Kenyan native Lupita Nyong’o is known for not only winning the Oscar for Supporting Actress for playing slave Patsey in “12 Years a Slave,” but also for doing it it with astonishing style.
But since her 2014 win, she has done more modeling (Mui Mui, Lancome), social media, and theater (playing a 15-year-old Liberian rape victim on Broadway in “Eclipsed”) than high-profile film parts (“Non-Stop”). Turns as Maz Kanata in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and Raksha in “The Jungle Book” were voice roles.
Photo by Broadimage/REX/Shutterstock
So “Queen of Katwe” marks a welcome return to the big screen, working with her mentor Mira Nair, whose husband and Nyong’o’s father were friends at university. When Nyong’o voiced an interest in working in film, she was surprised to find out that her dad’s Uganda pal was married to Nair. “I interned for her at Mirabai films and worked at the lab,” Nyong’o told me in our video interview, “and ended up being in one of the student short films. Then 10 years later I’m in a film in front of the camera with her, something I wanted to do for a long time!”
They shot in Katwe, Uganda’s largest slum in Kampala, about 2 kilometers away from downtown and 20 minutes from Nair’s home. “These are places she has known and visited and has a real understanding of,” said Nyong’o. “I knew I was in good hands with her. She could bring the humanity and the specificity of life in Katwe.”
One of the first things Nyong’o did when she got to Katwe was to meet her character Harriet, the hard-nosed mother of the real-life chess prodigy Phiona. “Harriet is a woman who has had a hard past,” the actress said. “She got tossed around a lot as a child, got pregnant at the age of 14, was a mother by 15, loses her husband with five children to HIV/AIDS. All she knows is a hard life, preparing her children for that strife and struggle. She’s fearful of dreaming, wants to save her children the disappointment. It is an act of love to protect them from their own dreams. But her journey in the film is realizing that to show true love is to act without fear and instead with courage and allow her daughter to go into the world.”
In meeting Harriet, Nyong’o found a woman who “is so grounded,” she said. “Her presence is a special one, very quiet. She reminded me of a baobab tree, it has a very thick trunk, it’s stable, it grows in extreme conditions, it’s very full. She’s full of wisdom and knows who she is. I wanted to respect that. I was reminded, meeting her, that dignity does not have price tag.”
Shooting in Katwe was a huge help. “Mira will tell you she loves cinema verite, she rolls up her sleeves,” said Nyong’o. “We were working in a place where film crews don’t often come, certainly not of this size. We were working in conditions as we found them in life. For me it was research shooting there, jumping over open sewers, navigating rickety bridges. Your life is in danger. It was a constant reminder of what Harriet has to contend with and protect her children from.”
Based in New York, Nyong’o has had her fill of theater, where she rode a tough emotional rollercoaster every day for six months. “It was good to flex my muscles,” she said. “I feel confident and ready to get back on screen.”
Next up: She’s working with a trainer to get ready for Nakia in “Black Panther”opposite Chadwick Boseman. And for “Star Wars” fans, colorful Maz will be back in “Episode VIII.”