In her new movie, Queen of Katwe, Lupita Nyong’o brings her talent and brilliance to a story from her native East Africa. To celebrate, she takes Vogue—and the most glorious prints of the season—to her family’s village in Kenya.
Lupita Nyong’o walks tall, much taller than her height. Her mother, Dorothy, once said that her family will forever tease her about how she walks: as if she believes she’s six feet tall. (She’s five-five.) The first time I meet her, at a laid-back taverna in Brooklyn, where she lives, I feel that walk. She is cool, straight-backed, circumspect. She doesn’t ooze emotion the way many young Americans do. She orders the green eggs and lamb, and lets the joke speak for itself, not offering a gratuitous laugh. But once we start speaking about her work, she’s all in, as if able to forget the public Lupita for a moment or two, slip inside the details of story and character, and let go.
Around Christmas of 2014, Lupita got an email from the director Mira Nair with the script for Queen of Katwe, which tells how Phiona Mutesi, an uneducated girl from the slums of Uganda, rises to become the chess champion of her country and an international chess master. Nair wanted her to play Phiona’s mother, Harriet. “Five pages in I wrote my manager and agent with the words ‘I must do this film,’ ” says Lupita.
“To play a mother of four in Uganda, a formidable mother who has so much working against her, was so compelling to me. It wasn’t something I thought I’d be asked to do”—at least not by Hollywood. “The fact that it was based on a true story, an uplifting story out of Africa. . . .” She inhales and shakes her head. “Oh, my goodness, all my dreams were coming true in that script.”
I’d just seen her on Broadway in Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed. She played a fifteen-year-old Liberian called the Girl, sheltering with wives numbers one and three of a Liberian commander who is never seen onstage. The Girl is forced to become the fourth wife until Maima (wife number two), a warrior with an AK-47, shows up and persuades her to escape captivity and join the fight. Lupita gave an incredibly physical performance. She leaped, wailed, hid, manipulated her face in the exaggerated way children do. She inhabited the child’s naïveté and ruthlessness, and crumbled, too, like a child.
“Lupita employs a powerful intellect in her work and makes very deep, very intricate choices. And she’s just relentless in her pursuit of authenticity and specificity of the character,” says Gurira, who is an actress (The Walking Dead) as well as a playwright. “She is 150 percent every second, doing more and more work offstage, growing in her understanding of that world. It’s a dream for a writer.” It’s what Lupita said she needed “after that long roller-coaster ride that culminated in the Academy Awards.”