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September, 26, 2016

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3 years after '12 Years,' Nyong'o's face is back on screen

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 opens Friday, is itself an anomaly. It's a family-friendly film made in Africa with an entirely black cast -- a first for Disney. The film tells of Phiona Mutesi's (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) rise from the Katwe slums in Kampala, Uganda, to elite levels of chess. Nair shot it in South Africa and Uganda. Nyong'o plays Phiona's head-strong 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 screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, the 33-year-old would appear queen-like, herself, given her calm poise and precision with words.

Although 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."

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In this sept. 12, 2016 photo, actress Lupita Nyong'o, a cast member in the film "Queen of Katwe," poses for a portrait at The Omni King Edward Hotel in Toronto. (AP)

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