Few Actors working with the talent and charisma of an American actress Viola Davis. For director Steve McQueen, she’s on a par with the great leading ladies of the 1940s: another Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or Katharine Hepburn. Few will not Agree.
Davis takes on the lead role in Steve McQueen’s Widows in cinemas this Friday. She plays Veronica, the wife of Liam Neeson’s charismatic thief Harry, now left alone to survive without him. To do so, she must carry off a heist he had planned and left behind, with the help of the widows of his gang members.
The elegant, reserved Veronica is not the sort of woman you might expect to plan and execute a daring robbery – but Davis convinces you that there is no other way.
It’s the sort of role that could result in more trophies joining her already-impressive collection, but for Davis herself, it offered two key advantages. One was the chance to work with McQueen, the director of Hunger, Shame and the Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave. But the other was the chance to break some boundaries and challenge some of Hollywood’s accepted wisdom.
Do you remember when you first met Steve? Was it on this film or had you met before?
I bumped into Steve, definitely, previously. I want to say it was during The Help… It was at the BAFTA tea party [in LA] and it was one of those meetings where he basically was saying, ‘Why don’t you get better roles?’ If you know Steve, you know that he doesn’t mince words. His forte is just to get on with it, but I believe that was the gist of the conversation at the BAFTA tea party.
He said he sees you as a Bette Davis, Joan Crawford level star. Is that something he told you?
Yes, he has, and he’s thrown Marlon Brando in there too. I try to wrap my mind around that! I always try to wrap my mind around how people see me and how I see me, which can be absolutely antithetical to each other. Of course, I just see myself as Viola, who wears no make-up and a head wrap and lives in a robe at home. But I like that he sees me that way, I do, because I’ve always e see me in the past. I like that he sees me as someone who’s that expansive. I like that he sees me as a woman, so yeah, I’ll accept it! [laughs]
So what was the first overture about this film? Did you see a finished script or was it a phone call?
He came to my house to offer me the role. I had not seen the script yet. He just sold it to me, you know, about it being a female heist movie. But he was very adamant about the other issues he really wanted to address within the story. Especially the issues of class beyond race. With me and Cynthia Erivo, you have two women of colour, you have two African-American women, but two different levels, two different classes. You could sometimes bump heads and that is its own, different narrative that you very rarely see in movies. I mean, he just presented all of it to me. He kind of spewed it out. I keep telling people, I wanted to tell him that you could have told me this over the phone and I would have said yes. You could have saved yourself the whole trip! But I saw it as an interesting adventure and a great project with great people in it. I think he has a great eye for talent. And I continue to tell people, I certainly get a lot of offers. Not all of them are great. I saw this as being a great offer so I definitely said yes.
Was there a particular moment or aspect that sold you, or was it the grand canvas he presented?
That was it. I would like to say that it was something different and something way more specific. But once again, you have to understand that this is a novelty to me. Even how the film opens, with me in bed with Liam Neeson, with my natural hair, my dark skin! I mean, I’ve been acting for 30 years: I’ve never gotten an offer like that. That alone! Even if the movie began and ended with that opening shot, I’ve never gotten offered anything like that. And by the way, you will not see that in any movie this year, next year, year after, the year before. You’re not going to see that. As much as people shrug their shoulders and say, ‘I don’t see that as a big deal’, or ‘I didn’t bat an eye; that seemed normal to me’. If it’s so normal, then why isn’t it done? That’s my big question: why? So yeah, he’s offering me the lead role. It’s not specifically written for a woman of colour. If I had turned it down, it would have gone to a Caucasian actress. So yeah, he sold me, right there in my living room. He didn’t need much else.
That moment is a beautiful piece of visual storytelling. It does a lot: we don’t see many scenes of them together, obviously, but we see so many layers to that relationship.
Yes, and once again if I am in a relationship in any movie, you usually just hear me talking about it. [laughs] Usually there’s no room for me touching too many people, except on my TV show How To Get Away With Murder, but that’s because of Shonda Rhimes and her vision of how she sees women of colour, and her being progressive. But other than that! I see the progressiveness: there are so many scenes in this that you’ve never seen before.
There’s Colin Farrell [as Jack Mulligan] and Molly [Kunz as Siobhan] in the car and they’re having this whole conversation and you see the car travelling in real time through different neighbourhoods from a poor project and then arriving at this big, beautiful house, which is a huge indictment on class, on poverty. It speaks to that. I know I said that it was refreshing and liberating for me to play a woman that has any level of sexuality, in the fact that I’m in bed with Liam, who’s considered a hunk, who’s considered sexually desirable. He’s not my slave-owner, he’s not my pimp, he’s not beating me. The man is in love, with me. And I’m in love with him. That begs the audience to ask all those beautiful questions that they very rarely ask of people of colour in films. Usually, it just stops at a social message, that’s it, so you intellectualise our presence in the film. But in this, it asks the question where did they meet, how did they fall in love, why? He did that to her? And she loves him? You gotta spend time with us. You gotta see us as people. That’s revolutionary, in my opinion.
So tell me about Veronica as you see her. How would you sum up her personality?
Veronica is a woman where, when you meet her, when you meet all of these women, what they are motivated by is grief and deception, the deception from their husbands. It’s a sort of waking up to the fact that most of their lives have been a lie. Then, from there, I see her as a woman who is deciding two things. She’s deciding to get ownership of her life back, in some way. And number two, she’s a woman who’s deciding to live. I don’t think most women who are mothers could have the death of a child and the death of a husband in close proximity to each other and not be pretty much levelled. I think the next step is probably a big old dark hole. But I see her as a woman who is taking charge of this heist as a metaphor for taking her life back, of deciding to stay on her feet, of giving her self-purpose. That’s how I see Veronica.
And I see her wearing that mask of take-charge, I think that’s the case with a lot of women. Sometimes we wear that mask as a way of kickstarting our lives and really trying to work through our level of shame, our lack of self-esteem. You have to say that Veronica, Linda, Alice, are women whose men died in the heist, but they were questionable men. So then the next question is, so what would make you attracted to these men? That’s the bigger question for women attaching themselves to men for financial gain and status that you feel you can’t get on your own, and then when they are killed, you’re left with nothing. It’s about getting ownership, it’s about accountability, and it’s about doing it in a way that’s not necessarily nice because change is never nice. Gaining ownership of your life is not pretty, it’s not a pretty journey.
I think you were cast before the other three Widows, what was your reaction when they came aboard, and how did it work out?
I’m a woman’s woman, so I loved all of them. First of all, I was very, very, very curious about Michelle Rodriguez. She’s one of those people where her reputation and her energy preceded her, so I was very intrigued by her. Cynthia Erivo I already know from Broadway; I met her when I was in New York. And Elizabeth Debicki I knew absolutely nothing about, only that she was a great actress. But sometimes you have to fight for that chemistry and sometimes it’s simply there.
For us four women, it was just there. We were all chasing a social stigma, things that people put on us that were at some point debilitating. Elizabeth, absolutely because of her height, how she looks. Cynthia Erivo, yes she is a black girl but she’s a black girl from the UK. She’s a black girl with all kinds of piercings and tattoos and the platinum-blonde hair. So she’s got the sort of biker-chick, no-holds-barred thing going on. And then Michelle Rodriguez for all the things that we mentioned before. So we were all fighting this image that has, in the past, covered us, that we were always fighting to not live up to it, and some of us angry that it was placed on us. Our first meeting was at a five-star, Michelin-rated restaurant in Chicago, and I kid you not, I still to this day am amazed that we were not thrown out of that restaurant. It was so LOUD. I mean, LOUD, and boisterous. There was no one who was trying to hide who they were, there was no one trying to use their inside voice, and Steve McQueen was sitting there with us absolutely loving it and encouraging us! It was perfect.
You’re one of the few people in the film to interact with all the men as well. They represent the old forces that controlled the world for these women, is that right?
Yes, absolutely. If I were to articulate how I felt in all of these scenes with Colin [Farrell], with Brian Tyree Henry [as Jamal Manning], with Daniel [Kaluuya, as Jatemme Manning] that they were literally intimidating me, which I feel is a great metaphor for the relationship between men and women now. Certainly, that is the foundation of #MeToo and #TimesUp, is the fact that when you are in the presence of a man, so often the dynamic is one of almost predator and prey, of dominant force and a weak link, and by God as a woman, you are always the weak link.
But what I did not want to do in this film, even though Veronica is the leader, what I didn’t want to squelch was that fear, that feeling less-than, that feeling of the fear that you could kill me, because when the end does come and the heist happens, you see that it is earned. It’s more of a realistic journey. How I feel, as a woman, is that I love kick-ass stories about women. Wonder Woman is my favourite, absolutely! But in my life, I do not feel like Wonder Woman. I just don’t. I don’t feel like I’m in charge, I could kick ass, I have a golden lasso in my closet. So I want women to feel less alone in that feeling. But, but, I do want to show them that what is possible is that you can gain ownership of your life, through anxiety, through chaos. You can get it back. It’s possible.
I don’t want to sell them the fantasy of what it means to live a life in this world as a woman – if that makes sense. I felt like, in this movie, it wasn’t superhero strength. I definitely feel like the realistic was interjected in this narrative and I feel like that’s what makes these women even more powerful.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:
Widows opens in SA cinemas on Friday, 16 November.