Africa’s golden boy and girl sit down to discuss diversity, the Oscars and politics. The Daily Show host, Trevor Noah and Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o were recently interviewed for The New York Times.The complete interview is included below, a definite must read.
The pair met recently for brunch at the Dutch in SoHo. Over beet salads and a cheese omelet (for Ms. Nyong’o) and a bagel with smoked salmon (for Mr. Noah), they discussed the subtler challenges of diversity, childhoods lived under oppressive governments and a new spin on “The Ugly Ducking.”
Philip Galanes: Let’s start with #OscarsSoWhite, since we have the last actor of color to win one.
Trevor Noah: He makes you sound like an endangered species.
PG: Isn’t she? There hasn’t been an acting nominee of color in two years.
TN: But as a Hollywood outsider, can I say that asking, “Whose stories are being told?” is a cop-out. Look at the history that’s being taught. People of color have a limited berth in those stories. To a certain extent, we all went through the same thing.
Lupta Nyong’o: In a film like “12 Years a Slave,” race is of the utmost importance. But there are stories outside the race narrative that everyone can participate in. But we don’t. It’s about expanding our imagination about who can play the starry-eyed one.
LN: We also have to ask ourselves what merits Oscar prestige. Often, they’re period stories. And for people of color, they end up being about slavery or civil rights. A blockbuster won’t do it. Do I have to be in a big Elizabethan gown?
TN: It’s always been a joke about the Oscars: If you want to win, lose weight, gain weight or get ugly, like Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club” or Charlize Theron in “Monster.”
LN: Those big leaps of courage.
PG: But even those films were based on true stories.
LN: “True” is a definite advantage.
TN: But also a limitation. We have to keep going back to Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. My question is: Can’t we remove “true story” and go for “amazing story”?
PG: But wouldn’t there still be barriers to diversity? I bet when Lupita told her theater producers that she wanted to do “Eclipsed,” a play about victimized women in Africa, no one yelled hurray.
LN: There’d been talk of bringing that play to New York since 2009, when I understudied in it at Yale. But Lynn Nottage’s play “Ruined” was on then. And there was a feeling that there wasn’t room for two plays about Africa and war to exist at the same time.
TN: God, that’s weird.
LN: I had never seen five African women on stage telling their story — ever! It’s so specific that it captures the universal. I was obstinate about doing it. And when the “12 Years” whirlwind hit, people started to approach me. And the Public Theater took me up on doing it.
PG: So powerful people — like Oscar winners — can make diversity.
LN: I’m hardly a powerful person.
PG: If you say so. This reminds me of the contretemps at “The Daily Show” before Jon Stewart left — about the lack of diversity on the writing staff. Have you been working on that?
TN: When it comes to diversifying, I had never realized how ingrained people’s mentality can be. It’s not even conscious. When I was looking for new people to try on the show, the network sent out all their tentacles. And people sent in audition tapes. And 95 percent of them were white and male. I was like: Does nobody else want to be a part of this show? Does nobody else even want a job?
PG: What did you do?
TN: I said, “I want more diversity.” And they said, “But this is what we’re getting.” So I said, “Then I will go out and look for it in the street.”
LN: However they were reaching out was not reaching into diverse communities.
TN: So I went to all the young comedians I knew — black, Hispanic, female, whatever — and I said, “Are you interested?” And they all said: “Are you crazy? Of course, I’m interested.” So I asked, “Why didn’t you audition?” And they said, “We didn’t know about it.” But they told me they’d sent it out to all the agents and managers. And they all went: “Oh, that’s where you made the mistake. We can’t get agents or managers.” We can say we want diversity, but there’s this little roadblock that no one tells you about.
LN: The gatekeepers.
PG: The employer may not be racist, but the institution still is.
LN: We’re at this interesting moment when prejudice is in the subconscious a lot of the time. Where prejudice occurs before you’ve even had a conscious thought. The laws have changed, but now the battle is with the mind. And that’s much harder to get to.
TN: Especially when people feel attacked. People are always asking me, “Why aren’t you angry?” Because I grew up in a world where being an angry black person got you nowhere. It got you shot or arrested. There’s a place for anger, but you can get so much further with diplomacy and empathy. You have to feel for the other person, even if you think they’re completely wrong. And they think the same about you.
PG: But it seems unfair: being discriminated against and having to point it out gently.
TN: Freedom is hard work.
LN: And change only comes when the conversation is happening in all forms at all times. Not just one tactic is going to do it. It’s got to be a convergence.
PG: Not like the way we only talk about #OscarsSoWhite in February? Or gun violence after a mass shooting?
TN: That’s a function of the way we consume information. The media needs to move on or people won’t click. When I talk to journalists about how they get rated now, it’s not how good they are, it’s how many people click on their stories. You can’t write about an important issue every day because people will click on it less and less. It’s, what’s next?
LN: And sensation sells.
TN: But you know the irony of #OscarsSoWhite? If you were talking with two white people, they would get to discuss their achievements, their hopes and dreams, maybe a passion project. But we can’t not talk about the Oscars, or we get, “Don’t you care?” But if we do, we get, “Is that all you talk about?” It’s a vicious cycle.
LN: I feel like clapping and singing right now! You said that just right. It cuts down on human experience.
PG: Then let’s turn to your work: In “12 Years” and “Eclipsed,” you played characters that were truly pitiable. But I never pitied them; you took me someplace else.
LN: What attracted me to both projects was the agency of those characters. At first glance, they look like victims. But the writing offers them complexity. They’re deep. They have likes, strong dislikes, needs, fears. And as an actor, I’m always looking for that. Those are the things I need to hook onto. Because sympathy is not nearly as interesting as empathy. There’s so much more to learn by stepping into someone’s shoes than by saying “poor you” from a safe distance.
PG: It’s the same in comedy. You say some awful things, but we’re right there with you. Is it the laughter?
TN: It’s the reason doctors use laughing gas. It’s your body protecting you.
LN: From the pain.
TN: You laugh until you cry. People understand that once you step into a comic space, there is complete honesty — without judgment. And there are fewer and fewer places where we can be honest without repercussion. People are afraid of being attacked for their opinions. But what comedy does is bring us together: “Here’s the truth. Here’s how I feel.” And all of a sudden, you feel the audience going: “Yes, yes. I thought I was the only one.”
PG: Growing up under apartheid, were you in a big rush to tell the truth?
TN: Not really. We just love making people laugh. It’s an African thing: sitting around, talking as much trash as you can, getting people to laugh hard.
PG: But, Trevor, you had an extreme setup: a black mother and a white father who weren’t allowed to mix — legally.
TN: My story isn’t a pity story. It wasn’t a world of pity. We were in our lives.
LN: That’s the way you preserve your dignity.
TN: I thought I was lucky because I knew who my dad was. I knew kids who didn’t know their dad. True, I didn’t have access to him, but I knew how he felt. My mom was like: “Jesus didn’t have his dad, either. You have a stepdad.” People always make it seem like there’s one experience that’s the gold standard to aim for. I didn’t grow up that way.
LN: Neither did I. I think it came from watching TV from around the world. I knew there was my way and all the other ways.
TN: Did you ever see kids running upstairs in sitcoms and wonder what that was like?
LN: What I loved was when they walked in the front door and took off their coats. I loved those coats.
TN: Coats and stairs. I couldn’t believe a second floor was a real thing.
PG: You were born in Mexico, Lupita, while your family was in political exile. You all went back to Kenya when you were a baby. But was there a lingering fear?
LN: My parents shielded us from a lot. It would be dangerous for us to know things because then we could be a target. So they raised us with a semblance of normalcy. There were times when we were under house arrest and couldn’t go to school. I knew we were in a different situation than my friends.
PG: How did you just say that like it wasn’t a big deal?
LN: Even when things were out of sorts, my mother ran the house like always. You were in that bathtub at 6; you were in bed at 7. I remember my father being gone for long stretches when he was under house arrest. But I was optimistic enough to hold onto my mother’s saying, “He’ll be back.” I wasn’t allowed to lean into it.
TN: One of the best things I ever learned was boxing. My trainer kept drilling into me: “Understand that I’m going to hit you in the face. You can’t get angry about it because then you’ll stop thinking rationally. I’m not trying to hurt you; I’m trying to win.” It’s a fantastic mind game. You have to think.
LN: You can’t let your emotions get the better of you. And if you’re on a winning streak, the last thing you want to do is pat yourself on the back.
TN: Not too happy, not too sad.
PG: But you’re both describing a world where you control your emotions. How about when your feelings get hurt or you feel jealous?
TN: Then you work harder.
LN: And we have a creative outlet. I get to be a drama queen when I’m acting, so I can take a break from that in my life.
TN: Comedy is literally my therapy. I can get onstage and tell my deepest, darkest secret. And not only do I not feel like I’ve overshared, the audience doesn’t judge me for it. Because someone in the audience is going, “Yeah, that happened to me, too.”
PG: Let’s end with something surreal: You were not considered beautiful as children.
TN: God, no! I was the most nerdy, strange-looking kid. Big feet, ears sticking out. No question of girls. There was no question of asking one to the prom.
LN: I got stood up at my prom. He didn’t show up.
PG: And not beautiful?
LN: I was always confident, but I shed my tears. They told me I was too dark for TV. But I came to accept myself. And a lot of that had to do with Alek Wek, the way she was embraced by the modeling industry. Oprah telling her how beautiful she was. I was like, “What is going on here?” It was very powerful. Something in my subconscious shifted. That’s why this conversation is so important — because it burns possibility into people’s minds.
TN: I wish I could rewrite “The Ugly Duckling.” Because after the ugly duckling becomes a swan, people go around dumping on the swan, saying, “Oh, you swan, you don’t know what it’s like to be an ugly duckling.”
LN: I used to be teased and teased. They called me whack mamba, awful names.
TN: Now they act like we’ve had it easy all our lives. I can’t help that my face fixed itself.
LN: You know what I gained? Compliments never grow old. They’re delightful every time.
-NEW YORK TIMES