Ugandan Actress's Journey Mirrors That Of Her 'Queen Of Katwe' Character

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<em>Queen of Katwe</em> was filmed in English, but that isn't Madina Nalwanga's first language. "She worked extremely hard," co-star Lupita Nyong'o says, "and I think her discipline as a dancer came in very handy."

The new movie Queen of Katwe has a familiar theme: It's the real-life story of a girl from the slums who discovers an unlikely talent (chess) and becomes an unlikely champion. But in other ways, the film is revolutionary: It may be the first time a major studio (Disney) has set a movie in Africa with all black actors and no animals.

The cast includes Lupita Nyong'o, an Oscar-winning actress who is on the current (October) cover of Vogue, and Madina Nalwanga, a teenager from a poor neighborhood in Kampala, Uganda, who has never made a movie before. (A casting director found Nalwanga in a community dance class.)

Like her character, Phiona, Nalwanga grew up struggling to help her family pay for basic things, like education. And like Phiona, who travels the world for chess championships, Nalwanga is now rocketing through worlds she never imagined. Nyong'o, who plays Phiona's mother in the film, has been Nalwanga's guide through that world. And as the actresses tell NPR's Ari Shapiro, Nalwanga was Nyong'o's guide to Uganda.

"I told her how to make Ugandan food, matoke [mashed plantains], to prepare all of that," Nalwanga says. She also taught Nyong'o Luganda, the major language of Uganda, and some Ugandan lullabies.

Interview Highlights

On Nalwanga's first red carpet

Nyong'o: When we were at TIFF [the Toronto International Film Festival] we were getting ready together and I was nervous that she was going to do this. And then I see video of her coming out of the car and she just looks like she is in her element, you know.

Nalwanga: It wasn't so easy for me hearing all these people calling my name. ... Please do this, do that. I wasn't used to that. I've never dreamt of standing on that red carpet. Actually what I knew about the red carpet — it's just a carpet that is supposed to be inside the house. ... These are all new things to my eyes.

On what Nyong'o taught Nalwanga about acting

Nalwanga: Lupita, she really helped me, like, to get into the character all the time. I could see her getting ready to be the character and then I copied her. I would copy everything that she does, but in a silent way because I never wanted her to see me doing what she was doing. ... We had tough scenes whereby we have to cry. And it was kind of hard to me to cry, but I saw her getting ready — she was exercising all the time.

Nyong'o: I was loosening my jaw, like you know, with my hands. ... She came up to me and she asked me what I was doing and why, and I told her. I was loosening my jaw. ... Sometimes when you're nervous or something like that, your jaw gets caught up and then you can't really enunciate. Then she walked away, and then shortly after that I walked by the set when she was doing a scene without me and between takes she was loosening her jaw. Very sweet.

On what Nalwanga plans to do after the red carpets

Nalwanga: I want to go back to school. And I want to continue with acting and also dancing.

Nyong'o: What I love about Madina is that she shares that fierce, fierce determination with Phiona of finishing her education. Phiona didn't come to our set because she was in school. That kind of fierce, fierce determination — these are lives that are still very much being formed. This is Phiona's history and she has a complete future ahead of her and she knows she has to work to get to where she wants to get to. And I think Madina understands that, too. In fact, she's been lamenting about not having enough time to study, and I really admire that and encourage that in her.

On whether Nalwanga and Nyong'o will stay in touch

Nyong'o: We've talked to each other at least once every two, three weeks. ... So yeah, I am here for her if she will have me.

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