You can’t miss Lupita Nyong’o. She took home an Oscar for her role as Patsey in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, gave life to Maz Kanata in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and this year received a Tony nomination for her breakout stage debut in Eclipsed. It doesn’t take long to see what all the buzz is about.
Nyong’o is that rare Hollywood star who speaks as passionately about a role as the story’s creator. Her latest project, Queen of Katwe, finds her portraying the mother of a chess prodigy from Katwe, Uganda. Unsuprisingly, to critical acclaim.
What stood out to you about the Queen of Katwe role?
The fact that it is a true story, an uplifting story from east Africa, meant so much to me. Nothing like it had crossed my desk. But it was also the fact that I would be playing a woman who was very afraid of the dreams and the dreamer, and who has to come to terms with letting her daughter pursue more than she thought was possible.
Ten pages in, I put down the script and made it known that I was going to have to make the film.
Are you normally sold that early?
It was definitely an exception. I haven’t felt that way about a script ever. I’ve never been this sure so early on in a script. I wanted to do it.
What was that like to inhabit developing Uganda?
It was great that we were shooting on location because I could visit Katwe. I could visit with the real Harriet, the real Fiona [Harriet’s daughter], the real Robert Katende [a Christian missionary played in the film by David Oyelowo] and really see who they are and observe the world they live in. It was about getting there and allowing my eyes, my ears, my nose to take it all in.
You’re often in roles with a message that matters. Is that in mind when you approach acting?
I gravitate toward and am attracted to roles and stories that are complex, that say something and teach me something new about the human spirit. I do believe in redeeming social value potential, and I am attracted to those kinds of stories because I do think that cinema and television, popular culture, really is the way in this day and age that we understand the world. When a story interacts with the world beyond our immediate surroundings, it gives us a better understanding of the world we live in.
Where does that desire for impactful acting come from?
My father has been a politician all my life and he’s been in that kind of social service all my life. My mother, as well, is a social servant by default, and I’ve been raised with a strong philosophy to be useful in the world. I think it’s very much in the fabric of my upbringing.