Lupita’s Little Brother Junior Nyong’o Charting His Own Path in Acting

Junior Nyongó goes big on animation, living his childhood passion for the screen

The year is 2014, and Lupita Nyong’o, having just won an Oscar for her role in 12 Years a Slave, takes a selfie with other famous Hollywood stars Meryl Streep, Bradley Cooper, Brad Pitt, Ellen Degeneres, and others. It’s a selfie that also introduced her little brother Junior Nyong’o, then a freshman at Stetson University majoring in Theatre Arts, to the whole wide world.

While that was an iconic moment, Junior, who is also a musician and a DJ and now a graduate of UC San Diego with an MFA in Acting, is crafting his own solid path in the world of acting with roles in major theatre productions such as Hamlet, Taming of the Shrew and King Lear, all by William Shakespeare. In September, Junior also did a stage reading of Shakespeare’s Richard III, with Hollywood legends Al Pacino and Keith David.

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In the new Showmax Original animation, Twende, Junior lends his voice to the titular character, a boda-boda-riding pangolin who believes that ‘life is about the journey, not the destination.’ Without any hurry in the world, Twende ferries residents of the bustling, fictional East African city of Milima from one point to the next, working with his best friend and navigator Nuru (voiced by June Gachui).

With the first 5 episodes of Twende dropping on Showmax on 1 December, we caught up with Junior, who shared more about his character, what it means to work on his first animation project, seeking voiceover tips from his sister Lupita to nail the role, and more.

Question: Twende is your first animation role. How does that feel?

ANSWER: Animation and voice-over work are areas that I’ve always admired and wanted to work in as an actor. As well as classic morning cartoons on Saturdays, I grew up with many different types of animated content; from video games to Japanese anime like Bleach and Death Note. I would say that many of the times I have been moved to tears by a film/show, sobbing in the darkness of a movie theatre or on my couch, they have been animated.

On the surface, animation feels like it is distant from the human experience, but, in that distance, it is able to tackle the very essence of humanity and its complexity in very creative and nuanced ways. So to step into that line of storytelling honestly just feels like a privilege. I’m really doing this for my nieces and nephews, who I hope can fall in love with animation the way I did.

Q: What was it about Twende that first drew you to this project, and how did that opportunity come about?

A: During the pandemic in 2020, my cousin Kwame told me that an animation about a pangolin was looking for its lead voice actor. Without thinking too much about it, I expressed an interest in auditioning for it. I had never even heard of a pangolin before! I started to check out YouTube videos about the animal to get an idea of how it moved about the world, what kinds of sounds it made.

Although that didn’t necessarily inform my performance of the character in a tangible way, it really piqued my interest – this really sweet-looking endangered animal! I called my sister for some advice and tips on voiceover work. We geeked out about what a cool opportunity it would be, and so I went into the audition feeling very excited and ready to play and be receptive to all the director’s thoughts.

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Q: Did you get a chance to see how your character would look before you stepped into the studio to record him?

A: Yes, the team had prepared a very thorough sketchbook of all the various characters in Twende’s town Milima and so I felt a real connection with the style and feel of the environment and animation.

Q: What made you laugh the hardest when you first read the scripts?

A: In the pilot episode, Twende basically falls in love with a smoothie machine and it just tickled me so much. I was smiling the whole way through that first read of the script. My favourite character was definitely Boss (played by Elsaphan Njora); his energy and anxieties about his boda boda business falling apart were so sincere and endearing. I mean, a hyena that runs a boda boda agency? It was just brilliant!

Q: Twende is best friends with Nuru, who’s played by June Gachui. Did you get a chance to record with her or did you do it separately?

Fortunately we did get to record the pilot episode together in the booth, and it was awesome to be able to play off of each other’s energy. I’ve grown up admiring June’s work as an actor and performer, and so to get the chance to be best buds for this really sweet show was such a gift.

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