It's good to be Lupita Nyong'o right now. In between winning over film critics, the fashion elite, and the general public with her poise and charm, the Oscar winner reportedly met with director J.J. Abrams to discuss taking on the female lead in the upcoming Star Wars film. Since the script is still being kept tightly under wraps, it's unclear whether the role in question would see Nyong'o playing a descendant of Obi-Wan Kenobi, which has been described as a "non-Caucasian" role, or whether she is in talks for another part.
If Nyong'o does get a major part in the movie, it could be the role that she needs in order to capitalize on her Oscar buzz and cement herself as an A-List actress. Since she is still a relative newcomer, the earliest post-Oscar roles she chooses will have a major effect on her career trajectory. Many actors who have taken home a trophy only to disappear from the public consciousness thanks to disappointing follow-up films.
Despite her film 12 Years a Slave winning Best Picture, there is still a significant portion of the population (including some Oscar voters) who haven't seen the movie. As such, taking a role in such a major, mainstream franchise like Star Wars would keep Nyong'o at the focus of moviegoers' attention and expose her talent to people who might not have seen her act yet. And since the character will likely be a very different turn from Patsey, it would also allow her to showcase the range of her talent.
In addition, if the new Star Wars installment is well-received by fans and critics — since it is all but guaranteed to do well at the box office — it would prove that Nyong'o is capable of carrying a film, which would put her in contention for more leading roles. Studios are usually hesitant to take a risk on allowing up-and-coming actors to be the cornerstone of a big-budget picture, unless either the franchise or the star has proven to be successful in the past. Although Nyong'o has shown herself to be an exceptional supporting actress, playing the lead in a successful blockbuster opens her up to more opportunities and roles, for both supporting and leading roles. Essentially, Star Wars would put Nyong'o in the conversation as a leading lady as well as a key emesemble player, which would mean bigger and better parts in both mainstream and indie films.
However, the film being a major success could have some issues for Nyong'o as well. Because studios often prefer to stick with formulas that they know will be successful, Nyong'o could find herself only being offered roles in action movies, which, again, would make establishing herself as an A-List actress very difficult, especially since there are generally fewer female-fronted action films than there are one with male leads. There's also the fact that almost all of the actors who have starred in the Star Wars franchise have struggled to break out from the shadow of the space fantasy giant. From the Original Trilogy, only Harrison Ford was really able to shake off Han Solo — which was largely due to a starring role in another major franchise — while Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher are still primarily remembered in relation to Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, and Billy Dee Williams will forever be Lando Calrissian to the general public.
Even Hayden Christensen saw his career stall after playing Anakin Skywaker in the prequels, despite having earned critical acclaim in films like Life as a House and Shattered Glass. But he was unable to capitalize on that momentum, and that, combined with a great deal of derision from Star Wars fans concering the way the character was handled, resulted in Anakin being his last major, successful role. Although there are several Star Wars actors who have been able to avoid being typecast, they have usually signed on to the series after establishing their careers. Nyong'o, being a newcomer, could be more likely to become conflated with her character, especially since she hasn't been in the public's awareness long enough for many people to have already formed a perception of her.
But although the majority of Star Wars actors have become permanently associated with their characters, that doesn't mean it would be impossible for Nyong'o to break away from the franchise. Both Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman joined the series with a few critically-acclaimed credits under their belts, but allowed the Star Wars franchise to break them through to genuine stardom. By following the films up with diverse, interesting roles, they were able to shake off Obi-Wan and Padme, respectively, in order to become established and acclaimed actors in their own right. If Nyong'o manages to follow in their footsteps, she would likely be able to side-step the epic franchise trap and continue to become a well-respected actress with an impressive resume.
She already seems to be on that path: in addition to the Star Wars role, she was in talks to play Tiger Lily in Joe Wright's Pan, and she's reportedly being looked at for a major part in an upcoming courtroom drama opposite Daniel Craig, so it shouldn't be a problem for her to follow up Star Wars with something completely different. In general, it seems that the best course of action for Nyong'o is to look for diverse, compelling roles in order to prove to both her fans and critics that she is capable of tackling a wide variety of roles.
Recent Oscar winners are always under a great deal of pressure to keep the momentum going after awards season wraps up, and since Nyong'o is so new on the scene, her choices of roles will be scrutinized even more closely than usual. A lead in the latest Star Wars film is a big step forward for her, career-wise, and as long as she is able to avoid getting stuck in a rut, we should be able to look forward to many more incredible performances from Nyong'o in the future. And if worse comes to worse, she should be able to buy herself some goodwill and acclaim with a few more exceptional fashion moments. Nobody can wear a gown quite like she can.
Last week, we scoured a galaxy far far away for a missing star: Mark “Luke Skywalker” Hamill. We found that he had been living comfortably in a universe of fantastic voice acting jobs.
But even with the Star Wars franchise’s legendary status, more than a few actors discovered that the series was a black hole from whence their careers had difficulty escaping. Today we turn our attention to another Star Wars veteran whose appearances on the silver screen have been woefully infrequent since the curtain closed on cinema’s greatest trilogy. Today, we search high and low for Billy Dee Williams.
Why We Love Him:
Before Billy Dee Williams realized international superstardom in the Star Wars series, he was paying his dues in small film roles and a massive repertoire of television work in the late 60s. In 1971, Williams took on the role of real life football star Gale Sayers in Brian’s Song. Like many members of my lesser sex, the gridiron subject matter of Brian’s Song is what enticed me to see it. And like most guys (even if they refuse to admit it) I wept like an infant by the time we got to William’s speech about his teammate and friend Brian Piccolo. It wasn’t merely that the film was inherently sad, Williams’ performance was incredibly powerful.
After kicking scores of ass during a run of blaxploitation films in the 70s, Billy Dee landed the role of Lando Calrissian in Star Wars: Episode V-The Empire Strikes Back. The Star Wars franchise itself was a mammoth success, but Williams’ was not content merely riding its coattails. Lando was, much like Han when we first met him, one of the few characters that began his story completely unaffiliated in and dispassionate about the intergalactic civil war. He was a businessman and a natural leader, and Williams brought an effortless level of cool to the role. In fact, much of what we love about Billy Dee Williams is his unflappable coolness. Lando’s subsequent troubled conscience makes him one of the more interesting and layered characters in the series and Williams inhabits each layer with master skill.
What Happened To Him?
Like Hamill, Billy Dee Williams had trouble matching the success of Star Wars later in his career. I will say that 1981’s Nighthawks is not only one of my favorites of his performances, but also one of the best buddy cop movies I have ever seen. Williams and Stallone play two tough-as-nails beat cops who join a task force aiming to take down an international terrorist. The film is suspenseful, gritty, and Williams and Stallone play off one another beautifully. The film is currently streaming on Netflix so if you have a chance, it’s definitely worth checking out.
But beyond that, there just aren’t many notable titles on his post-Star Wars resume—with one exception. In 1989, Tim Burton cast Williams as Gotham district attorney Harvey Dent in the first Batman film. Harvey Dent in the comic books was always portrayed as a Caucasian character so the choice to cast Williams was interesting. True to form, Williams made Dent a cool-as-ice politician much like Lando Calrissian. He did this so well that, though his screen time was brief, he made our introduction to Harvey Dent a memorable one.
Where’s He Been?
So logically the question becomes, why didn’t Williams return to the Batman franchise in Batman Forever? Well, I guess I should say that it would make logical sense to ask this question if you were aware of the fact that Harvey Dent would eventually become the villainous Two-Face. Even though the script for 1989’s Batman made it very clear that this transformation would not occur right away, Williams only accepted the role because he was assured that when the Two-Face story was explored, he would be the actor to play him. He actually had a clause in his contract that stated as much. But when Joel Schumacher took over the series, he decided he wanted Tommy Lee Jones to play the part and so Warner Brothers bought Williams out of his contract. Since then, he’s been in very few theatrically released films. His most recent widely released film was 2002’s Undercover Brother.
The saddest part of this whole story is that Billy Dee Williams currently has no projects in development. I wholeheartedly feel he is among the most talented and cinematically captivating actors of all time. He’s made appearances on animated series here and there over the last few years, often reprising the role of Lando for nostalgic sake. But frankly, I would love to see him land another role like that of Fox in Nighthawks; something gritty and heavy that he can sink his teeth in to.
That man is simply too cool to remain inactive.