Awards Daily talks to fight choreographer Jénel Stevens about blocking dynamic sequences in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King while also serving as Viola Davis’s stunt double.
When fight choreographer and Viola Davis’s stunt double Jénel Stevens started work on The Woman King, Davis and co-star Thuso Mbedu were already well on their way to becoming African Agojie warriors.
“The progression I saw in them was awesome,” says Stevens. “There was another stunt performer who trained Viola and Thuso before I started. Throughout the entire process, they just got better and better with each passing day. Man, they were determined to make it look bad-ass.”
Stevens says that director Gina Prince-Bythewood wanted to be as authentic as possible, and in order to achieve that, she asked actors to do most of their own stunts.
“They did 95 to 98% of their own stuff. They came in before their call time, they left afterwards; there were arguments about them not wanting to believe,” she says with a laugh. “Thuso was all on it, [saying] ‘Enough warming up! Let’s get into it!’ They were very focused on their craft and making sure that they looked like warriors, and it was great to see.”
Fight Choreography in The Woman King
Like anything else in the filmmaking process, fight choreography is a collaborative effort. Stevens worked with lead fight coordinator Johnny Gao, who put together some amazing fight sequences, “some of which you won’t even see in the movie.” She says time is a huge factor for choreography.
“The culmination of the fights take many different phases throughout the course of production. When we do pre-visuals for production, we have all the stunt performers perform the pieces where the actors would be and tell a story, and then we submit it to production, and they come back with their notes and we continue to edit and revise it. We teach the actors the choreo—but telling them that this could change ’cause it always does—then we get to on the day, it’ll change even more, even more drastically in fact. It’s just a whole bunch of back and forth with production and the actors, and then once we do it, sometimes the actors haven’t seen it yet, so we rehearse this whole thing and put it together, but then we realize it might not be something that shows the strengths of one of the actors. There’s always more than one way to do something, so we have to adapt it to them as well, what they can do and what they’re capable of. It’s a constant process of refining. ”
Finding the Energy for that Opening Scene
During the early moments of the film, we meet the Agojie in their first fight sequence. Stevens says that behind the scenes, the actors and performers amped up the rivalry, which created an interesting dynamic to play with on screen.
“Between takes, we would do the Agojie chant, and then we did it a few times and the men were like, we’re gonna do our own chant. They were all South African, so they came up with a chant. One of the takes when we would do they chant, they retorted. So then we went back and forth with each other and the energy behind that was amazing. We put that to screen in the take. We’d just be going at each other and battling, and it was really cool.”
The Most Emotional Fight Sequence in the Film
Of course there are many fight sequences in the film, but Stevens is proud of her participation in one especially emotional sequence toward the end.
“There were two fights, one is more of coming full circle if you will. That was great between the two of those, seeing the progression of things. Being able to be there and teach both of the actors that fight and to be a part of it. That again was a fight that changed on the day and went through a series of changes. Because it was so emotional, I really enjoyed that one.”
How does one add emotion to a fight sequence?
“Working on your reaction to things—getting hit, that has to be different than the other one. Obviously the actors bring that as well, but that also includes the stunt performing in it, too. This is how you would look if this were to happen. I used to fight Muay Thai, so I know what it feels like to be punched in the face. Maybe you don’t, Viola!” says Stevens with a laugh. “I know what my face would look like. It’s telling them how it would feel so they can add their spice to it, too.”
Playing Double Duty On Set
One might feel daunted with the task to be fight choreographer in addition to stunt double to the film’s lead, but Stevens says that everything worked seamlessly when it came to putting it all together.
“There were so many people on deck, Danny Hernandez the stunt coordinator, Johnny Gao the fight coordinator, Alex Benevent as a co-coordinator. Whenever Viola was there, I was focused on her as a double, and after that between times, we were getting everyone else ready. All in a day’s work.”
The Woman King is now playing.