When Queen of Katwe bows on Sept. 23, it will mark the return of Lupita Nyong’o’s face on screen after a nearly three-year absence. Yes, we heard her voice as Maz Kanata in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and as Raksha the Wolf in The Jungle Book, but only lucky New York theater-goers with tickets to Eclipsed have seen her craft a full performance since she stunned audiences into tearful silence with her portrayal of the slave Patsey in the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave.
Nyong’o says her absence wasn’t intentional. “In retrospect, I was looking for ways to reengage my artistry, and there have certainly been things I passed on to do the things I felt gave me the right amount of challenge,” she says, calling her part as Harriet Mutesi in Katwe one of those specific challenges. Nyong’o was also detained from pursuing challenging parts by the months-long Oscar campaign for 12 Years. “I spent a lot of time talking about acting and not acting.”
David Oyelowo, who costars opposite Nyong’o in the upcoming Disney film about young Ugandan chess champion Phiona Mutesi, is thrilled she remained so selective and didn’t feel pressure to strike while the proverbial iron was hot.
“I couldn’t think of anything worse than seeing her playing one slave after another,” he says, acknowledging the dangers of being typecast, especially after such a singular debut performance.
That clearly won’t be the case with Katwe. Director Mira Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler crafted the role of Harriet Mutesi, Phiona’s mother, specifically for Nyong’o. Nair found striking similarities between the two women, primarily a rootedness to themselves and the world around them, despite their disparate cultures.
“For me, it was always going to be Lupita,” says Nair, calling from her longtime home in Kampala, Uganda. “I thought of Harriet as a young Mother Courage. That quality is deep in Lupita. She has that anchored-ness.”
To Nyong’o, the role of Harriet was an opportunity to play a young mother of five who despite her hardships maintained a “cheekiness” to her character.
Says Nyong’o, “It was the first time I felt really awakened by a script and super challenged.”
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