Interview contains plot spoilers
Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, and Elizabeth Debicki take front and center in Steve McQueen’s Widows released on November 16 by 20th Century Fox. The film follows four widows left to pick up the pieces and their lives after their husbands get killed in a heist gone wrong.
But, Widows is more than a twist on the typically male heist movie, take a closer look. Davis, African-American; Rodriguez, Latina; Erivo, British-Nigerian; Debicki, 6ft tall. Women! Diversity! Remarkable women taking the lead in a big studio film. It’s 2018, so the subtext is as important as the plot itself. The heist. Davis tells me, is symbolic of “women who were taking ownership in their lives.” They’re not women who randomly set out to steal a painting or a few million bucks. There’s a unique empowerment to these women. A richness to their motives and goals.
Davis’s Veronica is not just a widow, she is a mother mourning the death of her child. “Damn, I’ve put one foot on the ground when I got out of bed this morning, and I’m making the decision to put the other foot on the ground and I’m going to stand up and I’m going to live.” As that line relates to her role, he Oscar-winning actress says, “That was basically in a nutshell, the journey I decided to take with Veronica.”
How did you first hear about Widows? When you’re reading that script, what’s going through your head as you think, “Finally.”
Steve McQueen came to me and offered me the role. I thought to myself. It’s a lead role. It’s not a role that I typically get offered. He wanted me to wear my natural hair and he wanted me to look like myself. He was giving me a husband who was Liam Neeson. That was where it began and ended for me because I felt that it’s very seldom in my career that I get to play a woman like that.
The way the film opens, you will never see that in a film this year or next year, and that is a dark-skinned woman in bed with a white man. She has natural hair and he’s not my slave owner. He’s not my pimp. He’s not beating me. It doesn’t mean anything other that these are two people in a marriage and they are in love. That in enough itself is revolutionary.
The idea of the heist for me, worked for me because one of the main questions I had for Steve was that, I understand people are doing heist movies, but I don’t understand how people who are just normal every day people just all of a sudden step into a life of criminality. What made it make sense was that these were all women united in grief. These are all women who were taking ownership in their lives that when their husbands were alive, their husbands ran the show. Their husbands were deceptive. Their husbands were controlling. They disappeared and they were left in the ruins. They had to ask themselves, “Why did I even choose to be with this man and why did I give up my ownership?.” The heist became a metaphor to getting it back and that made sense. It made sense because we are women who look like women. We are women who absolutely represent the women who are usually left on the periphery of culture. Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia, Elizabeth, and I, that was really attractive to me. I felt my big thing at this point in my life is I want to do something different and it struck me as different.
You never know what’s going to make money and you never know what’s going to hit and land with people, you just gotta take the risk.
Why has it taken so long for Hollywood to get there? I’m sure you read the study on inequality In Film Study, and the studio belief that there’s no audience.
Well, I always feel a film is born out of the zeitgeist. I think we are in the zeitgeist of change. I think we are in the zeitgeist where people are tired of not telling the truth and not seeing themselves represented and they are fighting to be seen. This film is just an extension of what’s already going on with the USC Annenberg study, with #MeToo, with #Timesup, it’s a fighting to be seen. It’s a fighting for representation. It’s a refusal to no longer be invisible. That’s what’s going on and so artists like Steve McQueen who dare to tell the truth and reflect what’s already happening in culture, that’s their way in. But only if they’re courageous enough to tell the truth. That’s what I always say, you just have to be courageous. I don’t know why it’s taken Hollywood this long. Maybe it’s fear. Maybe it’s money. It’s always a big thing. It’s your vision as an artist. It’s your courage as an artist. There’s the money-making business machine, and sometimes those two things are mutually exclusive of each other.
We need to know that’s not necessarily the case. Everyone who has ever taken a chance in life, the impressionist painters, the jazz musicians, the people who stepped outside the norm and said, “I’m going to paint differently. Instead of doing broad strokes, I’m going to do little choppy strokes.” Or, “Instead of doing classical music or rock n’ roll, I’m gonna do something called jazz. I’m going to make the notes go all over the place but when it comes together, you’ll hear something quite beautiful.”
When you dare to put yourself out there, you don’t know how it’s going to land, that’s what the truth is. You never know what’s going to make money and you never know what’s going to hit and land with people, you just gotta take the risk.
It’s like the famous saying, you gotta plant the seed, you don’t know how it’s going to grow, but you still have to plant it. That’s the case. Steve and I were just doing an interview and one of the things we were saying, those are always asked of artists of color, “Do you think things are changing?” “How do you perceive race as being different?” None of those questions are asked of Caucasian male filmmakers.
Nobody asks a David Fincher or Christopher Nolan or any number of white male directors, “How do you see race when you put together a film?” or “How do you see women?”
If they or any of them responded by saying, “I just make my films, that’s all I do.” Then it’s over. It’s the end of the discussion. Then we get into this business of what stories they want to tell. I think it’s a question for the people who really are the people who have been putting films out there for decades, who are in the position of power, who get the green-light vote, the studio executives. That’s a great question for them. Why has it taken so long? It’s a wonderful question.
It’s also a question women, but never men, always get asked. How do you manage it?
How do you delve into Veronica to find out who she is?
When you meet her, she’s at this place of grief. Even though she’s in bed with her husband, you see them have moments of levity together. The place you meet her really is that her husband has died and she’s also dealing with the loss of a child. Of course, that’s what I have to delve into. The big question, and this could be a five-hour conversation. I will say, a lot of times, people talk about the journey of a character. Isn’t it great that she goes from A to Z. Listen, I’m amazed by that, but sometimes a character just moves the pendulum from A to B. When you’re entering a woman’s life who’s had the death of a child, and a husband, and is left alone with basically just a dog, and no way of paying her bills, then my big thing was, how does she stay alive? How does she decide to live? How does she decide to say “I’m going to stand on my own two feet?”. The big journey for me is just the moment at the end when she decides to smile. That for me is a huge journey.
I have a friend – Julia Tager-Norris. In 1986, her child was raped and murdered. Her 7-year-old child was murdered in the middle of the day. The reason I mention that is because I’ve talked to her a lot. I ask her how has it been, and she says, “It’s a nightmare, Viola. It’s an absolute nightmare.” I keep asking her, “How are you deciding to live?” and she has no response. “Maybe it’s because I go to church every day.” Or she’ll say, “Sometimes I’m eating dinner and I’m fine, laughing with my grandchildren and the next, I am totally breaking down.”
To decide to live again is the journey. I, as an actress, I have to mirror life. That’s my only inspiration. I can’t just plug into what’s been done before which is, how do you go from losing a child and losing a husband to finding a hot man in a grocery store the next day and suddenly by the end of the movie, she’s in love again. The guy has a kid and I decide to be a mother, and I don’t know, I decide to be a stand-up comedian at a local club. You’re looking at those journeys thinking she’s so interesting.
For me, that’s not realistic. For me, that’s when the heist began to make sense. I think she performed the heist out of a lack of choice. Once you get to the point where you don’t even care if you live or die, and you’ve been backed into a corner, you make a Sophie’s Choice. You can be reckless. You really can. Even in the criminality of performing this heist, the beautiful thing that came out of this is that there is a break in giving her a sense of hope. Giving her a sense of, “Damn, I’ve put one foot on the ground when I got out of bed this morning, and I’m making the decision to put the other foot on the ground and I’m going to stand up and I’m going to live.” That was basically in a nutshell, the journey I decided to take with Veronica.
What did you and Steve talk about when it came to Veronica?
We talked about that. We talked about how you need to believe that these two people are in love. It has to come from a place of love. Everything does. If it’s not love there’s no investment. So, believing that these two people were together and that it was good at one point. We talked about that. We talked about hair.
The thing that Steve saw in us, were all those things that people see, but also all the things we’ve left at home, that we’ve been told to be ashamed of, that has then devalued us. It was about him coaxing those things out of us.
She’s beautiful. You got to play a real woman.
It was about sexuality. It wasn’t about Hollywood sexuality. It was about real sexuality and it was presenting a woman who does exist in life. Maybe not in cinema, maybe not in American cinema, but as Steve said, he didn’t want to have any discussions about hair. He wanted me to wear my hair. He said, “I see her in airports all the time with a tall, handsome Irish husband or boyfriend. She just hasn’t been in the American cinema, so it’s about time we introduce her.”
It was about me and him having the courage to actually do that. In the past, that’s been the symbol of being ugly. Of being ugly. Let’s be honest. Not sexual, not feminine, not nothing. It was not pandering to the social norms and what’s been acceptable in the past. It’s daring to say, like back in the day of the actor’s studio when they told actors to be inspired by life, it was two artists – me and Steve McQueen – being inspired by life saying, this is what we see.
During rehearsal, Michelle, Cynthia, Elizabeth and I talked about those things that everybody sees in us. The labeling that everyone sees in us. Michelle of being the rough tomboy, lacking vulnerability. Cynthia being the black chick, like me, but she has the tattoos, the blonde hair. Elizabeth is 6-foot-3. We talked a lot about that. The thing that Steve saw in us, were all those things that people see, but also all the things we’ve left at home, that we’ve been told to be ashamed of, that has then devalued us. It was about him coaxing those things out of us.
He was saying, “leave it all on the floor, I want it all, I see that in you. That’s why I cast you.” He was giving us permission to let it ooze out of us.
We talked a lot about that too. We spent a lot of time with the script alone. I think he saw it as a script that encapsulated everything. There is no way that you can shoot anything in Chicago and not talk about race, class, and criminality and the normalization of it.
You and your husband have a production company, JuVee Productions. You’re opening doors. What do you have coming up? Also, someone on twitter wanted to know about you doing comedy.
I just did one for Amazon Studios, Troupe Zero with Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan and Mckenna Grace. I just did a comedy.
We have everything. My big thing is that just because people of color represent 20% of the population, it doesn’t mean we want 20% of the pie. We want the whole pie. We have digital. We have VR. We have TV. We have film. We have great action flicks. We have G20. A film we are doing in collaboration with Andrew Lazar (American Sniper). We have Woman King that is at Columbia Tri-Star.
We have a lot. We have a lot in television. Too numerous to name, but you will hear soon. I will say this, our company reflects our mission statement. We are committed to narratives that are inclusive of everyone. In terms of sexuality. It’s Asian. It’s all people of color. The people we have working at JuVee Productions represent all of that.
Widows is released on November 16 by 20th Century Fox