Lupita Nyong'o

Lupita Nyong'o, best supporting actress winner for her role in "12 Years a Slave", speaks on stage at the 86th Academy Awards in Hollywood. (LUCY NICHOLSON / REUTERS / March 3, 2014)

Meryl Streep had to wait three years before she received her first Oscar nomination after she graduated from the Yale School of Drama.

Lupita Nyong'o landed the role that would get her an Academy Award win for outstanding supporting actress even before she graduated in 2012, that of enslaved Patsey in this year's Oscar-nominated film "12 Years a Slave."

Many of her teachers, classmates and audience members who saw the stunning, poised and talented actress on stage at Yale Rep or in school presentations are not surprised that Nyong'o would soon attract star attention.

"She was the kind of student you hope you get," says Ron Van Lieu, chairman of the three-year acting program at the Yale School of Drama in New Haven.

Nyong'o was a graduate of Hampshire College with a degree in film and theater studies when she auditioned for Yale, playing Juliet in a scene from "Romeo and Juliet."

"It was both astonishingly natural, intuitive and true to the language," says Van Lieu. "I wasn't watching acting as a demonstration of technique or training but someone with a deep level of imagination."

Accepting her was a "no-brainer," he says.

"She was a very open student," says Van Lieu. "Lupita was someone for whom acting up to then was an imaginative form of play and now she was trying to hold on to that but also learn technique at the same time. She was thoughtful, graceful and funny, quite capable of being silly. She loved a good time. She's serious at times but without being pretentious or grim."

Yale Roles

Nyong'o, who turned 31 the day before Oscar night, made her Rep debut as Perdita in Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale." Though it was her sole appearance at the Rep, she racked up many credits at the school. Among them were in the commedia dell'arte/clown entertainment "The Really Big Fat Show," Gertrude Stein's "Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights," Martyna Majok's new play "The Friendship of Her Thighs" and Michael Mitnick's new play "Elijah.''

"The thing what struck me most about Lupita when I first met her," says classmate Michaerl Place, "was her deep sense of authenticity. She is who she is, which in her case is a dynamic, playful, talented, present and generous friend and artist. She already had begun an exciting career when she came to grad school including starring in, producing and sometimes directing 'Shuga' for MTV and her documentary about albinism in Kenya called 'In my Genes"'was quite successful. We knew there was a powerhouse here but her ego never led the way, she always had her feet on the ground. "

She took leading roles including playing Sonya in Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" and was Katherine in Shakespeare's problematic "The Taming of the Shrew," where her character poisons everyone at the wedding banquet at the end of the play.

"I remember being struck by the grace in the face of adversity she displayed and her ability and willingness to share the tremendous depth of her character's experience with the audience," says Place. "It was our second year and she was cooking with fire."

Says that show's director Lileana Blain Cruz. "She was so brave throughout the entire process which was demanding both physically and emotionally. Lupita embraced the risk of that change [in the play's ending] and approached [it] with such a massive humanity and passionate spirit that was devastating and thrilling simultaneously. It was from that moment I realized how special Lupita was.

"I also worked with her on a more experimental production of 'Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights,' where she played the devil Mephisto, as a twin with another actor, Chris Henry. Her work revealed her versatility in handling very foreign language and another complex physical score — [which included] singing. She showed once again a stunning vulnerability and courageous open-heartedness."

Nyong'o was also in Wallace Shawn's "A Thought in Three Parts" at the Yale Cabaret. In her second year Shakespeare project, she played the boy king in "Henry VI, Parts One to Three.'' In her class presentation to theater industry professions prior to graduation, she was a stand-out in her scene from African-set "Ruined." Nyong'o also received YSD's Herschel Williams Prize, awarded to acting students with outstanding ability.

Family Ties

Nyong'o grew up in a distinguished Kenyan family. Her father Peter Anyang' Nyong'o was a pro-democracy advocate against Kenya's then-autocratic regime. After his brother mysteriously disappeared in the early '90s, he sought safety in Mexico City. It was there Lupita was born, the second of six children. In the Kenyan tradition, she was named after the events of the day so her parents named her Lupita, a diminutive of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a familiar image in the city.

The family returned to Kenya soon after she was born, the political landscape changed and her father was appointed a professor at the University of Nairobi.

In interviews she referred to her "middle class, suburban life," going to an all-girls school, acting in class plays. When she was 16, her parents sent her to Mexico to learn Spanish. (She also knows Swahili, Luo and conversational Italian.) She credits Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey's screen performances with inspiring her to become an actress.

Her father is now a senator and her mother is managing director of the Africa Cancer Foundation and her own communications company. Forbes Magazine named her cousin, Isis, one of Africa's most successful women.

Other stage credits include her professional debut when she was 14 performing "Romeo and Juliet" at the Phoenix Players in Narobi, Kenya, "The Princess and the Golden Yam" at Bantabaa Theatre and "Ruby Red" at The Co-op at Dixon Place in New York.

Nyong'o's next film is the action-thriller "Non-Stop" with Liam Neeson scheduled for release the weekend of the Oscars.

"The parental part of me is a little worried about all this hoopla and media attention." says Van Lieu, "because so much of it is not on the acting but what she's wearing and who she is with. But I think of all the people I taught she is the best one to be able to handle of all of this and she's wonderfully prepared. I just don't want people to forget she's a tremendous actor."

Yale School of Drama students haven't forgotten her either and gave the hot alum (New York, Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly magazine covers), their own affectionate salute. In the Yale Cabaret's annual "Yale School of Drag" show last month, acting student Ato Blankson-Wood worked the runway dressed as Nyong'o in a duplicate of her eye-catching red outfit she wore at the Golden Globe Awards. With the actress' cool enigmatic look down pat, he was a show-stopper, as the New Haven crowd cheered for the stunning stand-in.