Today on INTERVUE, Disney will release a picture on Friday that based on the life of Phiona Mutesi. In 2012 Mutesi was awarded the title of Woman Candidate Master during the 40th Chess Olympiad. By doing so, she became the first of two titled female players in Ugandan chess history. The upcoming biopic “Queen of Katwe” tells us that story. I recently sat down with Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o who plays Phiona’s mother, Nakku Harriet, in the film.
Tell us about the first time you heard of this story
It was around Christmastime in 2014 and Mira Nair, the director, sent it to me in a very brief e-mail saying that “I wrote this with you in mind. Please say that you’ll do it.” I printed out a copy of this script and less than ten pages in, I was weeping because I was just so moved that this story was being told. This was a true story. In it was from the perspective of this young girl from an unlikely place with an unlikely dream and she achieves that dream.
The character that I was going to play was this layered mother. A woman who sees the world completely opposite from how I see the world. A woman who is suspicious of dreaming, wearying of dreaming and thinks dreaming is the enemy because of the disappointments she’s experienced in her own life. She’s fiercely trying to protect her children from expecting more from life from what they have been dealt. Her journey is one in which she has to discover that to truly love her daughter she has to let her daughter go and risk failure and also risk success. And that kind of journey, that kind of arc that I can go on and tell an uninspiring uplifting heartwarming African story at the same time was just an oasis. It’s something that I haven’t seen come across my desk before.
Were Harriet & Fiona around for the filming? How far in advance did you meet them before
I met Harriet three weeks before we started filming. I met them all in my first week of my being in Uganda and Robert was the one who translated for me since Harriet doesn’t speak English. He was my interpreter while I sat down to talk to her. Phiona Mutesi was the one who took me around Katwe and showed me the places where her family took shelter when they were homeless. I really visited Katwe through Phiona & Robert’s eyes which was so helpful, so meaningful to see their version of Katwe because its very, very big. Its got hundreds and thousands of inhabitants. To see it through their eyes was very special.
Robert was actually the chess consultant on the film, He was on the set every single day. My heart goes out to David (Oyelowo) because that must have been strange to have the person you’re playing there all the time. Robert is such a lovely human being. So warm, so generous that he was so welcoming of this experience and the retelling of it for this Disney picture.
Phiona is an extremely practical person like her mother. She was in school. So, she did not come to set and I love that about Phiona. She’s so focused. Here we are, we’re celebrating her past and she still has her whole future ahead of her. She is determined to succeed even though her story has now been told in such a large way.
This is the third time that you worked with Mira Nair. What has changed from the first time you worked with Mira in The Namesake to now?
Obviously, working with Mira as an actor is very different from working with Mira as an intern or a production coordinator. There was more distance between us but I was able to observe her at work and she was my boss – that was scary. I got to know the Mira at work. Mira is a woman who is fiercely committed to her art. She does not like to compromise and does not mince her words.
Learning that as an intern saved me a lot and prepared me for working with her in front of the camera. It’s a vulnerable thing to be an actor because you’re trying things like accents and you are in front of everyone as you do it. To be prepared for her honesty that is without guile, its well-meaning but it’s very honest. I was good that I had that history with her.
Working with her in front of the camera is where I wanted to be anyway. To finally have that opportunity with someone that I trust so deeply, someone whose artistry I admire and respect – it just doesn’t get any better than that.
What was your favorite scene to film?
I enjoyed so much of it. It was such a time of abandon. I remember and it always brings a smile to my face. It’s hard to choose I have to say that but the homecoming scene where the whole of Katwe is welcoming back Phiona back with a trophy. I remember there were a group of extras. We had a few hundred extras for that but then there was also the Katwe inhabitants. We would also have had crowds forming wherever we were shooting because they don’t have film crews in Katwe very often and certainly not on this scale. Everyone was curious and crowds would form.
This one day we were shooting the film and all the extras had been placed in the shot. It’s so celebratory. As we shoot it, the rest of the inhabitants just come onboard and they just join the festivities. They don’t fully understand what’s happening but there’s just so much joy and celebration in the air. There was trumpets and drums. I remember this is not just us filming a fictional celebration of this Phiona winning a trophy but it is us celebrating the very making of this film. I remember feeling that very deeply that its quite a feat that this has been made and it has been made for Disney. A major studio that has such a large global reach and understands the universal treasure that Phiona Mutesi’s story has was something that we were all celebrating in that moment. It was very moving.
Thank you Lupita for the wonderful interview. Check out “Queen of Katwe” when it hits theaters THIS FRIDAY from Walt Disney Pictures