"I have trouble finding the words that really capture what happened. It was very, very absurd and surreal to be in those circumstances," says Nyong'o, recalling her Oscars win in 2014 and the whirlwind that followed. A Yale School of Drama graduate with some regional theatre experience, Nyong'o made her feature film debut with Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave." The role propelled her to international stardom when the film was awarded the Academy Award for Best Picture and she, Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role.
"I feel like it's going to take a number of years before I can adequately express that rollercoaster," says the star. Nyong'o was one of the several famous faces squeezed into Ellen DeGeneres' star-packed selfie from the night, a photo that was re-tweeted over three million times and broke records on the social network. "In the moment, we were just like, seizing the day! Ellen DeGeneres said 'Come be in a selfie,' and we were like, 'Okay!'" laughs Nyong'o. "We really didn't think it was going to be a phenomenon."
Right now, with her Off-Broadway role in Danai Gurira's Eclipsed, which officially opened at The Public Theater Oct. 14, the actress is enjoying settling back into "normalcy" somewhat. "It's finally living, at home," says the New York-based Nyong'o. "I'm finally settling into my apartment since everything happened."
What Nyong'o isn't settling for, are less-challenging roles or material following her impressive "12 Years" debut. Her latest role packs a powerful and emotional punch. She plays a young woman being held captive by a rebel commander in war-torn Liberia. "For me, I love to take on roles that require me to learn something new and really challenge my understanding of what it takes to be a successful human being," she says. "In that sense, I guess I am drawn to really hard material."
Nyong'o's character in Eclipsed is the youngest and the newest of the women living at the compound and her introduction to the world of guerilla warfare begins to affect her in irreversible ways, blurring the lines of morality, friendship and loyalty. "She is navigating this world in much the same way as an American audience is navigating it because it's new to her," explains Nyong'o. "So in that sense, you can relate."
"I think its important to consider: 'Who would you be if a war were to break out? What would you do? Would you pick up a gun?'" asks the actress. "Those are questions that I think are really interesting and important for us to be more human humans.
"I think this story is a human story; it just happens to be set in Liberia within those circumstances," continues Nyong'o. "What you find is five women who are dealing with the war in very different ways."
In the show's Playbill, the Public's artistic director Oskar Eustis describes Eclipsed as "a beautifully constructed parable about women and power and the difficult, morally complex choices which women have to make in conditions of oppression."
Gurira's play takes place in 2003, at the height of the conflict in Liberia, a civil war that saw rebels systematically moving through the country, looting homes, kidnapping women, enlisting child soldiers and displacing more than 50,000 Liberians and Sierra Leonean refugees.
Nyong'o was already familiar with the work, as she had understudied the same role during her time at Yale. "It was a play that really struck me, the strength of it…I was really, really drawn to it then," she says of Eclipsed. "I felt back then that I had to do this play, and it felt like the right time to get back on the stage and just flex those muscles."
Nyong'o says that she is "loving" being back on the stage, especially to be working with such "a really phenomenal group of women." She also says that ideally, she'd prefer to continue to act for both the stage and screen. As for making her Broadway debut? "Who doesn't want to do Broadway, right?" she asks, laughing. "Yes for sure, at some point."
The award-winning star has a bright future ahead of her, whatever it will entail. She recently finished filming on three major films: the latest "Star Wars," Mira Nair's "Queen of Katwe" and she is the voice of Rashka in Disney's new "Jungle Book" film, slated for release in 2016. Despite her success, Nyong'o remains humble and down-to-earth. "A lot of the external circumstances of my life may have changed," she says. "But internally, I feel like the same person, which is great."