I had the opportunity to sit down with Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo – stars of Disney’s Queen of Katwe – and a group of other journalists during the Toronto International Film Festival. Here are the highlights of our conversation that covered everything from the importance of more women behind the camera, to the joys of working with child actors.
When asked about her fashion sense on- and off-screen:
Costume designer Mobolaji Dawodu did such an excellent job. The clothes launched me into my character. They were so specific and I felt a transformation when I got into those clothes. For that I commend him. Off-screen, I have a mother who I’ve always thought to be very stylish. She takes care with how she looks and imparted that on us. How you dress is a sign of respect for yourself and for those around you and I enjoy it.
On playing a mother that lives in an oppressive reality and balancing that with being a supportive parent:
I grew up in a family that was very supportive of pursuing your dreams. I believe in the power of dreaming and thinking of the impossible and trying to achieve it. My life is a testament to that. Harriet has the complete opposite view. Dreaming is dangerous. Dreaming is the enemy because of the cards that life has dealt her. She grew up in strife and she struggled a lot. She grew up in a very unstable family, was a teen mom (having her first child at 15) and even in her later years her husband dies of AIDS and leaves her with five children. This is a woman who’s known nothing but strife and this is the world she was preparing her children for. Her dreams have been shattered and so dreaming is dangerous because it can lead to disappointment. It is out of fear that she tries to protect her daughter from having lofty dreams. Her personal journey is to learn that the best way to show her daughter true love is to let her go and give her room to try and achieve the things that were not possible for her.
Living in Katwe is about survival. On a daily basis, there are all sorts of dangers that are lurking, so many things to contend with. It takes courage to let your children go out every day, even just to sell the maize that feeds the family. While I was making this film, I called my mother and asked, “How on Earth did you let us out the door?” My parents sent me to Mexico when I was 16 without them and it takes so much courage to do that. I thank my parents a lot for that. It was just so far away, far away from the people that can best protect you. For those people to let go of you and allow you to experience the world without them requires courage – I commend them for that.
On her childhood escapes:
I loved my imagination. I would hide in cupboards and play with dolls and make up worlds. My mom used to call me a space cadet. (Laughs) I’d be sitting at the dinner table in my own world and she’d always have to call me back to Earth.
On shooting on location in Katwe:
I can’t imagine having shot this film anywhere else. You’re in the actual place where these things transpired and being faced with all the things these people are faced with daily. It was constant reminder of what Harriet and life with her family was like. There were open sewers that we had to navigate and jump over, rickety bridges and merchants. There were animals left right and center. People don’t see film crews often, so crowds would gather out of curiosity and we had to deal with all of that. That’s part of what made it such a rich experience.
On working with director Mira Nair now and in the past:
I was a post-production intern for her years ago. I took a semester abroad and worked with Mira in New York. I wanted to get as much experience in the industry as possible and I got this internship with her. Mira is someone that I admire and have respected for a long time and it’s been a dream to get a chance to work with her in front of the camera.
I also worked for her Maisha Film Lab in Uganda in 2006. Now, I know her so well. I know her sensibilities, her character. Mira does not mince her words. You know exactly where you stand with her. I can’t imagine another director who would’ve brought as much personality to this story. She’s lived in Uganda for over 20 years so she knows the place really well. She loves Uganda and you can see that in the way that she made this film. It’s the details that give the film a very natural, un-exotic personality.
On meeting her real-life counterpart, Nakku Harriet:
I got to Uganda about three weeks before we started shooting because I wanted to get as immersed in the culture as possible. Robert Katende took me to visit Harriet at the house Phiona had built for her. I sat with her on the floor and just talked to her and I was able to observe her. She’s a very grounded individual. She reminds me of a Baobob tree – it grows in very arid places, but is full. You can just tell there’s a fullness, a quietness, a guardedness to her. There’s also a sense of humor and being able to spend time with her in that way really informed the decisions I made in playing her.
On playing a mother and grandmother at 32:
That’s one of the things that attracted me to this. When else is someone going to ask me to play a mother of five? It was such a challenge. I asked myself if I could really do this. I don’t even have one child, how on Earth am I going to control five.
I had to form relationships with all of them in order for them to trust me so we could come across as a cohesive family. I remember the first time I held one of the youngest actors, he didn’t trust me. He wanted nothing to do with me because he didn’t speak any English and he just was not into me. I had to learn Luganda so that he could come to me and stay with me. I practiced “Do you want to eat? Do you want to sleep? Do you have to pee? You should stop that. Keep quiet now.” (Laughs)
The children taught me how to mother them. Madina (Nalwanga, who plays Phiona) has sold corn in her past and is from a neighboring slum herself. I asked her to take us (the on-screen family) to the market to buy food one would buy to feed a family. I watched her negotiate with the vendors and buy all the ingredients. We went back to her house and she taught me how to cook the meal. I learned to be the leader of this family, but we were all learning to come together as a family at the same time.
On being the “King of Toronto” by having two big films at the Toronto International Film Festival:
I’ll let you say it and I’m going to bask in it. (Laughs)
It feels great to not only be here with two films, but with two films that I really love and both are about continental Africa. They’re films that aren’t rooted in the negative side of things which of course is a part of African life, but it’s not all corruption, child soldiers, dictators and poverty. It just isn’t. It’s great to have two films here, but it’s the nature of them that I’m very proud of.
On if this film will help improve life in Uganda:
I think the last major film made about Uganda was “The Last King of Scotland” and when anyone thinks of Uganda, they think of Idi Amin. They think of this dictator. Although it was a wonderful film and is a major part of their history, it shouldn’t be the first thing you think of when you hear the word “Uganda”. That’s a travesty. For me, if this film brings some balance to the narrative not only around Uganda, but Africa in general – good. In the West, people tend to look at Africa as a country, not a continent. So I think this will certainly change perception, which often becomes people’s reality.
On the effects of marginalization and how it relates to the film:
If you’ve been marginalized in any way – especially if you’re a young girl in a patriarchal society – you are constantly surrounded by the notion that being female means you are lesser than…everything. The idea of pulling yourself out of the mire and shining can be one of the biggest obstacles you face within yourself. If you’re constantly being told you’re lesser than you start to believe it. In that moment, you need reminding of that because you’ve had a lifetime of opposition to the idea that you can be great. I think anyone and everyone who has been marginalized in any way can relate to that because the marginalization is basically trying to dumb down who you truly are. That can sometimes be consciously done, subconsciously done because of cultural biases, but it’s a reality across the globe. Although this film is set in Uganda, it has universal themes that anyone and everyone can tap in to.
On actively pursuing movies directed by women:
I had a run of four films that had all four female directors. Out of those four, I produced two. I really fought for Ava DuVernay to direct Selma and then I did a film called Five Nights in Maine that I produced last year with Maris Curran. Then there was Queen of Katwe and A United Kingdom with Amma. I worked with Amma 18 years ago when she was a writer and I did one of my first jobs out of drama school. I really wanted her to direct the film because I knew her perspective behind the camera. It was a love story and I think women are more ready to explore emotion. Some are unapologetic about the romantic and sweeping love story and I wanted that as opposed to a film that could get bogged down in politics. It’s absolutely intentional and it’s the only way things are going to change. Studios have to be intentional. You HAVE to when you’re drawing up a list for projects, 50% of the names on that list have to be female. Unless you do that, it’s not going to change because again, if all the decision makers are men they’re going to hire their buddies or guys that look like them. I’m not prejudiced against guys. (Laughs) I like guys as well, but we need a balanced diet.
On the importance of shooting both films on location in Africa:
It’s very important that Queen of Katwe was shot in Katwe. The temptation for many is to shoot elsewhere because of tax breaks and such, but it was so important for myself and Lupita. Yes, we’re of African descent but we’re not Ugandan. She’s Kenyan and I’m of Nigerian origin and I know that culture very well. But in order to tell the truth of that place, you needed to be there, surrounded by Ugandans. We filmed in the very church where Robert taught these kids to play chess. I mean, you’re barely having to act when that’s the case. It’s important to also illustrate that Africa isn’t a country. There are very unique countries and specific cultures within each individual country. The more people know that, it’ll break down prejudice.
On the challenge of playing another man of faith:
The difference with Dr. King is that yes, he was undeniably a good person, but there were some rough edges there. He’s a man who’s away from home a lot. We didn’t shy away from the fact that there were extramarital situations there that belie his moral authority but don’t deny who he is and what he stands for. As an actor, you’re looking for those rough edges. As human beings we are fundamentally flawed. That’s what makes us able to connect with a character. No matter how good we are or aspire to be we all have these fractures in our personality, which is what makes us human beings.
In all honesty, when I met Robert I just couldn’t find any flaws. (Laughs) I thought this guy was a saint. With time, the rough edges in his life started to show in the form of sacrificial choices he’s made. He could’ve absolutely gone on to be an engineer and have a comfortable life with his family. He chose not to do that and that’s something that he has to wrestle with. His wife was pregnant while we were shooting the film and he has six other kids living in their 2-bedroom apartment because they just had no where else to go. He just can’t help himself. He has to take care of these kids and that’s the dilemma for him. In talking to Mira about it, yes, he’s this great guy, mentor and teacher, and father figure to the kids. When he’s not in that environment, you see him wrestling with wondering if he’s good enough, doing enough for his family, doing right by his family.
On an outing with the child actors of Queen of Katwe:
We had to travel quite a ways to take the kids to see Jurassic World while we were shooting. Madina sat next to me, clutching my arm the whole time. She turned to me during the film and said, “Is that what we are doing?” I asked if she’d ever seen a film in a movie theater before and she said, “No.” We were halfway through shooting a film in which she is the lead and she’d never seen a movie before. The second time she’s ever seen a movie was the other night – here – with 2,600 people watching her make her debut.
On the importance of marginalized groups telling their stories and changes needed in the industry:
It’s a good question and I think I’d almost go further back from what the stories are to who’s making them. If Queen of Katwe had been directed by a man, I can almost guarantee that my character would be the protagonist. That’s what we’ve seen in the past. The coach is the one we focus on. He goes in, galvanizes these kids and yes – there’s a girl called Phiona in there too somewhere. It would be all about him because people direct from their own perspective and our own cultural bias. Because it’s Mira Nair, she goes for the girl and that’s what makes the story unique. That’s what makes it feel fresh.
I am absolutely hell-bent on having more female directors. Not because of anything explicitly feminist, I just think it’s unjust. You cannot have 50% of the population be female and then less than 10% of the stories being made directed by women.
This is a forum, an industry, an art form that has such wide cultural impact. The perspective behind the camera is what dictates the final product. If the director were a white man, there would be the temptation to make the main character White and move the whole thing to Iowa because that’s what he understands and he’d be doing something he knows. That’s why we need balance. Once we as an audience start getting a balanced diet in terms of who’s making these movies, the stories will start to come forth because they will be birthed from people who otherwise haven’t been able to tell them.
In Part Two, I’ll have more from Robert Katende and Phiona Mutesi – the inspiration for the book and film Queen of Katwe – and the film’s director, Mira Nair.
Find a review of the film by Afiya Augustine here.