives the award. Nyong’o was born in Mexico City of Kenyan parents, moving to Kenya in her youth. In fact, she is familiar with Spanish and her birthplace, recently attending a Star Wars Q&A in Mexico with fellow Latino Star Wars alum Oscar Issac.
Nyong’o has had a pleasure working with the team behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens to develop her first motion capture character role. As of writing, there is little clue about her portrayal of Maz Kanata, who simply put, is a 1,000 year old pirate who owns a bar. Very little information of the role and its purpose within the have been offered, all being part of Lucasfilm/Disney’s elaborate and leak-proof campaign to keep the storyline of this new incarnation of the franchise very mum.
“I auditioned for J.J. the week of the (film) offers in the year that I was nominated so I was very busy. I don’t remember knowing it was a Star Wars audition, but I auditioned for a role with a substitute script.”
Two months later director J.J. Abrams called her about the character of Maz Kanata, a character that he was thinking of casting Nyong’o in. She was definitely all ears.
“He asked me if I was interested in doing such a thing. And I was because motion capture for me was a challenge that an actress doesn’t get very often. To play something that’s not limited by ones physical circumstance appealed to me especially after playing Patsey in “12 Years A Slave” which was so much about my body and the economy of my body. So then I read the script and a few days later I got an email from my agent telling me that I would indeed be in Star Wars.”
Once casting had been finalized for the main roles in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Nyong’o went ahead and got excited. “I felt pretty good. I mean I was excited about it I was really looking forward to playing motion capture and working with J.J. and being in Star Wars.”
Nyong’o and the team of skilled crew helped her craft the character of Kanata, with her method being the same as with any other character she had ever portrayed. The learning experience that came with becoming a motion capture character was helped along by a master of the craft, Andy Serkis, who has worked extensively in motion capture on film series such as “The Lord of the Rings” and the “Planet of the Apes” reboot.
“Serkis is the master of motion capture, (and) was a great help to me, generous with his time. He gave me lots of advice. One of the things that stuck with me was in the beginning he said to me ‘you have to go about creating Maz Kanata like you would any other character you’d play. The work of the actor is exactly the same in terms of knowing who you are and how you are the way you are, and what you want.’”
Kanata has real feelings and real ambitions that she had to extract from herself to portray the character. Nyong’o details the extent of crafting this very technical character.
“I got onto this project at a time when she (Kanata) was still in development J.J. and I had lengthy conversations about who she was and what her role was within the film, and it was something that was always in flux. We were always experimenting and looking for the right mix of things for Maz to be. So I think it was a challenge overall because it was a process.”
One of the most daunting things, along with the constant evolutions of this character, was the motion capture itself. “Definitely, the motion capture is bizarre, because it was the first time I played a character and didn’t have hair, makeup and costume. You have to like constantly keep in mind that in the end it’s not my body that will be experienced it will be another, and how that affects my performance was important.”
As for the purpose of her character within the story, Nyong’o politely says “I can’t really tell you too much.”
She does add one hint. “I will say that watching the original episodes was really important as well as getting familiar with the Star Wars universe. Maz Kanata is a pirate so I definitely scoured the history that is Star Wars and other things. What does pirate mean in the world? That was something I definitely thought about and looked for inspiration and information.”
And with that, Nyong’o ties in how this new step in the saga will feel like home to even the most fervent of Star Wars fans.“Old fans can expect to be welcomed back into a universe that they have come to know and love, there’s something so familiar about this film. Then, to be delighted by the new characters, the new storylines, the new technology, all these things that are seamlessly worked into the universe that already exists. I think it’s going to be a delightful spectacle and also a moving journey that we go on, and I definitely look forward to sharing it with the world.”
Nyong’o, the Star Wars fan, adds, “my favorite character is R2-D2, he always warmed my heart, he was a character that didn’t speak a language but I got him, I felt for him, I was on the same page and that’s just a testament to the power of George Lucas’ storytelling, and the power of connection beyond language.”
Watch Lupita Nyong’o in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Out now.