Film actors are judged in so many ways: the box-office take of their movies, the possibility of awards nominations, the scale of their luxury endorsements, or whether you forgot to eat your popcorn because you’re so utterly entranced by what they’re doing on the giant screen in front of you. But sometimes success simply means they made the ludicrous appear plausible.
In other words, take a bow, Lupita Nyong’o. In the new espionage thriller The 355, the Kenyan-Mexican actor plays one of a stacked deck of covert female operatives fighting a doomsday scenario. Nyong’o goes full cyber-geek as Khadijah Adiyeme, a former MI5 agent who can not only throw a punch but run a complete spectrum of digital operations from her keyboard. Could you casually pull off the phrase “parallel infinity-bit encryption systems”? Lupita Nyong’o can.
“You just gave me PTSD because those lines were not easy, my friend,” Nyong’o says. “That was the most difficult bit of the role – all this tech speak and acting like I knew what I was talking about. All of those words make sense on their own, but putting them together it was like, ‘Wait, what?’”
To be honest, I tell Nyong’o in our Zoom call, her frantic hacking-the-enemy’s-hard-drive typing also looked quite authoritative.
“No hand doubles – just me,” she declares, laughing at the memory of being on-set and on the spot. “I just remember feeling very self-conscious because when you’re filming you can’t see the screen. If you’re lucky, you’ve seen a mock-up of what it might look like. You’re making it up as you go and it can feel silly.”
The 38-year-old Academy Award winner, whose previous credits include 12 Years a Slave, Black Panther, Us and the last Star Wars trilogy, looks impeccably well put together. She’s wearing a vivid floral patterned shirt that has a Jackson Pollock botany vibe and royal blue detail that matches her nails. But Nyong’o is not afraid of self-deprecation and her laugh has a gusting, inclusive enthusiasm. She is serious about the work, but quick to poke fun at herself.
Somewhere, she says, there is video footage of her practising a stunt from The 355 where she had to wear a safety harness and leap from one platform down several metres to another – not an easy procedure when you have a fear of heights. During the first practice leap, Nyong’o admits, she screamed for dear life, but she kept climbing back up and jumping again. In the film she looks graceful and purposeful, a woman more than ready to do what the movie business has traditionally considered a man’s job.
“I got on board because I hadn’t seen a film like this and I wanted to see a film like this. I wasn’t even aware that it didn’t exist, but once it was bought to my attention I was like, ‘Of course!’” Nyong’o says. “We learn so much by example, right? We learn so much when we see ourselves mirrored. If you can’t see it you can’t be it. The fact that now you have these women as spies at the helm of a movie, I hope it gives people an epiphany.”
The idea for The 355 began at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where Nyong’o’s co-star and producer, Jessica Chastain, was serving on the jury. The French seaside city was plastered in promotional posters for upcoming blockbusters, including action franchises and spy thrillers headlined by men. Where was the female equivalent, Chastain wondered, and who would fill the lead roles in this sharp-as squad? note: Deadly Frontline Movie
A conversation between Chastain and frequent collaborator Simon Kinberg, a writer and producer turned director whose blockbuster credits included The Martian, Mr & Mrs Smith and numerous X-Men instalments, swiftly moved the idea from concept to creation. The pair reached out to women they’d long wanted to work with: Penelope Cruz, Diane Kruger, Bingbing Fan, and Nyong’o. Those names got them advance sales financing, while letting the actors have input to the scripting process between Kinberg and playwright Theresa Rebeck. note: G Storm Movie
“You have a really good idea, but how does that translate into story and character so that it’s compelling?” Nyong’o says. “What does it shift or change in me as a viewer? What does it shift or change in me as a performer? That’s what I responded to with every draft I read.”
“I was definitely interested in Khadijah as coming across as intelligently as she was written, because the people who hold these jobs have a large threshold for stress and are extremely focused and surgical in the way they move through the world. But I wanted to have glimpses of the other parts of her life because you’re not just your job. Her having a tenderness and vulnerability was important to me because we all do.”
Divided by national allegiances but united by harsh necessity, the assembled spies – Chastain’s American, Cruz’s Colombian, Fan’s Chinese, Kruger’s German, and Nyong’o’s Brit – deliver the full gamut of the genre’s expectations: a glamorous Bond entrance, Bourne-brutal hand-to-hand combat and Mission Impossible’s ploys are woven through a ticking-clock plot. The cast command the screen with commitment and physical prowess.
The 355 marries Hollywood’s commercial instincts to a welcome act of female representation. It’s a slick first step, but there is added resonance for Nyong’o in that she brings a woman of colour to this star-studded project. Having been part of Black Panther, which used an African lens to broaden the Marvel template, Nyong’o knows how audiences respond to seeing themselves on the screen in new ways.