Finding the Right Girl to be a Queen

 

Life in Uganda for 9-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is a constant struggle. She spends her days selling vegetables on the streets of Katwe, one of the most poverty-stricken slums in Kampala, so school is not an option. Her mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), a proud and strong-willed woman, works hard to support her family, and while she loves and protects her children with a fierce compassion she is consumed by the daily grind and worries that she can never offer them the promise of a better life.

 

Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) offers that promise. Katende runs a chess program for Katwe children from a makeshift Agape Church utilizing the game as a platform to engage and sharpen their minds. Chess cultivates abstract thinking, innovation and creativity, skills that will prepare them for a formal education and a better life. When Phiona follows her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) to the church one day, she observes Katende sharing the fundamentals of chess with children her own age. It is a moment that will seal her destiny.

 

As you can imagine, the challenge of casting the role of Phiona Mutesi is a formidable one, as she appears in almost every scene of the film. The character undergoes a transformation from child on the streets to a champion chess player in under four years, and the actor cast would need to hold her own alongside such acting heavy weights as Nyong’o and Oyelowo. The casting process took over a year, during which time the filmmakers looked at close to 700 girls from the UK, South Africa and East Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Ironically, the production found their Phiona just 15-minutes down the road in Kibuli, an area not far from Katwe, weeks before filming began.

 

Casting director Dinaz Stafford (“Mississippi Masala,” “The Perez Family”) first spotted 14-year-old Madina Nalwanga in a dance rehearsal at the Sosolya Undugu Dance Academy and could not take her eyes off her. “While slightly older than what we were originally looking for, she was simply electric,” says Stafford. “I asked her to audition for the role and filmed her on my phone doing a simple scene, and felt that she had the confidence to take on the part.”

 

It took another six weeks of intense workshops and training for director Mira Nair to be convinced that Madina indeed could carry the role of Phiona. “We were working in Ugandan English and English is not the language that Madina thinks in. But ultimately she internalized the scenes to such an extent that language didn’t matter,” says Nair. “That was such a relief as I always wanted to film her. Her physicality is so arresting and her spirit so exquisite. And she is the real thing.”

 

“The only way to describe her is luminous,” continues Nair. “Madina has this light inside her that just shines, and from our first shot to our last, she was phenomenal. She’s an extraordinary, poised young woman who met every challenge with grace, humility and humor.”

 

Like Phiona, Madina was selling corn on the streets with her brother when she was 4 years old before the owner of the dance academy, which offers shelter, education and dance and drama skills to socially disadvantaged and vulnerable youth, rescued her.

 

“Phiona’s story is like my story,” Madina says. “Her background is like my background, but for her it was chess that changed everything and for me it was dancing and singing.”

 

“I watched Madina do things that can’t be taught – the truthfulness, the subtlety, the confidence,” says Oyelowo. “I honestly don’t know where she got it from. She lives not far from the Katwe slum where Phiona grew up and here she is, the lead in a gigantic studio movie and she is wearing it with such grace, such humility and with such ability. To be around her is pure joy for me.”

 

Adds Nyong’o, “Seeing Madina grow on a day-to-day basis and from scene to scene was spellbinding. She has an instinct for this thing called acting. Mira never has to tell her anything twice. By the next take she will have deepened her understanding of the dynamic, what’s happening in the moment and she’ll give you something else.”

 

“You have to be very well disciplined to be an actor,” says Nalwanga, “And you need to be respectful to everyone. I made so many friends during filming and think of them now as my family. I will carry everyone’s laugh in my heart and will never forget this experience.”

 

The Queen of Katwe is now in theaters.

@colormagazineusa