Lupita Nyong'o on her role in 'Queen of Katwe' and shooting in Uganda

TORONTO - Three weeks before Queen of Katwe co-star Lupita Nyong'o began shooting in the Ugandan slum of the film's title, she visited with the woman she plays, Harriet Mutesi, in the house that her chess-wizard daughter, Phiona, built for her.

"I sat with her on the floor and talked to her and observed her," Nyong'o said earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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Actor Lupita Nyong'o

"She's very grounded. She reminds me of a baobab tree that grows in very arid places, but is full," Nyong'o said.

"I grew up in a family that was very supportive of pursuing your dreams," said the 33-year-old Oscar-winner for 12 Years a Slave, "and so I believe in the power of trying to achieve the impossible. My life is a testament to that.

"But Harriet has the complete opposite view when we meet her. For her, dreaming is dangerous. . . . She had her first child when she was 15. And then her husband died of AIDS and left her with five children. She had known nothing but strife, and that was the world she was preparing her children for."

Yet Harriet comes to realize, Nyong'o said, "that the best way to show her daughter true love is to let her go and try and achieve the things that were not possible for her."

For Nyong'o, that worldview is personal.

She was born in Mexico, where her father was a visiting professor, but raised in Kenya. When she was 16, her parents sent her back to Mexico.

"They knew that Mexico was important to me - I have a Mexican name - and they wanted me to learn about the place and grow up. If it had not been for their courage and faith, I would not have had that experience," she said.

In Katwe, the stakes for a parent of letting go are, of course, higher. "Living in Katwe is about survival," Nyong'o said. "It takes courage to let your children go out every day - even just to sell the corn that ends up feeding the family."

It was that present sense of danger and poverty that made it essential for director Mira Nair, a Uganda resident for more than two decades, to shoot her film in Katwe, Nyong'o said.

"It was constant research and constant absorption about what Harriet and her family's life was like. There were open sewers and rickety bridges. . . . Life was going on.

"I remember one time [co-star] David [Oyelowo] and I were doing a scene, and a goat just walked into the shot. Mira loves this kind of stuff. She loves dealing with the environs as they are. You have to keep going.

"A film like this adds a different dimension to what you know of Uganda or what it might be like to come from an African slum," Nyong'o said. "But it's made familiar to you because at the center of it are real people dealing with real life."

Nyong'o thinks this is especially important because the only thing many Westerners know of Uganda is the dictator Idi Amin.

"The importance of Queen of Katwe," she said, "is that you learn that a place that can seem so far can be so familiar."

gensleh@phillynews.com

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