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Nyong'o embraces African role

Madina Nalwanga and Lupita Nyong'o in Queen of Katwe

Madina Nalwanga and Lupita Nyong'o in Queen of Katwe

Published Oct 15, 2016

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Cape Town - Actress Lupita Nyong’o made a decision, a long time ago, to design a career for herself that is diverse and varied.

“So the choices I’ve made reflect that. I went from doing a period drama about slavery to doing Star Wars, which could not have been more different.

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“And then I worked on The Jungle Book as the voice of the mother wolf, and now this,” Nyong’o said in an interview in Joburg, referring to Queen of Katwe.

She plays Harriet Mutesi, mother to teenager Phiona whose life on the streets of Katwe, just outside Kampala, changes dramatically when she is introduced to the game of chess.

Nyong’o frowns when a journalist asks her whether she feels any particular pressure to be the face of Africa: “No, I don’t. I don’t put any effort into being African, I just am, so I lead with what I know.

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“So, I don’t feel a sense of responsibility, I feel an opportunity.

“Growing up I didn’t have movies like Queen of Katwe and what a pleasure to be in a time when Disney is interested in making such a film, when Tendo Nagenda is an executive at Disney and makes such a film possible, when Mira Nair has lived in Uganda for 27 years and brings such authenticity to the film, when Phiona has set off to achieve her dreams and provided me with a job in the process,” the 33-year-old said.

Nagenda is the Disney vice-executive who walked the Queen of Katwe project to completion and who tapped Nair for the directing job.

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When asked about the challenge of staying authentic to Africa when she spends so much time elsewhere, Nyong’o said it simply meant she had to be very deliberate about the people she worked with: “We’re talking the films I make, the things I wear, the make-up, everything.

“I have to hold the people that know and understand me very close. It took a village to get Phiona to where she is, it took a village to get me to where I am. I am not a one-man show and that’s been very important,” she said.

The Kenyan actress (born in Mexico) arrived in Uganda weeks before the shoot started, so she could get to know the real Harriet Mutesi better, but also to perfect her accent.

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She found that learning Luganda helped her make friends with the two-year-old who played her youngest child in the film.

“My two-year-old son didn’t speak any English, so when he was first given to me, he didn’t trust me.

“So I had to actually pick up the language because he didn’t want anything to do with me,” she smiled.

* The movie is out now.

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