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Lupita Nyong'o, Essence

Essence

Lupita Nyong'o is kicking off 2016 a month early.

The actress is profiled in Essence's January issue, which marks her first time appearing on the magazine's cover. After winning an Academy Award in 2013 for her role in 12 Years a Slave, the in-demand actress booked a high-profile role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and continued her reign as a red carpet style icon. But for Nyong'o, the experience was a tad surreal. "When I dreamed of being an actor, I didn't dream of the praise that would come with it," she says. "I didn't dream of the awards. I dreamed of inhabiting different characters. That was the dream."

Nyong'o is grateful for her success, of course, but it was also stifling. "After 12 Years a Slave and the quote-unquote meteoric rise, I felt like there was a moment where I was suffering from whiplash," she explains. "I had talked so much about who I was that I'd forgotten who I was."

It's been nearly three years since Nyong'o last appeared onscreen, but her star continued to rise due in part to her red carpet appearances. Still, the actress admits she doesn't always feel comfortable posing for photographers. "It's not a natural environment for a human being to inhabit. You're one person, and hundreds of flashes are going off in your face and people are yelling your name…and you're standing there to be judged, so you're kind of complicit in it. I don't think anyone ever gets used to it. It becomes familiar and you stop shaking as much and your body gets used to that level of shock," Nyong'o tells Essence. "But it's like being onstage: You never stop getting butterflies. It's one of the things that reminds you that you care."

Lupita Nyong'o, Essence

Greg Lotus/ESSENCE

One of the things Nyong'o cares deeply about is her role as Maz Kanta in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Recalling how director J.J. Abrams brought her onboard, she says, "I was on the way to the beach and all of sudden J.J.'s on the phone. I asked to see the script and they flew someone to Morocco with the script so I could read it. I was immediately interested in the character. I like to get lost in the transformation and I felt like this character would offer me that." Asked to give a little insight into her character, Nyong'o demurs. "I can say that she's strong and has a colorful past and that's it before they shoot me down," she says, half-jokingly.

Essence's January 2016 issue is on newsstands now.