And the Oscar-winner didn’t just take on a new type of role; she also learned a new skill. For Little Monsters, Nyong’o learned to play ukulele. In the film, Nyong’o plays Miss Caroline, a teacher who has to protect and comfort her students when a zombie attack occurs while they’re on a field trip. One way that she does this is by playing songs on her ukelele… sometimes while she’s totally covered in blood. Again, it’s a dark zombie comedy, so in addition to keeping the kids calm, she has to do things like smash zombie heads with a shovel.
When Little Monsters screened at South by Southwest earlier this year, Nyong’o and director/writer Abe Forsythe spoke to viewers about the actor learning to play ukelele for her role.
“I even asked [Abe], 'Are you gonna have a ukulele double?’” Nyong’o said, according to Syfy. Forsythe responded, “"I told her, 'No, you can win an Oscar, you can learn to play the ukulele.'"
And he was right. In an interview with HuffPost, Nyong’o said the ukulele lessons were “frustrating” at first, but after a few weeks she was able to get more into the swing of things.
“I think what I love about my job is that when you sign on to a project, you have to learn everything that goes with it, and for this, ukulele was one of the things I had to learn,” she explained. “I couldn’t give up. You just have to stick to it and keep trying.”
In the film, Miss Caroline — who Nyong’o sees as her version of Fraulein Maria from The Sound of Music — plays nursery rhymes, but also Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” The actor wanted that song in particular to be in the film so badly that she personally requested permission to use it from Swift. “It was written into the script, though I will say that they were having trouble getting the rights. So I wrote Taylor Swift a personal note,” Nyong’o told HuffPost. She said that while Swift didn’t respond to her directly, “She gave us the rights, which was a response.”
“Shake It Off” actually means a lot to Nyong’o, which is why she was so set on Little Monsters being able to use it.
“I’m eternally grateful [Swift gave the rights] because that song had been so meaningful to me at a time when I was having a hard time in my life,” Nyong’o said. “I was working on a project, and my best friend flew over to just be with me. And he played me ‘Shake It Off,’ and so it became like my anthem, like how to just overcome this not-so-great moment.”
Nyong’o told this story in her letter to the pop star, and, apparently, it worked. She also shared with HuffPost that the song being included in the script was part of what made the film appeal to her in the first place. She liked the idea of Miss Caroline’s kindergarteners using the song as their anthem. Granted, it's an anthem to get them through a bloody zombie invasion, but hey, the parallel is there.