photographed by Tom Munro
On how her life changed in the last year after getting her big breakthrough with 12 Years a Slave and winning the Oscar: "This is actually a conversation I look forward to having in 10 years, when all of this is behind me and I have some real perspective on what happened—because right now I'm still adjusting. I guess I feel catapulted into a different place; I have a little whiplash.... I did have a dream to be an actress, but I didn't think about being famous. And I haven't yet figured out how to be a celebrity; that's something I'm learning, and I wish there were a course on how to handle it. I have to be aware that my kinesphere may be larger than I want it to be.
I've had somebody say, "I want you at my wedding, but I don't want you to pull focus, so wear jeans!" Losing my anonymity is something that's proving to be very challenging.... It's good for your soul to walk around unnoticed; there's so much you can't do when everybody knows who you are. And I so miss those little things, like being stupid in public. I used to enjoy doing silly walks on the street with my friends. Like, you know, you're walking, and then you break out in something completely ridiculous, to kind of spook out the person walking by you. I can't really do that anymore. "
On what success means to her: "For me it's not just one thing. Every time I overcome an obstacle, it feels like success. Sometimes the biggest ones are in our head—the saboteurs that tell us we can't. I've always had that going on: "I can't," and then I do, so the voice says, "Well, that was an exception!" It's a tug-of-war between two voices: the one who knows she can and the one who's scared she can't."
On beauty standards: "European standards of beauty are something that plague the entire world—the idea that darker skin is not beautiful, that light skin is the key to success and love. Africa is no exception. When I was in the second grade, one of my teachers said, "Where are you going to find a husband? How are you going to find someone darker than you?" I was mortified. I remember seeing a commercial where a woman goes for an interview and doesn't get the job. Then she puts a cream on her face to lighten her skin, and she gets the job! This is the message: that dark skin is unacceptable. I definitely wasn't hearing this from my immediate family—my mother never said anything to that effect—but the voices from the television are usually much louder than the voices of your parents.
I come from a loving, supportive family, and my mother taught me that there are more valuable ways to achieve beauty than just through your external features. She was focused on compassion and respect, and those are the things that ended up translating to me as beauty. Beautiful people have many advantages, but so do friendly people.... I think beauty is an expression of love."