Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o discusses her role in Disney’s inspirational docudrama Queen of Katwe
Vanity Fair and Mississippi Masala director Mira Nair’s moving and inspiring docudrama Queen of Katwe tells a universal story of characters rising from nothing and achieving greatness despite the rough hand fate has dealt them. The fact-based film (an adaption of the biographical Tim Crothers book) casts newcomer Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutesi, a girl from Uganda’s Katwe slums who, after discovering her gift for playing chess and being nurtured by a caring mentor (David Oyelowo), goes on to become an international chess grandmaster.
It’s the stuff of fairy tales and indeed, it’s a Walt Disney production, the home for such fanciful fare. But this really happened and under Nair’s urgent eye (Nair has lived in Uganda for decades and you can feel her kinship with the people and the landscape), Queen of Katwe transcends cliché and becomes something majestic.
Playing Phiona’s long-suffering and indomitable mother Harriet is Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave). Nyong’o herself followed her cinematic muse and built herself up, serving time as a production assistant (she worked with Nair as a teen many years ago), making her own movies and reaping the benefits of her hard work. So there’s a natural kinship with Harriet, a mother who, despite the challenges of living and toiling in poverty and raising many children alone, refuses to buckle and stands tall, making the best of her situation for all involved.
We had the honor of sitting down with the elegant Nyong’o to discuss the making of Queen of Katwe and the challenges of portraying this unique, fiery woman.
ComingSoon.net: It’s always nice to see location used as a character in a movie and in Queen of Katwe, you really feel like you’re here in the slums of Uganda. And I know Mira lives in Uganda and so that passion for the country and the people is there, it’s palpable. Did you spend some time in pre-production in the location and get to know the people?
Lupita Nyong’o: I did. I got to Uganda about three weeks, I feel, before we started filming, and I got right into that. I of course met with Harriet, the woman I play, and got a sense of who she was. But I used to spend time in the marketplace. I’d just go and stand and observe the women and the men, the movement. Everything is specific and different, from where I grew up and where I live now.
There is a different sense of time and space. And people are in so much close proximity to each other. There’s so much activity going on at all times. There’s very many things, very many obstacles to deal with. And life is happening and it’s happening on all levels at all times. And so, that was very important for me, to be able to live there, to visit there and experience that as much as I could, and learn from observation, their movements, their gestures, their auras, and yeah, the daily challenges, even just when we were filming. We were filming and there were open sewers that we had to jump over and rickety bridges that we had to navigate, that sort of thing. And I think it really did help direct me towards a deeper understanding of what life must’ve been like for Harriet.
CS: In Uganda, there’s a makeshift studio that’s making waves internationally called Wakaliwood. It’s like a little version of Hollywood setup in the slums, where they invent their own cameras and are creating an abstract version of what they think an American film is. But did you kind of feel that? Do the Ugandan people by and large have their own kind of insular society that is sort of shut off from the realities of American pop culture?
Nyong’o: I mean, I grew up in Kenya, and all my life I’ve visited slums. I have relatives that live in slums and stuff like that. So for me, the slum life is not an exotic life, you know? I’m very familiar with it and I took that attitude into this film. I wasn’t there studying them as an anthropologist. I was there to take them on and absorb them and normalize them. That’s the thing, is that slum life is normal life. You ask Madina. She was just doing an interview and someone asked her, “What’s your life like in Katwe?” And she’s like, “Normal.” And I think that’s what’s so beautiful about this film, and how Mira has made it. She tells the story from the inside out. We merge into the Katwe lane, you know? It’s like this is the normal life, and these are the things they’re contending with every day. And this is the life they know.
And so, they’re going about the business of living it, you know? And the struggle is real and amazing like, unimaginable for you and I, who don’t live in there. But for the people living there, it’s something to work through. It’s something to overcome on a daily basis and it’s not something to marvel about. And so, when you talk to me about these films they’re making and all of that, it makes sense to me. It sounds like people making the most of the life that they are living.
CS: Well, and you get a sense of that in the film, too. You’re not gawking at another culture, you’re just latching onto the universal human themes that gel us all together. And really, the movie is just about a mother who’s concerned about her child and wants her child to make the best decisions for everybody and is afraid to let go of the apron strings…
Nyong’o: Exactly. And you know, it’s because of how Hariett has learned to understand life. She comes from a lot of struggle and she was dealt very hard cards. She had a very unstable childhood. She was tossed around from mother to grandmother to father to aunt and everything. At one point, she told me she had to walk two days to get to her mother because she’d broken a door and was scared of the consequences. And so, she walked two days to join her mother. She tried to go to school, but her mother could never afford to keep her in school. And then, she has her first child at 15. And by her late 20’s, she’s widowed after five children with her husband. Her husband dies of AIDS. And so, she had seen a very hard life, and that was the life she was preparing her children for, as a mother always want to do. And so, she had come to a place where dreaming was dangerous.
Nyong’o: You know, because nothing but disappointment lay ahead, if you had dreams of being anything other than what you found yourself born into. And her journey in this film is to realize that part of loving someone is being able to let them go, you know, not allowing for fear to govern your choices and your decisions, having faith in something larger than you can understand or grasp. And we see that journey in this film, when she allows Phiona to pursue this unlikely dream of becoming a master. And she does achieve it.
CS: And both Mira and you do this beautifully, almost wordlessly, really. We’re watching you come to these conclusions and realizations and we can hear your inner voice; it’s magnificently realized.
Nyong’o: Thank you.
CS: Which is something you don’t see in a lot of Hollywood movies. There has to be a lot of exposition to kind of lead you there, to hit you over the head with these epiphanous moments, but the character arcs here are really mature and eloquent.
Nyong’o: Well, that’s Mira. I love how she tells stories because she’s so interested in human behavior. And because she’s lived in Uganda for over 20 years, these are places she has known; she has visited people that she has interacted with, that she has relationships with. So she is not romanticizing this at all. And she was very keen to really showcase the humanity and culture of these places. And it’s in the details. It’s in the jeers and the gestures and the food and the costume and all of that. And it’s all from what she has observed.
CS: But as far as Harriet is concerned, you spent a lot of time with her, and obviously you got to know her. But as a performer, I can imagine it must have been challenging to some degree, to have to portray a living person. It must be a heavy responsibility.
Nyong’o: Yeah, it is.
CS: Are you simply imitating her or are you creating an impression of that person?
Nyong’o: Yeah, it was very daunting. But I had to start with what I knew. And that was in the script, it was in the article that was written for ESPN and it was in the book, “Queen of Katwe.” And then, it was meeting the woman, who then helped me really root her. The Harriet I met was very sturdy and very enigmatic, I would say. I likened her to a baobab tree. You know, they’re these semi-arid growing trees, with a very, very, very big trunk. And they grow in extreme weather conditions. But they are full. They’re full of the water that preserves them. And that’s Harriet, for me. She’s a very full woman. And she is able to survive these really harsh conditions, because of that strength, that sturdiness. And she’s also very guarded as well. And I wanted to honor these qualities in her. But she’s practical. You know, and I asked her why she finally let Phiona go play chess. She said, “Well, they could give her porridge and I couldn’t.” And she wanted to keep her children alive and as well as possible. And where she couldn’t meet their needs, she surrendered to someone else helping and doing that. So this is a woman who is a woman who is fiercely dedicated to her children, no nonsense.
CS: Fiercely independent as well.
Nyong’o: Yes. She has learned from her past and she’s not interested in repeating mistakes. And this is why she decides, despite the jeers of the community, despite the norm for women to find the support of men to try and make it on her own in order to set her children onto a better path.
CS: Has Harriet seen the movie yet?
Nyong’o: No, she hasn’t seen the movie. I asked Phiona, whether she’d come see the movie when we’re there. And she said, “Oh, I don’t know.” So we’ll see. We’ll see whether she comes.
CS: She’s independent and stubborn to the end.
Nyong’o: Oh yes, I mean, yeah. She’s got her life to live, you know? But even Phiona, I admire Phiona because she didn’t come to set, and you know, why? Because she was in school. Here we are, we’re telling her story, which is her history, and she has her whole future ahead of her and she understands that and she is fiercely committed and I think she gets that from her mother.