Three years ago, in some hotel or other, I interviewed a terrific actress during the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, on the occasion of “12 Years a Slave.”
Lupita Nyong’o was new to most moviegoers then. She’d been cast as Patsey, the 19th-century slave who befriends Solomon Northup, two weeks before graduating from the Yale School of Drama. “I must admit,” she told me, grinning, “I was an insomniac during the entire shoot! It was a combination of things, the emotional place I had to go, but also the excitement and the joy of making the project as well.”
The film’s richly deserved success changed her life, though here’s a peculiar thing: In the last three years Nyong’o, now 33, has appeared in a single live-action film role (“Non-Stop,” the Liam Neeson-on-a-plane thriller), in addition to lending her voice to a hit Disney remake (“The Jungle Book”) and her voice and body to another computer-generated characterization in another, larger smash (she’s Maz Kanatarop, the space pirate in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”).
Now the Oscar-winning Nyong’o is back on screen in what the old folks call “a real movie.” A Disney release, director Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe” tells the rousing true story of Phiona Mutesi, the young Ugandan chess champion who grew up in the slums surrounding the Ugandan capital, Kampala. For once in a sports biopic, and that’s what “Queen of Katwe” is, the protagonist (played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga) isn’t sidelined in favor of the mentoring coach figure (David Oyelowo, superb, is the missionary and chess aficionado Robert Katende). Nyong’o takes the third key role, Phiona’s mother, Harriet. The woman has struggled for years to keep her family going but isn’t sure the wider world, symbolized by chess, is what she wants for her daughter.
Nyong’o sat down the other day in a downtown Chicago hotel, three years and a few days after our Toronto interview. Has it been as good a three years as it seems from the outside?
“Mmmm-hmmmm. Yes,” she says. “Definitely a lot of growth. Good, challenging projects.” She’d known “Queen of Katwe” director Nair for a good part of her life; she interned for her in 2005, and worked in Uganda, where Nair has a home, in the second year of Nair’s film studies lab. “And now I’m in front of her camera, and very, very happy to be.”
There’s not much linking “Queen of Katwe” to director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” except the value of shooting a long way from a conventional film production center. The location work in “Katwe,” filmed in Kampala and Johannesburg, energized the work, Nyong’o says.
“There’s just so much to feed you, every moment. In Katwe the energies are colliding all the time, there’s such vibrancy to the place. It can’t be replicated. I remember one scene with David (Oyelowo), we had a goat walk into the shot, and Mira just kept rolling.” A different take was used in the final cut.
Nair’s sense of concentration and focus reminded Nyong’o of McQueen. “They both speak the actor language,” she says, “they both speak in images, and they’re so good with human dynamics. Also, Mira has a very light touch. I was surprised seeing (the finished version of ‘Queen of Katwe’) how funny some of it is! Really funny! And it was joyful making it. I was holding down the more tragic end of the story, but I felt it, too.”
Asked for an example of Nair’s way with actors, Nyong’o thinks a few seconds. “I remember the scene between me and David, where Robert Katende comes to ask Harriet for permission to take her daughter to Sudan to compete. He ends up insulting her by saying, ‘Don’t you want your daughter to do more than just sell maize in the market?’ And that’s a really nasty thing for my character to hear. The first take or two, I took it on my spine. And Mira came over and said, very quietly: ‘Find the humor in it.’ And that sparked a new take. It made sense. There’s a quality in Harriet to protect herself from being vulnerable with this man she doesn’t trust. She’s suspicious. So I arrived at a different choice; I wasn’t as open with how he made me feel. Now, she could’ve told me exactly how to do it, but instead she said: Find the humor. And I was free to find it myself.”
Born in Mexico City, raised mostly in Kenya, Nyong’o didn’t come out of the blue, as the “12 Years a Slave” acclaim suggested. In 2009 she produced and directed a documentary, “In My Genes,” about albinism. This was after she graduated from Nair’s Maisha Film Lab in Uganda. For two seasons, Nyong’o co-starred in a hit series titled “Shuga,” produced by MTV in association with UNICEF. During her Yale drama school years, she understudied a role in the play “Eclipsed.” A different production of the same play brought Nyong’o to Broadway earlier this year, and earned her a Tony Award nomination.
She was ready, in other words, for everything she has accomplished in the past few years. Next up: a superhero movie. She’ll play Nakia, alongside Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan in director Ryan Coogler’s foray into the Marvel universe, “Black Panther.” Filming starts in January, she says, and the commitment takes up a fair chunk of next year. (The film’s due in 2018.) “To be a superhero, that’s a dream. One off my bucket list,” she says. “And I get to work with Ryan Coogler, whom I’ve admired since ‘Fruitvale Station.’”