As part of my adventures in LA last week, not only did I get to walk the Red Carpet for the Premiere of Disney’s Queen of Katwe, I also had the amazing opportunity to sit around a table along with 24 other amazing bloggers and chat with the lovely and talented Lupita Nyong’o and the fabulous actors who play her kids in the film.
I’ve interviewed Lupita a couple of times in the past year (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jungle Book) and this time around she seemed so much more poised and relaxed and totally comfortable in her own skin. I think the role of Harriet, Phiona Mutesi’s mom in the story of Queen of Katwe has been one of her most challenging and closest to her heart.
Let me tell you about these kids! Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona Mutesi and Martin Kabanza plays Phiona’s brother, Brian Mugabi. Newcomers to filmmaking, they watched Lupita closely and followed her lead. It’s fitting that she played their mother in the film and their relationship evolved accordingly.
I have to confess, I had started taking notes during this interview, but very soon I was just so captivated by these three that I just sat there with my chin resting on my hands listening to their beautiful, personal stories of what exactly happened as they were making the film. (So grateful for the transcripts so I can share some of that with you today.)
Q: What was the three of you working together like?
Lupita: “We like each other and we had a lot of fun together.
I met them before we started shooting. Once Madina was cast, I walked into a rehearsal workshop situation where they had my whole family there and I walked in and she just said, “Hi, Mom.” I gave her a big hug and they were both just so receptive to me.
Madina actually taught me how to cook. She sold corn in her past and I asked her to show me how to go shopping in the market. My whole onscreen family went shopping and did it together and then we went back to her house and she showed me how to prepare the meal.
So we broke the ice and we had a really great working relationship. They’re really hungry and curious and present as actors and it was so lovely for me to have that kind of immediate condition to work in. They still call me mama.”
Martin: “It was my first time acting, but I never knew anything about acting. She taught us how to get into character. We used to copy her everything she do. She was so good. She was a good mom.”
Madina: “I really used to copy her and I named myself copycat because every time I could see her getting ready, getting to character and then I do what she was doing in a quiet ways and she can’t see me, but she was really good and she really helped me in some of the hard scenes that are really hard because I could not really cry because you’ll never find dancers sad. We are always happy and she was there for me to make sure that I get into character so that I can cry. She really helped me so much.
That’s why I still call her mom because ever since I was young, and ever since I left my mom because she wanted me to go to school, I’ve never had someone else or anyone else that I’ve ever called Mom. So she was the first one to be called mom and it was so, so nice for me to call her mom.
And she really acts like it. So it was really nice for me to meet her and she was amazing for me and when I called her mom for the first time, she replied to me and I got touched inside my heart.”
Martin: “Look, I was raised by my grandparents. My mother left me when I was three months, so, me too. Because my first time to say mom in my mouth. Yes. Not a dry eye.”
Q: Do you prefer roles in stories that have never been told and what do you hope to bring to the forefront in playing those roles?
Lupita: “Well, I love playing roles that stretch me and help me to learn something new and deep about the human experience.
I mean, 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 like 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 and I know, being from there, that it is many splendored. And so, to be able to bring to the forefront stories, particular and specific stories about African women in their variety is so exciting to me because I’m a child of global popular culture.
I grew up watching Mexican, Brazilian, Australian, English, American TV and cinema and I think I was able to identify with all those people that I met and learn something new about htose cultures.
I’d never worn a winter coat, but I know when you’re in New York, you have a winter coat. As much as I identified with the sibling rivalry or the heartbreak or whatnot. So for an African story to be playing that same kind of role, being a universal story and its 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.”
You can read my review of Queen of Katwe right here. Not only was I super impressed with the film, I also fell in love with these actors both on the screen and off.
I think we were all pretty much smitten.