When Mira Nair (Vanity Fair) was casting Queen of Katwe, the true-life story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, the only woman she could imagine playing the child’s determined mother was her intern from her 2007 film, The Namesake. Only this young woman, who was also the daughter of Nair’s husband’s oldest and dearest friend, had the grit to take on the role of Harriet, the mother of five who endured the death of her husband and abject poverty to enable her daughter to thrive. It helped that this intern had since become an Oscar winner and one of the most sought-after actresses on the planet: Lupita Nyong’o.
“She was my only choice,” said Nair of her dear family friend.
The two women go way back. Not only did Nyong’o work in Nair’s New York production office for Nair’s seventh feature film, in 2006 she was also her production assistant at Nair’s Ugandan film school Maisha, which has trained more than 650 filmmakers in East Africa.
“Forget [Lupita] making travel plans, I think all the young filmmakers just wanted to cast her in their films,” says Nair.
Nair also wrote a letter on Nyong’o’s behalf when she was applying for her U.S. visa. “She’s like a daughter,” she says.
Despite knowing her so well, Nair was still impressed by Nyong’o’s work ethic. The Oscar-winning actress came to Uganda early to spend time with the young first-time actors who would become her on-screen children. She also learned how the local women sat in the marketplace, carried themselves when they walked down the street, even how they swept the floors.
“There was a consistency in her emotion. Nothing could distract her. That leads to a really authentic, truthful space,” says Nair. “She’s not striving to convey something, she’s already embodying it.”
For Nyong’o, the physical attributes of a specific character serve as an entry point to unlocking their uniqueness. To play Harriet, she needed to understand how her body worked. “Harriet’s lifestyle is way more earthen then mine,” she says. “The buying and selling of corn. They do sit very low on the ground and they have very, very flexible hips. I did a lot of yoga to get my hips to relax like hers.”
That dedication wasn’t lost on David Oyelowo (Selma), who plays Phiona’s chess coach and mentor. “One of the enduring images I have of Lupita is her insisting on having all this wrapping on her hips, so she could swing [them] like the women of the village,” says Oyelowo. “God is in the details of that woman. This is a true-blue actress who did everything she could to go toward her character.”
Queen of Katwe opens on Sept. 23.
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