Nyong’o’s back on screen 3 years after ‘12 Years’

Jake Coyle
Associated Press

Toronto –

The filmmaker Mira Nair was familiar with the regal grace of Lupita Nyong’o long before most.

The Indian-born, New York-based Nair has been close friends with Nyong’o’s family for years. One of Nyong’o’s first jobs in the movies was interning in New York for Nair’s production company. She also later worked for Nair’s Uganda-centered film school, Maisha Film Labs.

What does Nair recall of Nyong’o as a younger woman?

“Like she is: immensely thoughtful and stylish,” Nair says with a laugh. “She wouldn’t speak unless she had something to say. And full of fun, which sometime you guys don’t see. But there’s a real appetite for life there.”

In the African chess prodigy tale “Queen of Katwe,” a now much more established Nyong’o has reunited with Nair for a film that reflects much of the actress’s past, as well as her future. It is, surprisingly, the first time moviegoers have gotten to see Nyong’o’s face on screen since her breakout, Oscar-winning performance in 2013’s “12 Years a Slave.”

In the three years since, she’s appeared in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in a motion-capture performance, lent her voice to “The Jungle Book” and starred on Broadway in Danai Guirira’s Liberian drama “Eclipsed,” earning a Tony nomination. But “Queen of Katwe,” she says, epitomizes the kind of film she wants to be in.

“The success of ‘12 Years of Slave’ has put me in a position where I can choose,” Nyong’o said in a recent interview. “I want to honor the opportunity that I’ve been given. So I’ve worked very hard to choose things that I’m passionate about because I think I’m most useful when I feel conviction. I want to continue to do work that moves me and develops cultural conversations.

“It takes one film at a time, one story at a time, to actually shift the norm,” she adds.

“Queen of Katwe,” which opened Friday, is itself an anomaly. The film, about Phiona Mutesi’s (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) rise from the Katwe slums in Kampala, Uganda, to elite levels of chess, is a family-friendly film made in Africa with an entirely black cast — a first for Disney. Nair shot it in South Africa and Uganda. Nyong’o plays Phiona’s headstrong mother.

The local flavor, as well as the real people the story is based on (who appear briefly, but movingly, at the end), gives “Queen of Katwe” an infectious spirit. During one celebratory scene in Katwe, extras mixed with nearby onlookers, eager to join in the exultation.

“Because this doesn’t happen very often, we were all filled with such gratitude to be able to tell this story,” says Nyong’o.

Even if Nyong’o wasn’t sitting in a high-back chair at a Toronto hotel shortly after the film’s Toronto International Film Festival, the 33-year-old would appear queen-like, herself, given her calm poise and precision with words.

Yet though Nyong’o now seems remarkably at home on any red carpet, she spent years hesitating to commit to acting. As an undergrad at Hampshire College, she initially explored other roles on film sets.

“I was just trying to figure out where in this industry, if not in the front of the camera, I would fit in,” she says. “I had always been discouraged that it was possible. I was from Kenya and I didn’t know any Kenyan actors in America. It just didn’t seem like a possible career path.”

Nyong’o, born in Mexico and raised in Kenya, had a very different upbringing than the impoverished ones of “Queen of Katwe.” But, as Nair says, “Like Phiona, she’s harnessed her potential and thankfully the world has rewarded her for it.”

“I spent a lot of time denying the fact that I wanted to be an actor, and I felt I could bring this to the film,” Nyong’o says. “It’s about having the courage to pursue your dream and it takes courage because sometimes your dreams are unconventional and surprising and uncomfortable for those around you to understand.”

But shortly after graduating the Yale School of Drama, Nyong’o landed the role of Patsey in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years of Slave,” immediately catapulting her to stardom.

“It definitely was a lot all at once,” she says. “One of the things I focused on as everything was happening was saying yes — making my bowl bigger. Often times, people teach you to prepare for failure, but they don’t necessarily teach you to prepare for success.”

One of Nyong’o’s early film experiences was as a production assistant on “The Constant Gardner,” the John le Carre adaptation about a British diplomat in Kenya whose wife is murdered. Nyong’o, though, would like to see more stories like “Queen of Katwe” make it to movie screens.

“Because I grew up on the African continent, I understand we’re about more than war and famine and wildlife,” she says. “My childhood opened me up to the rest of the world. I had a very multicultural upbringing. So I know that we have a lot to offer. We have a lot to offer in the world of cinema.”