As bulky tears rolled down Lupita Nyong’o’s cheek, Madina Nalwanga comfortingly leaned toward her Queen of Katwe co-star, as close as the big leather armchairs they sat in would allow. The two actors were chatting about their firsts — first red carpet, first time meeting each other, first time they understood their calling — and one’s voice would ascend and descend in volume in accordance with the other, exchanging whispers, chuckles, and knowing “uh-huhs” as they reminisced about their time on set. It was obvious their closeness didn’t end with filming in Africa.
The pair was sitting down for a conversation, organized by BuzzFeed News, two days after they debuted the film at the Toronto International Film Festival this month. Prior to Katwe, 16-year-old Uganda native Nalwanga had never acted in a film, let alone been interviewed by press for one. TIFF was the very same festival where, two years before, Kenyan-raised Nyong’o helped to premiere 12 Years a Slave, a film that would yield many firsts for her, including an Academy Award.
In Queen of Katwe, Nalwanga plays the real-life Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, who grew up in the slums of Katwe, with Nyong’o in the role of her mother. Nalwanga lived separately from her own mom since she was little, and she was raised by a guardian, the man who ran the local dance academy — Brother Mark, as the pair referred to him.
While Nyong’o may not be a mother in real life, the maternal bond and friendship between the young actors was palpable. They even held each other’s hands tightly as they walked into the room for their photo shoot at The Omni King Edward Hotel in downtown Toronto.
“You hear it,” Queen of Katwe director Mira Nair told BuzzFeed News of the stars’ bond, as they laughed loudly throughout the shoot after the interview. Nalwanga would bust out dance moves and make funny faces at Nyong’o off-frame as the latter went through her photo poses, before the two clutched each other for some pictures together.
Queen of Katwe is “not a single-woman show. It takes a village. It takes a people, it takes a teacher, it takes a mother, a prismatic world,” Nair continued, echoing the kinship of its leads. Which may be why, when Nalwanga says “Mom,” Nyong’o smiles back at her.
What was your experience walking a red carpet for the first time?
Madina Nalwanga: ‘Twas amazing! I felt happy. There were very many people screaming, shouting my name.
Lupita Nyong’o: How did that make you feel?
MN: That made me feel that I have people around me, and protected. I felt like I’m back again in the movie. [both laugh]
LN: Were you scared you were going to trip? You had a long dress on.
LN: But you didn’t!
MN: Thank god.
LN: And at least you had Martin [Kabanza, co-star] and Brother Mark.
My first big red carpet was also here at TIFF when I did 12 Years A Slave. I remember I was so nervous. I was so nervous. I spent the time in the car just breathing until I went out there. And then I got to the red carpet and then they started yelling, and when they start yelling, your lips start shaking. Did they start shaking?
MN: Yeah, they did.
LN: But then they’re like, “Over the shoulder!”
MN: Me too!
LN: I had no idea what that meant. I said, “I don’t know how to do it, will you tell me how?” And then they all laughed at me. But yeah, it was nice also for me because I had the people I’d worked with on that film. I had Alfre Woodard, Sarah Paulson, Chiwetel [Ejiofor], and Michael [Fassbender]. At least you feel like your family is around, and you’re not alone, and that’s very helpful.
What was it like meeting each other for the first time?
LN: When I got to Uganda, I knew that Mira was still looking at many different girls, but there was this one girl she was feeling so excited about. They were doing workshops with her and rehearsing with her, but she’d never acted before and she’s a dancer. And all Mira was saying was, “She’s so amazing, she’s so bright, she’s so pretty, she’s so beautiful, and I really want her to get the part.” And so I was waiting to find out whether she — you — were gonna get the part. And then I found out that yes, indeed, she’s gotten the part and you’re going to meet her. I was relieved that Phiona Mutesi had finally been found.
“I gave you a hug. I knew we would be fast friends.”
But I was so nervous to meet you. I was like, oh I have to be her mother? How am I gonna be her mother? And will she like me? Will we get along? Will it be hard to bond? Then I walked into the production office to meet you and the rest of my family. And I walked in and I was introduced and you said, “Hi, Mom!” And that just warmed my heart. I was like, oh! It’s going to be really easy to get along with this girl. And I gave you a hug. I knew we would be fast friends.
And for you?
MN: When you walked into the room, Dinaz [Stafford, casting director] told me, “That’s going to be your mom, she’s going to be your mom.” And when I saw you, I was very happy. When we met, it was like, she can be a mother! That’s why I said, “Hi, Mom.” When I said it, I felt like I’m back [with] my mom again. Because I had been left, she had been gone for a long time, so when I said it inside of my heart — that my mom was back again — it was lovely being with you for the first time.
LN: Had you heard of me before?
LN: I love that! [laughs] You had no idea who I was!
LN: Which one of our scenes did you enjoy the most?
MN: I remember one scene with me and you that was really powerful to me. The scene right after I have to call you “Mom,” and when I called you “Mom,” you really accepted and just answered to me. So I called you “Mom,” and you said, “Yes! Yes!” I could not believe that you’ve really answered. It made me really remember the days that I spent with my mom. It made me feel that she’s back again.
LN: What I remember very fondly is when we weren’t shooting, you taught me all the lullabies. [sings] It really moved me. … They cut out most of our songs, but in the film, you sing that song in the airplane. That was really nice. I taught you that night, I taught you a song, do you remember the song?
MN: [singing] Once upon a time there was a field / The finest field you ever did see / In that field there was a tree / And the tree was in the field / And the green grass grows all around.
LN: [laughs and claps] You really remember it! That was really fun. And you taught me to dance! I remember we had dances between takes, ‘twas a lot of fun.
The scene I remember: When you’re calling me “Mom” when I was oiling your hair. That was so much fun, because the way you would say your “Mom” would affect the way I would say “Mmm” — it was this intonation game we were playing.
And I remember when I was trying to learn how to spit. I didn’t know how to spit! Do you remember me trying?
MN: I saw you!
LN: Were you one of the people who tried to teach me?
MN: Maybe. [laughs and nods] Maybe.
The theme of the film is wanting more for yourself. What have been times you’ve known you wanted more for yourself? And when do you feel like you’ve achieved it?
LN: I think for me, it was when … after I graduated from undergrad and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I loved acting, but I didn’t know whether it was going to be possible. ’Cause I didn’t know any Kenyans that were acting and earning a living acting. I just didn’t know what was ahead. So I was thinking, What else can I do, what else do I enjoy doing? And it always came back to: I just want to act. I finally admitted it to myself, and I thought, OK, want to do this thing and apply to schools and see if I can get in, and if I get in, then OK, I’m on the right path and I’m going to continue.
“I just didn’t know whether there was a place for me.”
But it was very scary. It was very scary because I was so far away. America is all the way over there, and although I went to school there, I didn’t know any successful Kenyan actors in the industry. I just didn’t know whether there was a place for me. But my parents were always very supportive. They were always like, “Whatever you want to do, you do it.” You know, “You try, you do it, you might fail, but you must try.” If it hadn’t been for them, I don’t think I would have had the courage to just say, “I want to be an actor,” and go for it.
Now when I’m sitting here, and this is the same place where my first film came out, and I’m here with you [to Nalwanga] and the first time you’re in a film… It moves me because I know how important it is for people to believe in you. I want so badly for you to always have that, you know? You’ve had Mark — your guardian since you were 4 — I’m so grateful to him for being there for you. I hope that you’re able to keep having the opportunity to be the bright star you are. I know how important it is to have people who champion you, you know?
[Sits up in the chair exaggeratingly] Your turn.
MN: Me. I always wanted to be a dancer. My neighbor — a dancer — would not let me follow her every time I wanted to follow her.
LN: How old were you? You were small?
MN: Yeah. She wouldn’t let me follow her. Every time I tried to follow her, she stops me and she tells me go back home. So one day, I saw her going in the evening and I followed her. I found out where she was going and I reached the entrance [of the dance academy]. Back then, I didn’t know how to do this dance, do that dance. When I sat down, that’s when Brother Mark found me. So when my neighbor saw me, she turned to me and said, “Who brought you here? Go back home! Go back home.” So Brother Mark stopped her, he said, “Leave her, let her try.” So then I tried by myself, dancing. I was a quick learner.
LN: How did you learn to believe in yourself?
MN: I had this dream of becoming a teacher. And every time I tried to teach the young ones at the [community] center, I fail. I could not believe in myself that I can do it.
Then one day, I saw my friend teaching, and I asked her: “I want to be a teacher, but it’s really hard for me to teach. How can I do it?” She told me just to believe in yourself. So one day, I sat down and I decided, “I can teach them,” and I started teaching them. They were learning very well. So it went on like that. That’s how I started to believe in myself.
LN: Is that what helped you when Queen of Katwe came?
“I know how important it is for people to believe in you.”
MN: I thought that I couldn’t act because it is my first time. I would only act in my school, but not this [kind of] acting. … When this movie came, I just said, “Lemme try and see if I can do it. Let me do what I see from the movies.” Good enough, I had you in my sight, I had Mira and Taryn [Kyaze, who plays her sister in the film]. That was my teacher. … And I had David [Oyelowo], too. So they helped me to balance, and you helped me to balance that too. And that’s how I could.
LN: Do you remember any tough scenes to shoot?
MN: Yeah, the Russian scene. I don’t like losing. In that scene I had to lose. [laughs] It was really tough and hard for me. I lost my game. It was hard for me to get into character because I had to cry. David told me, “Just think of any sad moment and then you will do it.” So I said, “OK, lemme think of any sad moment I’ve ever got in my life.” I had to do it [while] running, so when I ran, I was calling, “Mama, mama, mama,” and that moved me. It connected my mind and my heart, and that’s how I got it. We had to do it many times. But finally, I did it.
LN: I remember a shot at night, a small shot, you were sitting behind me and you were playing chess in your head. I remember that scene so well, because every time I would look back, it looked like something else was going on with you. One time you looked like you were praying, the next time you looked like you were crazy, the next time you looked like you were plotting some sinister plan, the next time it looked like you were swatting a fly. Every time I looked at you, you gave me something new.
So my question, “Phiona, what are you doing?” was always different. [both laugh] I was so amazed by that. You were so playful. Every time it was like you [were] understanding it better and better. I remember the first time you did it, you didn’t move very much, and Mira came and said, “No, we need to see you moving, move your eyes and your head,” and then that’s all you needed. That was really cool.
MN: That was my favorite. I liked it so much. I was trying to fool your mind!
LN: You were trying to fool me, eh? I liked that. The games we would play even within shooting, that was fun doing those games. I also remember when we did the eviction scene, when we get evicted from the shack, I remember preparing for that, and you and Martin were very quiet in the tent. Remember that?
LN: And I asked you what was happening. Do you remember what you said? You said: “This is our life.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.