The Queen of Katwe is Madina Nalwanga's debut film. The sixteen-year-old Ugandan was discovered at a dance studio where she was a performer and tapped to play Phiona Mutesi, a real-life chess prodigy who rose up from poverty to become a national champion. Madina and Phiona both grew up poor in Uganda's capital city, Kampala, and they both sold corn on the streets to support their families. Lupita Nyong'o, who plays Phiona's mother in The Queen of Katwe, spoke to Madina about her first experiences in front of the camera, what she learned from costar David Oyelowo (who plays Phiona's chess coach and mentor), and how she drew on her own experiences for the film.
Lupita Nyong'o: What was going through your head as you were watching the movie for the first time at the Toronto Film Festival? Were there particular scenes you liked?
Madina Nalwanga: Very many things were going through my head. There is this scene that we did and I called you, "Mum, oh mama," and you just replied and said, "Yes?" It just made me remember those days with my mum before leaving her, like it was really nice for me to hear you answering me back as a mum. It touched me so much.
LN: You still call me mum.
LN: Do I respond?
MN: You do.
LN: It's amazing how that has happened, that you call me mama and I actually respond, even now, one and a half years after we filmed this movie. Can you tell me about when you left your mum and why?
MN: OK. My mum knew that I had a dream of becoming a dancer, because one day these dancers came to our home to perform. When I saw them dancing I also tried what they were doing, then my mum saw me. When they left I told her, "I really like this."
I was about four. I could see my neighbor leaving her house every evening, and when I followed her she went to a dance school. I also entered. I saw people dancing. I was very happy. So she found me sitting on the veranda, and she told me, "Who brought you here? Go back home." That's how Brother Mark found me, and he told her, "No, leave her."
The next day Brother Mark came to my mother's home, they talked. My mum told Brother Mark, "You know, she really likes dancing, and I don't know what I can do. I have to make sure that she goes to school, but she has to sell corn, because the money that comes from that maize, I can use that money to pay school fees."
Brother Mark told my mum, "It is fine. At the center we pay school fees for everyone as long as they participate." That's when I started staying at the dance center. That's how I left my mum, and she was happy, because she wanted me to pursue my dream and she wanted me to go to school too. But I still see her.
LN: They found you for Queen of Katwe at the dance center, right?
MN: Yeah. They were looking for dancers, and we performed for them. They gave me a line to say, and I said it for them: "Mama, how does a city person get to have a house?" The next day they called me to one of the biggest hotels in Uganda. I had to go through workshops, some outfits, everything. I really had to work hard for that. It was like three weeks. I wasn't actually used to the cameras; it was my first time.