Ugandan Actress's Journey Mirrors That Of Her 'Queen Of Katwe' Character Like her chess champion character, first-time film actress Madina Nalwanga grew up in a poor neighborhood in Uganda. She says co-star Lupita Nyong'o has been her guide to the world of moviemaking.
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Ugandan Actress's Journey Mirrors That Of Her 'Queen Of Katwe' Character

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

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

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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 and becomes an unlikely champion. In this case, the talent is for chess.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "QUEEN OF KATWE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You can see eight moves ahead?

MADINA NALWANGA: (As Phiona Mutesi) Checkmate. Checkmate. Checkmate.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: She won.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: You could be the best in all of Uganda.

NALWANGA: Coach, how can I become a champion?

SIEGEL: In other ways, this 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 both celebrities and newcomers. Our co-host, Ari Shapiro, recently spoke with the two stars of the film.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Lupita Nyong'o is an Oscar winner who's on the cover of the latest issue of Vogue. Madina Nalwanga is from a poor neighborhood in Kampala, Uganda, and she's never made a movie before. A casting director found her in a community dance class. Like her character, Fiona, Madina grew up struggling to help her family pay for basic things, like education.

NALWANGA: Fiona, she sold maze, yeah.

SHAPIRO: Selling corn.

NALWANGA: Yeah, and I also did.

SHAPIRO: You did, too?

NALWANGA: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And like Fionna, who travels the world for Chess Championships, Madina is now rocketing through worlds she never imagined. Lupita Nyong'o, who plays her mother in the film, has been Madina's guide through that world. And Madina was Lupita's guide to Uganda.

NALWANGA: I taught her how to make Ugandan food - matoke - to prepare all of that.

SHAPIRO: Matoke is mashed plantations?

NALWANGA: Yeah. And this one time, we went to the market because if you're not wise enough in Uganda, shopping might be a little bit hard for you.

LUPITA NYONG'O: You also taught me Luganda itself.

NALWANGA: Yeah, Luganda also.

NYONG'O: You taught me how to sing all those lullabies.

SHAPIRO: Luganda is the language. Can you sing us a lullaby that you learned?

NYONG'O: We can sing it together.

NALWANGA: OK.

NYONG'O: You lead me.

NALWANGA: (Singing in foreign language).

NYONG'O: (Singing) Cha, cha, cha.

NALWANGA: (Singing in foreign language).

NYONG'O: (Singing) Cha, cha, cha.

NALWANGA: (Singing in foreign language).

NYONG'O: (Singing) Cha, cha, cha.

NALWANGA: (Singing in foreign language).

NYONG'O: (Singing) Cha, cha, cha.

NALWANGA: (Singing in foreign language).

NYONG'O: (Singing) Cha, cha, cha.

NALWANGA: (Singing in foreign language).

NYONG'O: (Singing) Cha, cha, cha.

NALWANGA: (Singing in foreign language).

NYONG'O: (Singing) Cha, cha, cha.

NALWANGA: (Singing in foreign language).

NYONG'O: (Singing) Cha, cha, cha.

SHAPIRO: That's a lovely lullaby.

NYONG'O: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: In some ways, your backgrounds are very different from one another. Lupita, you grew up in Kenya in a family with many opportunities and privileges. And Madina, I understand you grew up in a poor neighborhood of Uganda. But, Lupita, did you see a reflection of yourself in Madina in some ways?

NYONG'O: I - yeah (laughter). I did, and I do. I mean, Madina is so full of life. And she's taking everything on, even just, like, the red carpet. When we were at TIFF...

SHAPIRO: This is the Toronto Film Festival.

NYONG'O: Yes. We were getting ready together, and - 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's in her element, you know?

SHAPIRO: Madina, what was that like for you?

NALWANGA: It wasn't so easy for me hearing all these people calling my name - on your right, on your shoulders. 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's supposed to be inside the house.

(LAUGHTER)

NALWANGA: And so when people told me, you're going to hit the red carpet, I was like, red carpet? OK. I want to see the difference between the carpet that I know that is supposed to be inside the house and that carpet that you're really telling me. These are all new things to my eyes.

NYONG'O: And you've also had new food.

NALWANGA: Yeah, I've had new food.

NYONG'O: Like what?

NALWANGA: I tried the smoothie and this Mexican breakfast.

NYONG'O: Huevos rancheros.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: What did you think of them?

NALWANGA: When I had it my very first time, it was nice.

NYONG'O: (Laughter) She loved it.

SHAPIRO: Madina, English is not your first language, is that correct?

NALWANGA: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: So did you practice lines with each other on set? Was it difficult for you to do this entire movie in English? I mean your English is obviously very, very good, but...

NALWANGA: Thank you.

NYONG'O: But you would practice. You...

NALWANGA: Yeah.

NYONG'O: She worked extremely hard, and I think her discipline as a dancer came in very handy because she just would not stop, you know?

NALWANGA: Lupita, she really helped me, like, to get into the character all the time. I could see her getting ready to be in the character, and then I copy her. I could copy everything that she does, but in a silent way because I never wanted her to see me doing what she was doing.

SHAPIRO: Can you give me an example of something that you copied from her?

NALWANGA: OK. We had tough scenes whereby we have to cry. And it was kind of hard for me to cry. But I saw her getting ready. She was exercising all the time.

NYONG'O: I was loosening my jaw...

(LAUGHTER)

NYONG'O: ...Like, you know, with my hands, you know?

SHAPIRO: And then did you look across the room and see Madina doing the same thing?

NYONG'O: No, she came up to me, and she asked me what I was doing and why. And I told her I was loosening my jaw so that I could - you know, 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. It was very sweet.

SHAPIRO: There's a scene in the film where Fiona is going to chess championships and winning. And - and, Lupita, your character, her mother, says, what will happen when she returns to her life here in the slums? She won't belong in one place or another. She'll be a ghost. Have the two of you had conversations about what happens when this film is no longer in theaters, when there are no more red carpets, when there are no more paparazzi, when the spectacle surrounding this has gone away?

NYONG'O: Yeah, and this is an ongoing conversation. But Madina, what do you want to do? You said it yesterday. What do you want to do more than anything?

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

NYONG'O: But what I love about Madina is that she shares that fierce, fierce determination with Fiona of, like, finishing her education. Fiona 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 Fiona'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 I encourage that in her.

SHAPIRO: When this film is over and, Madina, you're back in school in Uganda and, Lupita, you're filming on your next set, wherever that may be, what do you think the relationship between the two of you will be?

NYONG'O: There's just no end in sight and no end desired. We've talked to each other. At least once every two, three weeks we've talked. So yeah, I - I am here for her, if she will have me.

(LAUGHTER)

NALWANGA: I'll have you.

NYONG'O: Lupita Nyong'o and Madina Nalwanga, thank you so much.

NYONG'O: Thank you.

NALWANGA: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: They're stars of the new movie "Queen Of Katwe."

NYONG'O: What was that crazy Luganda song you were teaching me?

NALWANGA: Which one?

NYONG'O: What was it? (Singing in foreign language).

NALWANGA: (Singing in foreign language).

NYONG'O: (Singing in foreign language).

NALWANGA: (Singing in foreign language).

NYONG'O: (Singing in foreign language).

NALWANGA: (Singing in foreign language).

NYONG'O: (Singing in foreign language).

NALWANGA: (Singing in foreign language).

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