David Oyelowo knew the minute he saw the script for “Queen of Katwe” that he wanted in. The “Selma” star, 40, plays chess coach Robert Katende in the big-screen biopic, based on the life of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan teen who became an international chess champion. Oyelowo, who was born in England and lives in Los Angeles, was at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Miami to discuss the Disney film, out Friday.
How did you first get involved with “Queen of Katwe”?
The script came to me, and I was instantly surprised that a film of this nature was being made by Disney. Normally films highlighting Africa don’t have this type of [uplifting] content. Sometimes we just see the negative side of that continent. I thought that this was this type of project that I would try to cobble money together for and try to get off the ground. Plus it was directed by Mira Nair [“Mississippi Masala”] who is phenomenal. Then you throw in Lupita Nyong’o as Phiona’s mother. Put it all together, I would say it was a no-brainer.
How much did you know about the game before shooting started?
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Nothing! I had never had paid much attention, really. But now I can play chess. And I came to learn how it’s a useful tool in teaching life lessons to children. I tend to enjoy the challenge of knowing very little about the character or their world of expertise. The fun thing about my job is you become a momentary expert on things. I’m someone who is very curious about life in general.
How much involvement did you have with the actual man you played?
Robert was a consultant on the film and on set every day and was an incredible asset for me. When you are playing a real person there is stuff that you wonder about: How do they walk? How do they speak? How do they interact when they’re around others? I was able to witness that firsthand all the time.
What was the shooting experience like?
We were in the actual village of Katwe in July and August of last year. Being there was to make the scenes feel as authentic as they do. We actually shot in locations where events took place.
What was your favorite on-set memory?
I would have to say one of Lupita perfecting her ‘market-seller walk.’ She had this waddle down that she had observed by watching some of the women there. Shall we say some of them had wider hips? That was fun watching her practice and then see it on the screen. It’s all in the right movement. She had it down.
You’ve been so busy making movies the last few years — “Lincoln,” “Interstellar,” “The Butler,” “Selma.” Any sign of slowing down?
Yes, I have! But I’m certainly not going to complain. It’s been an incredible blessing and privilege. I just love storytelling, and I’ve been afforded extraordinary opportunities as an actor and producer as well. The stories I’m a part of are not just a gig to me, they’re not just as job. They have stories and images and philosophies that I as an audience member can appreciate. I have another film coming up called “A United Kingdom” another true life story based on the book “Colour Bar” by Susan Williams. I will also be doing stage work — “Othello” at the New York Theater Workshop, with Daniel Craig as Iago. The busy-ness continues!
How do you keep it together with all your various projects?
I have a very wonderful family [wife is actress Jessica Watson]. They keep me grounded. If I’m not on a movie set I’m with them. They are my sanity and my insanity all at once. With four kids and three dogs, there’s never a dull moment, I can promise you. It’s the best in the world when I get home, and I’m completely buried by love.
Do you have a dream role?
I feel like I kind of achieved that by playing Martin Luther King in “Selma.” I had wanted to do that for a long time. [HBO’s 2014 psychological thriller] “Nightingale” was very interesting. That character was a bit off. I think he was someone who had been bubbling down deep inside of me. Yes. My journey certainly bears interesting fruit!