Lupita Nyong'o Inspires in 'Queen of Katwe'

In her new movie, which is based on a true story, the Academy Award-winning actress plays the mother of a Ugandan chess prodigy. Her performance has already been described as Oscar-worthy.

Posted in , Sep 22, 2016

Lupita Nyong'o Queen of Katwe film, Madina Nalwanga, Phiona Mutesi

Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong'o was so inspired by the story of her new film, Queen of Katwe, she said yes to the role before she finished reading the script. 

Queen of Katwe is based on the true story of a nine year-old Ugandan girl, Phiona, who rose from living in poverty in a neighborhood called Katwe to become an international chess prodigy. Thanks to a Christian missionary named Robert Katende (played by Guideposts' October 2015 cover star David Oyelowo) who teaches Phiona to play and discovers her skill at the game, Phiona is able to win enough money to lift her mother and siblings out of poverty

In this Disney film, Nyong'o plays Phiona's mother, Harriet Mutesi, who was forced into poverty with her children when her husband died of AIDS. Throughout the movie, we see Harriet's determination to protect and care for her children. She struggles to keep Phiona grounded while letting her daughter imagine a better world than the one she knows.

"Your children are blessed because they have a mother who never gave up on them," Katende says to Harriet in the film, reminding her and the audience of the power of a mother's love. caught up with Nyong'o to talk about the artistic challenges of playing a living person and why Queen of Katwe is a heart-warming must-see film.

GUIDEPOSTS: Did you know of Phiona’s story before you got involved Queen of Katwe?

LUPITA NYONG'O: No, I actually did not know anything about Phiona Mutesi’s story. So my first encounter of her was reading the script.  I mean, like, ten pages into the script, I put it down and I wrote to my agent and told her that I had to do this film. And then I finished reading the script and I was just so inspired by it, you know the idea that it was a true story. I was really curious about what else existed out there about her. I picked up the book Queen of Katwe as well by Tim Crothers and went online. I watched every video that I could of Phiona talking to people, doing interviews and actually playing chess.

GUIDEPOSTS: At the end of the film, in the credits, it was so great to see all the actors standing next to the people that they played. It was so moving seeing you standing next to the real-life Harriet. Did you get to spend much time with Harriet preparing for this role? 

LN: Yes, I definitely did. That was one of the first things I did when I got to Uganda because I definitely wanted to meet the woman I was going to play and figure out what of her I could use in performing her character in the film. So, yes, I met with Harriet and Robert Katende worked as a translator for me and I sat with her for a number of hours just asking about her life, her back story and observing her body language and stuff like that. I definitely tried to incorporate what I learned from her in my development of my version [of her].

GUIDEPOSTS: It’s very difficult to play someone who actually exists in real life as opposed to a fictional character. So was there a way for you to make that role your own?

LN: When you have a real person, it’s quite a privilege and it’s also a challenge, of course, because the person is there – they’re alive they’re in front of you. And what I think for me is it’s not really about mimicry of the person but being inspired by that person. There are things that stood out for me and I really thought they would ground me in my performance of her. Harriet has a very deep voice and that was something that struck me and something that I tried to incorporate into my performance.

The way she sat was very Ugandan. Ugandans sit with their legs folded to one side but their hips are extremely flexible because they sit upright in this position and that was something that she did so easily and so I did yoga and stuff for my hips so I could sit like that because it was specific to her, but it’s also very specific to the Ugandan culture. But then I also recognize that I will never be Harriet, you know? And also in the span of a film, there’s certain very specific objectives to accomplish. And so yes, you have to take creative license. It’s like the poetry of a person is what a film is rather than the prose.

GUIDEPOSTS: That’s beautiful. And Madina [Nalwanga], the actress who plays Phiona is just phenomenal in this film. Did she ask you for any advice, is there anything that you offered to her during your time working together?

LN: You know, Madina is an incredible, incredible young actress. This is her first film and she was a sponge. She was very curious and very observant and she would just pick up things as we went along. Every take she would’ve learned something from the people she was working with in the scene. She asked me a lot of questions and I was more than happy to answer them and to support her to the best I could. But she’s like – she is very courageous as an actress. So I think we really just learned from each other. I mean working with children – it was new for me and quite challenging because you are very much the leader. You have the responsibility of setting the tone and the way in which this work will be done. But she has such a strong work ethic. All I can say is, yes she was quite the sponge and she would be so receptive and just very present in the scenes. She’s very, very honest in her acting work and that was truly, truly inspiring for me.

GUIDEPOSTS: Knowing that you had to set the tone and having this new experience working with children, how did you prepare for that aspect of your performance?

LN: Well, for me it was really important for me to get to know the children off set, way before we got on set, because we needed to come across as a family. So the chemistry had to be established before that. I spent time with the children together and also individually. One of the biggest challenges for me was with baby Ivan, who plays Richard. There were two main boys who played [Richard] but the youngest one was baby Ivan, who was only two and he didn’t speak any [English]. So the very first time I tried to hold him, he just did not trust me. He wouldn’t come to me, he didn’t understand the words coming out my mouth and so I realized that I had to learn Luganda, and I had to learn enough Luganda to be able to gain his trust. And so, I set to work learning Luganda, morning, noon, and night with everyone working with me.

Madina was one of my teachers – I mean, my children basically taught me, my driver, everyone around me. And that was what was so great about being in Uganda is that I can learn from literally everyone around me and yeah I had to pick up phrases like, ‘Do you need to go to the toilet?’ ‘Are you hungry?’ ‘Are you thirsty?’ you know all those things that I would need to communicate with him. ‘Stop doing that’, ‘Be quiet.’ Luckily enough, it worked and I was able to befriend him.

And then I also arranged a trip to the market because as Harriet she sells corn for a living. And I wanted to know what it would be like to sell corn and what it would be like to feed a family [that way]. So, I got my on screen family together, led by Madina, who once used to sell corn herself. She led us through the market – did all the shopping for a typical Ugandan meal. And then we went back to her place and she taught me how to cook these Ugandan foods. That killed many birds with one stone because I was learning more about the economical challenges that Harriet would have been contending with. But we were also breaking the ice among ourselves and figuring out the dynamics of each family member as we made this meal.

GUIDEPOSTS: That family dynamic comes across so well on-screen. Is that five languages for you, now that you’ve added Luganda to your list?

LN:  Oh, well that was very temporary! [laughs] It’s amazing how you pick up things when you have to. I couldn’t possibly say that I still speak Luganda!

GUIDEPOSTS: Considering your relationship with Madina, I'm reminded of the speech you gave last year on how seeing [Sudanese supermodel] Alek Wek on the international stage changed some of the insecurities that you had about your skin color as a teenager. How does your experience as a teen impact how you position yourself in the world and what you present to the world now?

LN: I think that cinema and television popular culture offers us a mirror to ourselves and I think that it’s really important for us to be able to see ourselves represented in these things that really do create our understanding of the world we live in. And so, I hope that a film like Queen of Katwe will open many eyes. But will also bring pride to a people who are very seldom represented in cinema.

I remember one of the first things that happened when I got to Uganda is, my whole on-screen family got together for like a workshop of some kind. And we were all there for it in the production’s office and I look down and all around me, our feet were the very same complexion. And in that moment, I realized how rarely that happens in my life these days. That I’m surrounded by people that look exactly like me, that are exactly my complexion. And it just warmed my heart to know that that was going to end up on the screen. I know that it meant a lot to me, it meant a lot to the children I worked with, it meant a lot to Ugandans and I think it means a lot to Africans and Black people all over the world, to see themselves represented so centrally in a story, in a film by Disney.

GUIDEPOSTS: You’re very involved in the most pressing issues in the global community from women’s rights to animal rights. So how do you choose which causes to lend your voice to?

LN: I go with what I feel convicted about. You know, there’s a lot going on in the world, but I feel like my gut is my best navigator. So these issues that I have spoken up about I feel a personal conviction to say something, to engage and to lend my voice to.

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