For Lupita Nyong'o, representation is paramount.
Black Panther will premiere in theaters nationwide on Feb. 16, and industry analysts say the Marvel movie is on track to earn between $100 million and $120 million at the U.S. box office. As the first comic book adaptation to feature a largely black cast, Black Panther stars Angela Bassett, Chadwick Boseman, Winston Duke, Martin Freeman, Danai Gurira, Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya, Andy Serkis, Forest Whitaker and Letitia Wright. Nyong'o met director Ryan Coogler on the award circuit in 2013, and three years later, as she was starring on Broadway in Eclipsed, "Marvel called and said that Ryan was interested in me for a role in Panther," she tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I talked to him about it, and obviously everything was hush-hush, but he walked me through his initial ideas, and I thought, 'Wait a minute? This is a Marvel movie?'"
Nyong'o agreed to star in the movie without reading the script—and she didn't receive it until shooting began. "She's an incredibly serious actress. She does a lot of homework, asks a lot of hard questions. At the same time, she's got an incredible sense of humor. She'd poke fun at me a lot," Coogler reveals in the magazine's Jan. 25 issue, out now. "On one of our last days, she and [co-star] Letitia Wright got the crew T-shirts with all the things I said collected on the back."
Nyong'o plays the warrior Nakia, whom she describes as both a "loyalist" and a "rebel."
"She wants to go her own way but also wants to serve her nation." The film centers on "what it means to be from a place and welcome others into it. T'Challa is the leader of an isolated nation that has managed to keep its autonomy and be self-determining because it has shielded itself from colonization," she says, "and how does that nation now relate with the rest of the world?"
Nyong'o was intrigued not only by the film's political themes, but also by what it represents. "We were creating an aspirational world where an African people are in charge of their own destiny. And that really appealed to me and had the little girl inside me jumping for joy," she admits. "To just have African people, black people, at the center of that narrative is so exciting."
The actress, who was raised in Kenya, found it easy to relate to Nakia. "My father raised us to stand up for what we believe in and to fight for what is right. We were always told, 'You need to make a difference in the world,'" the Oscar winner says. "I live with that insistence all the time."
In addition to adopting the same accent Boseman had used in captain America: Civil War ("There's three different clicks, like three different letters," she says), Nyong'o signed up for a six-week boot camp to get into shape. "It started off four hours a day, then it was reduced to two when I started bulking up—I remember coming home for Christmas and I couldn't fit into my clothes," Nyong'o recalls. "We would have warm-ups together, then break off and do our individual techniques. Nakia is a street fighter, so I had jujitsu and capoeira and ring blades."
It was tough, but Nyong'o—similar to her character—makes it sound easy. "I have dabbled in martial arts all my life, since I was 7, maybe—tae kwon do, capoeira, Muay Thai. It's always been an interest because in martial arts there is a mind/body relationship," she says. "You can't do it right if you're angry; how you can exert your power with a clear mind really interests me."
For more on Nyong'o, pick up a copy of The Hollywood Reporter's Jan. 25 issue.