Gladys Oyenbot is celebrated within Uganda’s film and theatre circles for different roles in productions like Yat Madit, Silent Voices, GAAD, Much Ado About Nothing and short films like A Haunted Soul. But Oyenbot’s role in Hollywood’s Disney Feature film in Uganda, Queen of Katwe is one she holds so dearly.
Starring as the shopkeeper from whom Lupita Nyong’o (as Phionah Mutesi’s mother) buys paraffin to fuel the lamp so her daughter read her chess book at night, this multitasking actress did more than just one role.
“Being Lupita’s double and stand in was amazing. It was a brilliant and life changing moment for me…” she confesses. Oyenbot has nature to thank for this.
“As an actor when I was given the role because we are the same height, the same colour, I thought ‘wow, this is perfect!’ I was called in to go meet Lupita so they could see and compare our skin tone and height. Sean Babitu was the man on camera A, and he thought the likeness was perfect.”
Whenever Lupita was on set, Oyenbot was there with her. Whenever it was her time to shoot, they would use Oyenbot to stand in, to set the camera and the lighting, to set the tone… The technical crew “rehearse on you the stand in” so that by the time the lead comes in, they are set simply to shoot, so that they do not go through the hustle of camera angles, light set up.
While that was the role for which she was cast, because Oyenbot was on set nearly all the time, this availability played well in her favour. While she played behind the scenes, she was fortunate enough to land that role of shop keeper. “Miira Nair agreed that I could do it, even I didn’t expect to get an extra role!”
Five minutes of fame
“That was me in the shop, after Lupita sold off her gomesi to buy paraffin,” she says with a cheery laugh. “But I nearly missed seeing myself, I was so fat then”. She looped me into her infectious laugh as I watched her currently lean self with amazement.
Playing a minor or extra role did not waver Oyenbot one bit. Despite being a professional actress, she says “the fact that I was a part of our own story was a big thing, regardless of whether I did not have a major role. Being part of the project, even if it meant sweeping the streets where other extras were passing, I would have gladly taken it,” she retorted in earnest.
She emphasized that Queen of Katwe is “our thing,” and “We needed to own it. It felt like was victory, and it turned out such a beautiful film.”
When I asked her if there were any lessons she learnt from Lupita, ironically, Oyenbot out rightly said “Humility”. However, I was of the contrary, bearing in mind my first encounter with the famed Hollywood actress and her obstinate nature, her unwillingness to mingle freely with people at the Ugandan premiere at Century Cinemax and declining to take pictures with them. Perhaps it’s the Hollywood way!
But Oyenbot emphasises, “she is very reserved and calm. When it’s business, it is business. When they give you five minutes off set, use them to relax. She would also call for me and ask that I teach her how to kneel, how to jeer...” Oyenbot disclosed.
When and where were you born?
I was born on July 11, 1982 in Panyigoro Nebbi District.
Besides the obvious; that acting is my passion, there is the fact that I am exceptionally good at it. I chose acting because it gives me leeway to freely express myself and discover things about me that I wouldn’t have known, done or been capable of doing.
Your local and international inspirations
Meryl Streep, Kate Blanchete, Halle Berry, Zoe Saldana, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise...are among the many international inspirations. These women are a force of possibilities. And of course Leonard DiCaprio, Robert Deniro and Eddie Redmayne.
Locally, there were not so many at the time I found my inspiration, even when I admired and respected the likes of Phillip Luswata and Abby Mukibi(and I still do).
The one person that solely set my mind on acting is Deborah Asiimwe Gkashugi.
Thoughts on the film industry
I don’t know what to say about the Uganda film industry that won’t sound cliche...that is; that “ its growing”. Yes it is, but at a very slow pace. I feel like the industry is affected by lack of financial support so much that it’s hindering its rapid growth, lack of quality productions and support within us as artist, film makers and the nationals to watch and attend Ugandan film premieres watch local productions.
What has been your favourite role thus far and why?
I don’t think I have had a favourite role yet especially for film because I have done mainly short films and television series which series for some reason never go up on screens
Film Vs Theatre?
In Uganda Film does not pay at all compared to theatre. With theatre it has a great satisfactory feel. After the performance, you get the reactions from the audience straight up unlike film.