During our interviews last week I was given the honor of interviewing the amazing Lupita Nyong’o. She is so lovely and even more so in person. I watched her in 12 Years a Slave and was just amazed by her so I was so happy to be interviewing her about her role as Nakku Harriet who is the mother of Phiona Mutesi. We also got to interview Madina Nalwanga (who plays Phiona) and Martin Kabanza (who plays her brother Brian Mugabi). All three had such happy smiling faces. They came in the room holding Lupita’s hands.
We started the interview off with a bang. We knew we had to keep it short since Lupita was already running late to be on Ellen. We asked how well they got along as a ‘family’ in the movie and Lupita said, “Well, we like each other.” We had already interviewed Director Mira Nair who said that Lupita and Harriet share some of the same characteristics like being strong. I said in my movie review that she has this thousand yard stare which tells you that she is not someone to be trifled with. She is a strong woman and she plays strong roles. Harriet is no exception. She lost one of her children after her husband died and she was left with four kids and no money. She did everything she could to keep them with a roof over their heads and food in their bellies.
Lupita Nyong’o – We like each other. And we had a lot of fun together. I had met them before we started shooting. It was a long process for Madina to be cast and then when she was finally cast, I walked into a rehearsal workshop situation where they had my whole family there, and I walked in and she just, she said, “Hi Mom!” I gave her a big hug. They were both just so receptive to me, and Madina taught me how to cook. She sold corn in her past, and I asked her to show me to go shopping in the market. How she’d do it, and she did all the shopping. My whole onscreen family, we went and did it together and then we went back to her house, and she showed me how to prepare the meal. And we all played a role in the preparation of the meal. We broke the ice that was, and we had a really great working relationship. They’re really hungry, curious and present as actors, and it was so lovely for me to have that kind of immediate condition to work in with them
Madina also mentioned that she was a ‘copycat’ because she had never acted before so she watched what Lupita did and would mimic her. She said she followed her around and watched her get into character and Lupita was the one to teach her to cry. She had been a dancer since she was young and she told us dancers do not cry so Lupita had to teach her how to cry on camera.
And then came the part when everyone in the room started crying. Lupita mentioned that the kids still call her mom. And they both talked about how in their lives they neither one have a mom.
Madina Nalwanga – That’s why I still call her mom. Ever since I was young and left my mom because she wanted me to go to school, I’ve never had anyone else that I’ve ever called Mom since I was four up to last year. So she was the first one to be called mom from my mouth, and it was so nice for me to call her mom. And she really acts it. So it was really nice for me to meet her. She was amazing to me, and when I called her mom for the first time, she replied to me, and I got touched, (pointing to her heart) inside my heart.
Martin Kabanza –Look, I was raised by my grandparents. My mother left me when I was three months, so, for me too, because this was my first time to say “mom” from my mouth.
Lupita was sitting there with tears rolling down her cheeks and I swear there wasnt a dry eye in the room. She seemed so touched by what they said and how they respect and admire her. Then she started talking about the eviction scene in the movie. Brian is in an accident and has to be rushed to the hospital and when they get back to their shack the landlord refuses to let them back in without payment. Payment they dont have. Lupita killed that scene. She begs for the sake of her children and even talking about it now I am almost crying.
Lupita Nyong’o – I do remember once we were about to shoot the eviction scene. We had a tent where we’d wait, and these two were very quiet, quite pensive, and I asked them how they felt. And they both mentioned how this was their life. They both experienced evictions in their past, and I just remember being really moved at how this, the artifice was reflecting the real life for Phiona Mutesi, but also real for both of them. They had this chance to tell their story to bring it to a larger audience that would understand the challenges of poverty. But also the triumph of people who live through it and the fact that poverty is no one’s definition and they were going to have this chance to put that experience of their past into very good and immediate use in the scene were about to shoot. I come from a very different background. One of privilege and so I was very humbled during that moment.
Here I am playing the mother and being the shepherdess of these two going through this experience, and yet, I was learning so much from them. I was just humbled by that moment and being able to take their lead as we went to do that scene.
We asked them what their favorite scene was and the younger actors picked some of the saddest ones in the film. Well in my opinion.
Martin Kabanza –One scene that I liked in the movie is the flood scene. I like Mama (Lupita) doing it. She was so real and me, I didn’t have that power of crying, but she made me cry in that scene because she was so real.
Madina Nalwanga – I also had this scene where Martin is to be knocked by a boda-boda (motorbike). It was so bad for me because I had an accident with a car when I was little, so I saw a human being knocked down, so I knew it happens and how it feels to see someone in that much pain. So it was so, so bad for me and to make me remember the conditions that I was in when I was knocked down by a car, so that was my favorite scene.
These kids have had rough lives but they were both so happy. They danced their hearts out at the red carpet premiere. They talk so frankly about their lives.
We had time for one last question so we asked Lupita about the roles she has chosen to play. She always plays these deep, commanding roles. Stories that are waiting to be told.
Lupita Nyong’o – Well, I love playing roles that stretch me and help me to learn something new and deep about the human experience. It was not by design that I set out to play African women, but how happy I am to have had these opportunities because I think Africa all too often is a blanket statement. There’s no specificity. It’s a very general wash of ideas that people have of this continent where I’m from. I know by being from there that there are many splendors. So to be able to bring that to the forefront of the stories, particular and specific stories about African women in their variety is so exciting to me because I’m a child of a global popular culture. I grew up watching Mexican, Brazilian, Australian, English, American TV, and cinema. I think I was able to identify with all those people that I met and learn something new about those cultures. I’d never worn a winter coat, but I know when you’re in New York, you have a winter coat. So for an African story to be playing that same kind of role being a universal story still. It’s specificity as we find with Phiona Mutesi in this story of Queen of Katwe, it is my pride and my joy. I am so happy to be able to play a part in making the African woman the global woman.
“Queen of Katwe” is based on the vibrant true story of a young girl from the streets of rural Uganda whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess, and, as a result of the support she receives from her family and community, is instilled with the confidence and determination she needs to pursue her dream of becoming an international chess champion. Directed by Mira Nair from a screenplay by William Wheeler, “Queen of Katwe” is produced by Lydia Dean Pilcher, p.g.a. and John Carls, p.g.a. with Will Weiske and Troy Buder serving as executive producers. The film stars Golden Globe® nominee David Oyelowo, Oscar® winner and Tony Award® nominee Lupita Nyong’o and newcomer Madina Nalwanga.
For 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Nalwanga) and her family, life in the impoverished slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, is a constant struggle. Her mother, Harriet (Nyong’o), is fiercely determined to take care of her family and works tirelessly selling vegetables in the market to make sure her children are fed and have a roof over their heads. When Phiona meets Robert Katende (Oyelowo), a soccer player turned missionary who teaches local children chess, she is captivated. Chess requires a good deal of concentration, strategic thinking and risk taking, all skills which are applicable in everyday life, and Katende hopes to empower youth with the game. Phiona is impressed by the intelligence and wit the game requires and immediately shows potential. Recognizing Phiona’s natural aptitude for chess and the fighting spirit she’s inherited from her mother, Katende begins to mentor her, but Harriet is reluctant to provide any encouragement, not wanting to see her daughter disappointed. As Phiona begins to succeed in local chess competitions, Katende teaches her to read and write in order to pursue schooling. She quickly advances through the ranks in tournaments, but breaks away from her family to focus on her own life. Her mother eventually realizes that Phiona has a chance to excel and teams up with Katende to help her fulfill her extraordinary potential, escape a life of poverty and save her family.