Strong Supports: a talk with ‘Queen of Katwe’ actress Lupita Nyong’o

During a roundtable interview with a small handful journalists at the Toronto International Film Festival to promote her latest film, Queen of Katwe (opening in Toronto this weekend before expanding across Canada next week), a lot of people like to ask actress Lupita Nyong’o about fashion. No less than three of the seven questions asked by journalists during our allotted time with her asked her about what she wears every day, what she wore on the red carpet premiere at TIFF, and if she had any input into the style of her latest on screen role.

On one hand it’s fair game, I guess, considering that the 33-year old Oscar winner has become a bit of a style icon over the past few years, but on the other it’s sometimes cringe-inducing to watch a serious, talented artist like Nyong’o constantly having to field questions about how she chooses to dress herself on a daily basis. It’s a huge credit to her that she can answer such questions honestly and with a good natured smile on her face. It’s not exactly the most serious form of journalism, but she gives serious answers.

The answers to those questions are nowhere near as compelling as the ones she gives when asked about her craft, however. Get her excited about answering something and a masterful, poignant storyteller emerges.

In Queen of Katwe, directed by veteran filmmaker Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake), the Kenya-raised Nyong’o plays Harriet, the hard working but cautiously skeptical mother of real life nine-year-old Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi (played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga). Harriet is a hard, but loving mother, selling corn by the side of the road in the slums of Katwe in the city of Kampala to make ends meet. When Phiona’s talents are discovered by chess coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), Harriet approaches her daughter’s new teacher with eyebrows firmly raised, not wanting her daughter to be dealt the same false promises for a better life that she once bought into herself.

Nyong’o met Phiona’s real mother to prepare for the role, and was aided by Nair, a Ugandan local who lived roughly fifteen minutes away from the slums of Katwe where the film was shot for a proper degree of authenticity.

We were able to talk to her about how her portrayal of Harriet is different from her own upbringing, the social issues facing women and Africans that are brought up in Queen of Katwe, and how Nair’s feminist perspective and understanding of Ugandan culture was indispensible to the film.

What’s it like to portray a woman like Harriet, who’s a strong, hardworking woman, but who also doesn’t see any possible way out of the life she currently leads and doesn’t want her daughter to have unrealistic expectations and dreams?

Lupita Nyong’o: This role was attractive to me because it’s actually so different from my own life and my own view of the world. I grew up in a family and with parents who were very supportive of dreaming and imagination, and they provided their kids with an environment that made that all very possible. And here’s a woman in Harriet who life hasn’t treated so kindly, and she’s afraid of dreaming. She sees dreaming as the enemy because it usually results in disappointment, so she raises her family to prepare for the strife that she has known because that’s what she knows life offers you. She has to get to a place where she can realize that in order to truly show her daughter love, she has to let Phiona go and risk failing, you know? There’s that risk of disappointment, but also that risk of success. That’s what I loved about this character as an actor, which was that I had this almost exact opposite viewpoint. But in investigating that viewpoint, you learn something about humanity and empathy.

But my parents really inspired me the most in life. I was the kind of kid who didn’t play much outside. I would hide in my closet in the dark with just enough of a slit of light coming in so that I could play with my dolls. At the dinner table at night I would just often be daydreaming and in my own world, and my mother would sometimes have to say [snapping fingers] “You are a space cadet.” (laughs) But my parents still supported my dreaming. And my family, too. I had an aunt who actually pushed me to say that I should audition for the reparatory theatre in Nairobi, and if she hadn’t said that to me, I never would have known I had a talent that was worth developing. Then I got cast in the age of fourteen in Romeo and Juliet, and that was my big break in the reparatory theatre there. My mother took me rehearsal every day after school and just sat in the car for the duration of the rehearsal every day, and then she would drive me home. If I didn’t have that support, I wouldn’t have been here today.

My relationship with my mother today is even the same as it was. She’ll still call me and say, “Did you eat breakfast? Don’t do anything without eating breakfast first.” (laughs) And she’s still all the way in Kenya! They were here for the premiere in Toronto, and I knew we were going to be having a premiere in Uganda for the film. I said, “You don’t have to come all the way over! We’re coming close!” And they said, “Nope. We want to be there at the world premiere.” They’re as supportive as they’ve always been. My mother drove me to all those rehearsals, and if she has any say in it, she will be at all of my premieres come rain or sunshine. (laughs)

And because I grew up in a sort of social servant household, these are all issue from the film that I definitely care about and I’m aware of. My father was a politician, so I knew about a lot of these issues through him, but we were his safe haven. We were the escape from all of that for him. When he came home, he never brought his work home with him. He wanted to talk about Shakespeare. He would read Othello out loud to us, and tell us stories from our childhood. I always had a really intimate relationship with my father, and I feel like I was the apple of his eye, and he makes all six of us children in the family feel like that. He’s such a good storyteller, and so eloquent as a speaker. I would just watch him speak to crowds and marvel at his use of the English language, and the Luhya, and Swahili. He was so incredible, and I hope to live up to his legacy.

I really believe when they say in the film “you belong where you believe you belong.” That is true, and what happens in places of high poverty, you’re told you belong nowhere. You’re in this environment where you’re constantly told that you aren’t worth much. To have someone like Robert Katende who can come along and inspire hope in you and inspire you to see something in yourself and push yourself is extraordinary in a place like that. Believing in yourself will always get you through the hardest of circumstances, and we see that in Phiona Mutesi’s story. It’s a true story, not a figment of our imaginations. This girl, despite her hard circumstances and her upbringing, has become a pride to her nation because someone believed in her and allowed her to believe in herself.

And Harriet didn’t have that, and she has to come to a place where she has to surrender to things she doesn’t know and take a chance. I hope this is inspiring particularly to those who have been jaded and have been dealt a hard card in life to still have some faith.

And because this is a true story, it was priceless and invaluable to be able to sit with the real Harriet, and I found this quiet dignity about her. She’s not from much, but she has a presence that you just can’t mess with! (laughs) She reminds me of a baobab tree, which is a very large tree found in arid areas that store water that allows them to survive under extreme circumstances, and that’s Harriet. She’s very guarded, watchful, and protective, and she has a real kind of nobility.

How much does it help you as an actor with no real background into a person who has led the kind of life that Harriet has led to have a veteran filmmaker and local Kampala resident like Mira Nair on hand to direct you in this role?

Lupita Nyong’o: I honestly can’t imagine anyone else doing this story justice in the way Mira did. Mira has lived in Uganda for over twenty-five years. She knows this story from the inside, and she tells the story to an audience from the inside. Too often with African stories, there’s this outsider’s perspective and the African people are almost always the backdrop. Things happen to them, but they aren’t the thing that’s happening. Here, Mira did such an amazing job of focusing the story, not just on the Africans, but on the girl. There’s another version of this story that could have been made that would have focused on the mentor, but we see this from the perspective of a young girl. That’s got to be so inspiring to young generations and kids coming up in similar circumstances to see that you do have something to offer this world. I just love Mira for that. Mira knew that culture and sense of place enough to know what should come across in her film.

It definitely touches upon some really deep themes about how young women mature and see the world, particularly in a scene where Phiona asks her coach what she should do once men start taking notice of her and start coming after her. I don’t think those are the kinds of scenes that a male filmmaker would tackle with as much delicacy.

Lupita Nyong’o: You’re right, and what you bring up is a real issue. Uganda is actually one of the youngest nations in the world on average, and in Katwe or Kampala – I can’t quite remember which – the average age is fourteen. There’s a lot of young kids, and Harriet became a mother when she was thirteen, and she’s still in her early thirties in this film. She’s had five children by that point. It’s a real issue. What her oldest daughter in the film goes through is a true experience for sadly too many people. Women are continually marginalized more than their male counterparts. Education is something that isn’t handed to girls as quickly as it’s handed to boys. These issues in the film that are expressed and explored are real, and what I think this film is making very clear is that it takes a mentor, a community, and a family to have someone realize their dream.

And this film is something that hits so close to home. It’s so rare that we as Africans can see ourselves portrayed on screen in a positive light and on such a large platform. To see such an uplifting story being told by Disney and watching it with so many people and seeing everyone understand and enjoy the ride with us was overwhelming.

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.