I was invited to Los Angeles to attend a press day and the red carpet premiere of Disney’s Queen of Katwe (see my experience HERE and my movie review HERE). Travel and accommodations were covered by Disney, but all thoughts are my own. Movie photos courtesy of Disney. Interview photos courtesy of Carol Jones / All Mommy Wants.
The time we spent chatting with Lupita Nyong’o, Madina Nalwanga and Martin Kabanza was one of my favorite Hollywood celebrity experiences ever, and certainly one of the most emotional. If you take nothing else away from this interview, take this – the on-screen love and emotions portrayed in Queen of Katwe were real. It was an honor to see these three together.
Lupita, Madina, and Martin: An Instant Bond
When Lupita walked into the room, full of grace and natural beauty, she was holding on to the hands of her on-screen children, Madina and Martin. They looked like a family, and through the interview their love for each other shown through.
When asked what it was like to work with each other on Queen of Katwe, Lupita said, “We like each other. And we had a lot of fun together. I met them before we started shooting. Once Madina was cast, I walked into a rehearsal workshop where they had my whole (movie) family there and I walked in and she said, “Hi, Mom!”
They still call her Mama.
Madina said, “Ever since I was young and ever since I left my mom because she wanted me to go to school (at age four), I’ve never had anyone else that I’ve ever called Mom up to last year, so she was the first one to be called mom from my mom and it was so, so nice for me to call her mom.”
I loved hearing how Lupita stepped into that role of mother for Madina and Martin. None of them ever questioned the instant relationship that they formed. They called her Mom, and she responded as a mom. Madina went on to say, “When I called mom for the first time, she replied to me, and I got touched inside my heart. Okay, so I can call her mom and she will say yes…”
Martin made Lupita and the rest of us cry when he said, “Look, I was raised by my grandparents. My mother left me when I was three months, so my first time to say mom in my mouth (was when I said it to her).”
Not a dry eye.
Getting Into Character
I think one of the most interesting things about Queen of Katwe is that they cast local children with no acting experience. It became clear after talking with Madina and Martin, and later with the real Phiona Mutesi and Robert Katende, that these young actors did not need to “get into character” because they had lived through everything they were portraying on screen.
Lupita commented that, “They’re really hungry and curious and present as actors and it was so lovely for me to have that immediate condition to work in.”
Since neither Madina nor Martin had any previous acting experience, Lupita not only became their mother figure, but their mentor as well. Martin said, “It was my first time acting, but I never knew anything about acting, but she taught us how to get into character. You know, we used to copy everything she do. We tried to do it (like her), she was so good. She was a good mom.”
With a smile on her face, Madina said, “I really used to copy her and I named myself ‘Copycat’ because every time I could see her getting ready, getting into character and then I do what she was doing in quiet ways and she can’t see me, but she was really good and she really helped me in some of the hard scenes that are really hard because I could not really cry because you’ll never find dancers sad.”
Most Memorable Scenes
When asked about their most memorable, favorite, or most touching scenes, each one of the actors surprised me with their responses. Not only did they mention the happy scenes or the scenes that were the most fun to shoot, but they each brought up a scene or two that elicited emotion.
Lupita’s response was profound to me. She said, “What wasn’t touching? I do remember once we were about to shoot the eviction scene, where we all get evicted and I was sitting in our tent where we’d wait and these two were very quiet. They were quite pensive and I asked them how they felt.”
“And they both mentioned how this was their life. They both experienced evictions in their past and I just remember being really moved at how this, the artifice was reflecting a real life in Phiona, but also a real in both of them and that they were having this chance to tell their story and to bring it to a larger audience that would understand the challenges of poverty, but also the triumph of people who live through it and the fact that poverty is not one’s definition, and that they were going to have this chance to put that experience of their past into very good and immediate use in the scene were about to shoot.”
“I come from a very different background. I come from a background of privilege and so I was very humbled in that moment. Because here I am playing the mother and being the shepherdess of these two going through this experience and yet, I was learning so much from them. I was just humbled by that moment and being able to take their lead as we went to do that scene.”
Martin said that one of his favorite scenes was Boda (where the kids go for their first chess competition with other children). He loved having to eat all of that chicken, since chicken was not something that he got to eat very often, if ever, growing up.
They kids had to learn that when they put food in front of you for a scene, you can’t eat it all at once. Lupita said, “We had a scene where we had to eat this stew and the art department made this stew so good, so all the kids were just scarfing it down and I was like, guy, you’ve got to slow down because you’re not going to make it! By the time we’re shooting the thing, they’re pushing it away. They didn’t want anything to do with it.”
Madina’s favorite scene was the “Cat and Dog” story. She said, “My favorite part in the movie was seeing David (Oyelowo) running around doing the cat and dog scene because not in my life (have I ever) had someone who has time for me, who has time for all of us. He had time for us, so he could do the cat and dog playing for us. It was fun for me. I liked it, but I felt it because I felt it because for all of my life, I’ve never had someone like that. And he had time for us, so I respected him, his time and I enjoyed watching what he was doing for us and it was so amazing to see him jumping. Jumping over the bed, collapsing on the floor, so that was my favorite.”
Martin added another favorite scene. He said, “Another scene that I liked in the movie is the flood scene. I liked Mama doing it. She was so real and me, I didn’t have that power of crying, but she made me cry in that scene because she was so real.”
Lupita explained what went on behind that emotional scene: “It was really cold and we shot that in South Africa over four days and it was the winter time, so it was a little shy of thirty degrees and so we would get to set, get into our costumes, go into a hot tub, get wet and then go into this freezing cold water all day. Every time they said, “cut” we’d run to this hot tub and just sit in and then we got all muddy because of the mud in the water. We’d just sit there and sing and talk and play until we had to go again.”
Since Martin added another favorite scene, Madina had to add her second favorite scene to shoot. She said, “This scene where Brian is to be knocked by a boda boda. It was so bad for me because I’ve never experienced that because it has ever knocked me. I had an accident with a car when I was little, so I saw a human being knocked down, so I knew it happens and how it feels to see someone in that much pain. So it was so bad for me and to make me remember the conditions that I was in when I was knocked down by a car, so that was my favorite one.”
Lupita On Portraying Strong African Women
Lupita was brilliant in her role as Harriet, Phiona and Brian’s strong mother, which is a testament not only to her acting ability, but also her ability to connect with her fellow actors and movie-goers. She said, “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 set out to play African women, but how happy I am to have had these opportunities because I think Africa all too often is just a blanket statement. There’s so specificity. It’s very general wash of ideas.”
“I know, being from there, that it is many splendored (place) and 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 grew up watching Mexican, Brazilian, Australian, English, American TV.”
We are all grateful that Lupita has taken on these roles and taught the rest of the world how beautiful and vibrant African women can be.
If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere where Queen of Katwe was released early, then don’t wait to see it in theaters. For the rest of us, Queen of Katwe is in theaters everywhere on September 30, 2016. Please go see it!
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