Before playing slave Patsey in Steve McQueen's brutal tale of a free black man kidnapped into slavery in the 19th-century South, Nyong'o was virtually unknown. Now, as a supporting-actress Oscar nominee, she's become a breakout star.
When she received the call from McQueen saying she had landed the role, "I was so elated," she recalls. "But then I immediately panicked. I was so scared."
No wonder; this would be her first major role after attending the Yale School of Drama. Yet shooting the film gave her the confidence she needed coming out of school. "It was an amazing feeling," she says.
Now, with all eyes on what she'll do next, the actress refuses to stress about securing another role that's equally celebrated.
"The bar has been set very high externally and internally," she says. "But I don't want to feed into that pressure of expectation. This film was so fulfilling and artistic. I've tasted that and I obviously want to experience that kind of creative fulfillment again, but I also know that I can't replicate that. I want a varied acting experience and that may include some failure and that's healthy."
Actually, Nyong'o's next film is already on screens: She plays a flight attendant opposite Liam Neeson in the action-thriller "Non-Stop." "It was what I needed to do," she says. "It was the perfect antidote to '12 Years a Slave.' It was a different genre with different demands. It was very technical and fun."
Growing up in Kenya, Nyong'o says her parents encouraged her and her five siblings to "find out what we were called on this Earth to do and then do it to excellence."
Before former Kenya president Daniel Arap Moi allowed multiparty politics in 1991, Nyong'o' father, Peter Anyang' Nyong'o, was an advocate for democratic reform, opposing Kenya's autocratic regime. Then a political-science teacher, Nyong'o's father relocated his family to Mexico City for their safety. It was there that Nyong'o was born, yet her family returned to Kenya before she was a year old.
Nyong'o says her parents have been supportive of her Hollywood success but have also taken the excitement in stride. "It's nice to have parents like that because they're thrilled," she says. "But they're not shaken by it."
Nyong'o's father is now a Kisumu County senator and her mother, Dorothy Nyong'o, is the managing director of the Africa Cancer Foundation.
The 30-year-old actress says she wants to continue to savor every moment, even the overwhelming ones.
"The Hollywood Film Awards were really stressful," she remembers of the October ceremony, where she shared the spotlight with the likes of Julia Roberts and Matthew McConaughey. "It was the biggest press line I'd ever seen. It was difficult to orient myself, but there are familiar faces now, so it becomes less daunting."
Not only armed with "terrific acting chops," as Goldberg describes them, Nyong'o's striking beauty and bold fashion choices have made her one of the most talked-about actresses on the red carpet.
From the turquoise Gucci column gown she wore to the Screen Actors Guild Awards to the emerald green Christian Dior dress she chose for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards, she's what "12 Years a Slave" screenwriter John Ridley calls "undeniably poised and graceful."
Never the girl who thumbed through Vogue (now she appears in the magazine as the face of fashion house Mui Mui), Nyong'o began buying fashion magazines in preparation for all of the formal events she expected to attend after the success of "12 Years."