Lupita Nyong'o loves to fight. The Oscar winner is a peaceful, soothing presence in conversation, but has racked up an enviable portfolio over the last few years of action blockbusters and hair-raising thrillers such as Black Panther and Jordan Peele’s Us. As the new year dawns, Nyong’o’s fearsome side returns in The 355, an all-female spy thriller in which she plays a formidable MI6 agent.
“I was keen to get back into the physicality of all things action movies,” says Nyong’o. “I love that aspect of my job – the ability to really just stretch the abilities of my body. I won't have this body forever and won't be this capable forever, and for that reason I'm attracted to the action genre. I also had to face my fear of heights; I had a stunt in which I had to jump from one floor to another, very far for me, and I had to work up to it. It offered some challenges and things for me to overcome.”
The 355 follows Mace (Jessica Chastain), a spiky CIA agent who joins forces with her old colleague Khadija (Nyong’o), a computer specialist and secret agent, as well as a hotheaded German agent (Diane Kruger) and a Colombian psychologist (Penelope Cruz) when a top-secret digital weapon falls into the hands of international criminals, with potentially world-altering consequences.
Directed by Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Dark Phoenix), the film was the brainchild of Chastain, who saw a gap in the market for a female-led espionage thriller that united women from around the world.
“Jessica called me, I was actually in Australia at the time,” says Nyong’o. “She walked me through this idea, and she posed this question that was, ‘When have you seen an espionage thriller with women at the helm?’ And I thought, ‘Well, I've never seen that.’
“She also said we could think about the things we haven't done yet on film, that we hadn’t had the chance to do, and perhaps work that into the story… It was really fresh. I love the idea of shifting the narrative and creating stories that centre the female experience, especially as far as it goes to international representation of women.”
In terms of what Nyong’o hadn’t done before, she wanted Khadija to represent women who rarely had the chance to see themselves as action heroes. “I've never seen a Muslim character in this kind of role, so Khadija is a culturally Muslim,” she says. She also wanted to subvert spy character tropes by creating a character of apparent contradictions. Khadija is both intelligent and emotional; capable of both ferocity and softness.
“Khadija is devilishly smart in an area that I know nothing about,” Nyong’o laughs. “The cybersecurity aspect of my character was very intimidating, and extremely tough for me to wrap my head around. I got a D in computer science when I was in school, so to play a character who not only understands what's going on, but can manipulate it and represent it in sentences the way I can talk about baking a cake – that's amazing to me.
“It was important, though, that we also got a sense of other aspects of her,” she continues. “Getting a glimpse of her personal life was important. To be a spy, you have to be able to withstand a whole lot of stress, and remain focused and determined, and Khadija is very sturdy as a result, right? Because she has a lot of information coming her way, and the only way to really get to the other side is if you remain cool. But I also wanted her to have a tenderness and a vulnerability. Even those people who have tough exteriors – there is a soft spot somewhere in there.”
These opposing forces are shown through the way Khadija is depicted as being in a loving relationship, which runs contrary to the lone wolf James Bonds we’re used to seeing in the spy genre.
“The idea that a spy somehow is their own island is just not all the way accurate,” says Nyong’o. “Because at the end of the day, for spies to do what they do, they need a community. It is definitely an isolating job, I'm sure, but there are these tentacles of connection that come along with the job and that actually complicate the job. Getting a glimpse of that, and how they negotiate their families, children, lovers, all of that was part of the challenge of it, and also the opportunity to do a spy movie with the females at the helm differently.”
Being surrounded by an astounding cast of women was part of what made The 355 such a joy for Nyong’o – no less that she was working with her heroes. “These are all women whose work I've watched and who I look up to in different ways,” she says. “Penelope I've been watching since I was an itty-bitty teen, and so to be on set with her; I remember we had a meeting and everyone was there at the round table and reading our parts, and to just be a part of that and watch these prolific women work – but actually work, you know.
“Nobody comes in with their performance perfect, there's still things changing the script, changing ideas, morphing and everything. And so to see these actors at work was extremely valuable and taught me a lot. I definitely felt humbled to be a part of it, but also very much capable of being a part of it.”
It’s not all fun and games, however. While Nyong’o has some impeccable fight scenes that are equal parts elegant and ruthless, the fluidity of her fighting style is a far cry from the reality of filming these scenes. Getting it right is a long process that involves weeks of preparation, extensive choreography, and some painstaking days on set.
“Those days are long,” Nyong’o laughs. “When you're shooting an action sequence, they can be the dullest days, because you have to shoot very, very short bits in order for the whole thing to work together. You work all day on one punch, one kick and one swirl, and when it comes through in the final cut, it's like, nobody even saw it! And that is frustrating, just the detailed work that takes so long to build. It’s a love-hate relationship.”
The 355 is in cinemas from January 13