I was invited to Los Angeles for the Queen of Katwe red carpet premiere. Although all expenses were paid, all opinions are my own.
Queen of Katwe tells the amazing story of Phiona Mutesi, a chess prodigy, who risks it all to follow her dreams. I was recently invited to Los Angeles for the red carpet premiere of Queen of Katwe and while we were there, we had the wonderful opportunity to sit down and interview the stars of the film. It was so exciting being able to watch the movie and ask them questions about their roles in the film.
What was it like working together?
Lupita Nyong’o: 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 said, “hi mom” and I gave her a big hug and they were both so receptive to me. Madina actually taught me how to cook. 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.
Martin Kabanza: It was my first time acting, I never knew anything about acting, but she taught us how to get into character. We used to copy her– everything she’d do, we tried to do it. She was so good. She was a good mom.
Marina Nalwanga: I used to really copy her and I named myself “copycat” because overtime I could see her getting ready, getting into character, I would do what she was doing in a quiet way. She was really good and she really helped me in some of the hard scenes 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 got into character so that I can cry. She really helped me so much.
On Calling Lupita “Mom”
Madina Nalwanga says that she still calls Lupita mom because ever since she was young and ever since she left her mom to go to school, she never had anyone that could fit that description. She didn’t call anyone “mom” since she was four years old, up until last year when she met Lupita. She was the first one to be called “mom” other than her own mom and she said it was so nice for her to do that.
Martin Kabanza was actually raised by his grandparents. His mother left him when he was three months, so that was actually his first time to say the word “mom” from him mouth in general. When we learned about this, the entire room started tearing up– not a dry eye in sight. It was really touching to hear their stories in this way.
Which Scenes Were Especially Touching?
Lupita Nyong’o told us that when they were shooting the eviction scene, she asked them (Madina and Martin) how they felt. They both mentioned that this is actually how their lives were. They both experienced evictions in their past and she remembers being really moved at how this movie that were filming not only was a reflection of Phiona’s real life, but it was also a reflection on their lives as well. They were having this chance to tell their own stories, too and the challenges of poverty.
“Poverty is not one’s definition.” –Lupita Nyong’o
It also shows the triumph of people who live through it and the fact that poverty is not one’s definition. They were having this chance to put that experience of their past into a immediate use in that scene. Obviously I come from a very different background of privilege and so I was very humbled in that moment.
On Learning a New Language
Lupita did not know any Luganda before the movie so she had to learn it from her costars. What she found so great about living in Uganda is that she was able to immerse herself in the culture and she had to learn Luganda because Baby Ivan who plays Baby Richard didn’t speak any English. The first time he was given to her, he went right back to the person who gave him to her because he didn’t trust her and she couldn’t have a conversation with him. Then she realized that Luganda was her lifesaver. It came in very handy and she loved learning it.
What was their favorite scene?
Martin Kabaza’s favorite scene was the scene where they were all eating chicken because it was his first time having chicken like that. Lupita had to teach them not to eat too much during takes because they would have to do the scene over and over again and the kids would just be scarfing down the food. She had to remind them to slow down because they weren’t going to make it for the rest of the shooting and before you knew it, they didn’t want anymore. They were pushing it away and didn’t want anything to do with it.
For Madina Nalwanga, her favorite scene was when David Oyelowo was running around doing the “cat and dog” scene– this was also my personal favorite scene in the movie as well. She says that she has never had someone in her life who had time for her in that way. It was fun for her because she felt that he really had time for them and she had so much respect for him because she enjoyed watching what he was doing for them.
Lupita Nyong’o says that it was really cold in South Africa where they shot that scene. It was over the course of four days during the winer so it was a little shy of thirty degrees. They spent time in between scenes inside of a hot tub because it was that cold! And then they would have to go into the freezing cold water all day and every time they said “cut” they would run back into the hot tub.
Do you prefer roles in the stories that have never been told and what do you hope to bring to the forefront in playing these roles?
Lupita Nyong’o: I love playing roles that stretch me and help me to learn something new and deep about the human experience. It was not by design that I was set out to play African women but how happy I am to have had these opportunities. I think that African all to often is a blanket statement. 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.
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 think I was able to identify with all those people that I met and learn something new about those cultures. As much as I identified with the sibling rivalry or the heartbreak for an African story to be playing that same kind of role, being a universal story that’s still in it’s specificity as we find with Phiona Mutesi in this story of Queen of Katwe. It is my pride and joy and I’m so happy to be able to play a part in making the African women the global woman.
It was such an amazing experience for me to be able to sit in the same room with these wonderful stars and to be able to hear their personal stories and how similar they were to that of Phiona's. I hope they are very proud of themselves because they did an incredible job with Queen of Katwe.
Queen of Katwe is playing in select theaters and will be open in theaters everywhere on September 30!
More Queen of Katwe
- Queen of Katwe Movie Poster
- Queen of Katwe Movie Review
- Queen of Katwe Red Carpet Premiere Experience