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The Next Step: Lupita Nyong'o on "Queen of Katwe"

Lupita Nyong’o was all but unknown three years ago when she gave an emotionally charged performance in her feature debut as the brutalized Patsey in 2013’s “12 Years a Slave.” Born in Mexico City and raised in Africa, she would become the first Kenyan and the first Mexican actress to win an Oscar after being honored for her supporting role. This radiant beauty also proved to be a photographer’s dream—“People” magazine quickly chose her as their “Most Beautiful Woman”—while gracing a reported 66 red carpets in the six months leading up to the Academy Awards ceremony.

But she is not resting on her fashionista laurels. Last year, Nyong’o used her newfound fame and influence to help bring the female-driven, African-themed play ”Eclipsed” to Broadway. She was duly nominated for a lead Tony—one of five nods earned by the drama—as a 15-year-old Liberian girl who goes from being a captive “wife” of a militaristic brute to a defiant warrior.

As for the movies, she was heard but not exactly seen in last year’s No. 1 box-office hit, “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens” as the tangerine-hued, goggle-eyed motion-capture alien Maz Kanata, and in this summer’s mega-blockbuster “The Jungle Book” as the voice of devoted mother wolf Raksha.

But Nyong’o, 33, is viewed in all her glory onscreen in the uplifting “Queen of Katwe” as a fiercely protective Ugandan widow trying to make ends meet while raising four children, including a tween daughter who aspires to be a chess master. Opening this Friday, the true story directed by Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding,” “The Namesake”) was shot on location in the teeming slums of Kampala and has a cast filled with native performers. 

The part of Harriet was specifically written for Nyong’o, whom Nair has known since the actress attended the director’s Maisha Film Lab in Kampala and interned for her production company in New York. “I think of Harriet as a young Mother Courage,” Nair has observed, “and that is the strength and beauty that is in Lupita.” 

Current Vogue cover subject Nyong’o sat down with while in Washington, D.C., last week following the well-received premiere of “Queen of Katwe” at the Toronto International Film Festival.

What is all this about you leading a conga line at the premiere party in Toronto?

Yeah [laughs]. We were just so excited. It was so overwhelmingly cool to finally show this film and have it be received as well as it was at the after-party. The thing about hanging out with Ugandans is you learn how to party. You cannot go to an Ugandan party and not dance. So we started dancing and we just went for it.

Suddenly, you are a Disney star after doing “Star Wars” and “The Jungle Book” as well as “Queen of Katwe.” And you have the upcoming Marvel superhero movie “Black Panther,” too. It is interesting that after doing “12 Years a Slave,” a gravely serious account of slavery in America, you had ended up in family films and blockbusters. 

It’s the only studio I work with. I love variation. I love all the opportunities that Disney has given me. They have been very different from one another. They do keep feeding my creative soul.

Did you grow up watching Disney movies?

Yeah, yeah. Sure. “The Lion King,” “Pocahontas,” I watched “Snow White,” “Cinderella.” All of them. All those Disney cartoons.

One good thing about “Queen of Katwe” is that we actually see you in the film. In your other recent roles, you are doing motion capture or speaking for a character. And this time, you are playing a single mother of four. How did you like working with so many young newcomers? I am guessing their enthusiasm rubbed off on you.

That is the wonderful thing about working with children. They just remind you what the heart of the matter is. We are trying to portray life as it happens. And they don’t know how to pretend. They work from a truthfulness. And that does not mean they don’t have craft. I mean, I watched Madina [Nalwanga, who plays chess prodigy Phiona] develop her craft as we went along. She was always so curious about what we were doing and why we were doing it. I would be warming up and she would ask me what I was doing and the next thing I knew she was doing it. With every take, I’d see she would have a deeper understanding of what the dynamics were, what was at stake, what the subtext was. And she may not even be able to articulate that. But I could see her growing as an actor. It is a very absorbent age.

And how was it for you to play a mother dealing with poverty and portraying her struggles?

It was very daunting for me to take on this role and that is why I wanted to do it. Because I knew it was going to offer me an incredible challenge. And in the hands of Mira, I knew that it was going to be well represented. That she would going to work with this with love and respect. She had been living in Uganda for over 27 years and so she knows the place from inside out. And I knew she was going to tell the story from inside out. Playing Harriet—before this film came along, no one had asked me to be the mother of anybody.

Well, you are the adoptive mother of Mowgli in “The Jungle Book.”

Oh, yes, the wolf. How can I forget the wolf? That was a voice, though. Here I am the mother of four children. All those children were children I didn’t even know yet. So it was daunting. But it also was so much fun because I learned so much on the job.

The baby in the early scenes—he kept saying these cute things that are subtitled. Was that …

Scripted? No. We were all marveling at his discipline and his ability to be precise with his continuity. Every take, he would do exactly the same thing. And he started saying these things and they were always just spot on. He didn’t speak any English, but what he uttered was always spot on and Mira ended up using it.

Did you play chess on the set?

I didn’t have to play any chess. I know how to play chess but, for this, I had to unlearn the chess I knew. Because Harriet doesn’t know anything. She is suspicious of it, she doesn’t know what it is about.

You talked to the real Harriet. What did she share with you?

One thing I remember is asking her why did she let Phiona go to Robert Katende [the coach played by “Selma’s” David Oyelowo] to play chess. And she said to me, in her very practical way, “Robert could give Phiona a cup of porridge every day” and she couldn’t. That was the first thing that she had to concede to. Though she didn’t know what this is, her daughter got fed every day. And she was not interested in keeping her children stagnant. She was just interested in keeping them safe. She came to the point where she learned that the way to keep her child safest is to allow her to risk failing for herself. And that includes allowing her to risk success. That was something she hadn’t realized but she came to learn and let go from having such a strong hold. 

I am quite fond of the scene where the cocky young guy on the scooter tries to coerce Phiona’s older sister to go with him. And you come out and growl at him like a mama bear, saying, “I know a hyena when I see one.” 

When I went to Uganda, while preparing and observing, I noticed that Ugandans—and this is true of Kenyans, too, although Ugandans take it to a whole other level—they make a lot of sounds. There are all sorts of sounds that mean all sorts of things. Those untranslatable locutions. Those were sounds I heard. And he made a sound at me first. I love this film, because Mira knew to have this flavor in the film. Because she is from there, because she spent time there. So she peppers this film with all this cultural nuance that is so particular to this place.

You grew up in Kenya, which is right next door to Uganda. Are the cultures very different? 

They are. After spending time in Uganda, I realized how different we were. There’s a lot that is similar as well, we have a lot of similar foods. One thing that stood out to me in Kampala was just how effortlessly stylish everybody was. I remember taking rides in the car and gasping out the window. And reaching for my camera just to capture someone walking down the street. And it’s not fashion. It’s just an innate sense of style. And there is a lot of secondhand clothing sold in East Africa and so you will see people with designer clothes mixed in with African aprons and ties and scarves on their heads. I feel like Mobolaji Dawodu, the costume designer on our film, really did capture this. That blending of fabric and textures. It’s bursting with color. Sean Bobbitt, the director of photography, said more than once it was so much fun to shoot in the slums of Kampala because, no matter where he pointed his camera, there were things to frame. And those are things you can’t replicate on a set.

You and Mira go back a ways. I didn’t realize you worked behind the scenes for a while before you acted in films. You both went to Ivy League schools—you got a master’s degree at the Yale School of Drama and she attended Harvard. When you worked on Mira’s 2006 film “The Namesake,” what exactly did you do?

I got Mira tea. She was cutting the film when I interned for her. I worked closely with her assistant, Ami Boghani, and she was just starting her film lab in Uganda called Maisha. I designed their first certificate that they gave out to students. I remember doing that. The first time I designed it, Mira said, “No, that just won’t do,” and I had to start all over again. But what I loved about working for her is that she doesn’t mince her words. She is so honest and without guile and it’s well-meaning. And now, working with her in front of the camera, I know she is not going to butter me up, she is going to tell me like it is. Which is good, because you know exactly where you stand.

I read somewhere that she makes people on her set do yoga every morning.

She didn’t make you do yoga, but she provides the opportunity. For me, that was so vital. The Ugandan women have this way of sitting in the marketplace. They sit on the ground and fold their legs to one side. But they are somehow upright. It is a hard position if you don’t have flexible hips. So I was doing yoga with the full intention to get my hips wider and more responsive.

You actually directed a documentary in 2009, “In My Genes,” about eight Kenyans who were born albinos and the stigma they face. And you also did a music video. Do you have any ambition to direct a feature film someday?

I would like to direct another documentary and I will probably do that in the future. But I have no interest in directing features. I much prefer being in front of the camera. But I also am interested in producing. I am co-producing a film based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book, Americanah. (She will reteam with Oyelowo again in the love story that spans several continents). And I want to do that. I want to be a part of the creation of stories for someone else to direct so I can act in them.

You are part of the cult of Disney now, but you also are a geek icon, too. How many times have you gone to Comic-Con?

Only once. Yeah, I didn’t go last year because the film wasn’t out. 

Are you a geek yourself in any way?

Yeah. I like dorky things like doing jigsaw puzzles. I am doing a “Game of Thrones” puzzle now. It is like three tiers. I don’t even know how it’s going to be three tiers. I’m still on the first one. And I’ve been on the first one since July.

You will be back as Maz Kanata in the eighth “Star Wars” film that is due in 2017, correct? There was some article recently on the Internet saying that you might not be in it because you said you hadn’t shot anything yet.

I think they misunderstand. Sometimes my accent is misunderstood. I did not say that. I said that I had done it already. It’s done. It’s a wrap. As far as I know I’m in it.

Has it been fun to be part of that beloved franchise?

It has been so unbelievable. It’s is so ticklish to me. I still can’t believe I am a part of that universe. It seems like a part of my history, a very far away thing, and yet somehow now I’m in it.

And you now have undergone another rite of passage by being cast in a comic-book movie, “Black Panther.” I know it will be based on the first black superhero in mainstream American comics. But I don’t know much about his back story. However, I do know who actor Chadwick Boseman and director Ryan Coogler are, so the fact they are involved excites me. 

I wanted to be a superhero for a long time. What I can tell you about my character is that her name is Nakia and she is a member of the Dora Milaje, a special-forces unit of the fictional country Wakanda where Black Panther is from.  It is a group of women and they protect the Black Panther.

It sounds as if you are going to have to get physical.

Oh, yeah. I am going to have to do some amazing things and I fully intend to try and do it all.

Winning an Oscar can put an actor in an interesting place. It can be a positive influence on your career, which I think in your case it has been, but sometimes it doesn’t necessarily lead to greater opportunities. You look at Halle Berry, whose win was so historically significant, or Gwyneth Paltrow, who got work but not necessarily in great movies. Or even Nicole Kidman, whose career was been somewhat up and down after winning for “The Hours.” How do you feel about it?

For me, it was really unprecedented. The fact that I won for the very first role I did out of school was a lot to wrap my head around. I really had to sit myself down and ask, “OK, why am I doing this? Am I doing this for the accolades or am I doing this for the love of the craft?” I think any passionate actor allows himself to fail. Because this is not a traditional career path, you know. There is not one ladder you climb and you stay on top. Each role offers different challenges. You are dealing with different lives, different storytellers, it’s a communal endeavor. It’s not just all in your hands. So you kind of have to let go of that kind of expectation that somehow your career will only have one direction. Because it really all depends on what is being presented to you and what you are responding to. And you have to allow the chance to fail. You become a part of a larger conversation but you cannot live your life from that vantage point. You just have to live your life day by day, opportunity by opportunity, and make the most of it. The way the world sees success doesn’t necessarily have to be the way you see success. So for me, I find winning the Academy Award was a major success and I am so grateful for it. But so was doing the play on Broadway, which for me was something huge that I was able to do. And it may not live in the public eye in the same way but for me, I feel like I’ve grown and gone to the next step.

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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