Viola Davis is a noted dramatic powerhouse, but for her latest role in the queen of women, the 57-year-old Oscar winner proves she’s ready for a whole new career… as an action hero.
“I had a swagger with this one,” Davis tells Yahoo Entertainment of her ferocious star in director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s electrifying epic, which had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. (Watch our video interview above .)
Inspired by current historical events, The woman king Set in 19th-century West Africa, an all-female army—led by Davis’ commanding general, Nanisca—defends their ruler, King Ghezo (John Boyega), against a rival tribe seeking to undermine its power. But Nanisca’s determination is tested by the arrival of a new warrior, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), with whom she shares a personal history, as well as the responsibility to bring allies like Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim) into battle. to lead. from which they cannot return.
While Davis previously appeared in spectacle-heavy blockbusters such as The Suicide Squad and Ender’s game, The woman king marks the first time she’s at the center of the action. And Prince-Bythewood says the star has committed herself to transforming her body into fighting form. “Her work ethic is insane,” praises the director. “I remember the first phone call I had with Viola and our battle coordinator, Daniel Hernandez. We said to her, ‘We’re not going to fit you into our box — you’re going to make a box, and we’re going to make you look good.’ She’s very strong, so we built around that.”
Speak with To shape magazine recently revealed Davis’ trainer, Gabriel Mclain, that the actress underwent a DNA health analysis prior to production that helped fine-tune her nutrition and exercise regimen. “Viola did the job of building her body into an athlete,” confirms Prince-Bythewood, adding that the star performed a number of her own stunts, including a climactic duel that required hours of advanced training. “I said to her, ‘That must be you,'” the director recalled. “That scene says so much about her character and what she was going through, and I didn’t want to have to do a stunt double.”
Looking back on the experience now, Davis describes her time as an action hero as both “terrifying” and “satisfying.”
“I shy away from compliments,” the actress adds. “I’m very introverted…but this is a role where I would get on the phone with all my friends, especially Juilliard’s, and say, ‘You know what I did today?’ …. I became a braggart!”
Her co-stars didn’t mind Davis’s newfound bravado. “She enjoyed it,” laughs Mbedu. “It was hard, but we achieved great things. Gina was always [saying,] “More swagger!” And Viola would say, ‘I should have asked for more money!'”
Meanwhile, Atim was struck by how Davis’ commanding presence kept the rest of the cast grounded during what could be a tough shot. “She leads by example and everyone admires her because she is a true professional and really committed to the profession.”
In addition to action movie swagger, The woman king also offers a nuanced view of African history, examining the role that rulers like King Ghezo had in the slave trade. In the film, Ghezo maintains relationships with slave traders as a source of his kingdom’s wealth, even Nanisca has prompted him to sever those ties. Prince-Bythewood says confronting that piece of history was difficult, but also unavoidable. “It was important to tell the truth, and I knew we were going to do that,” she notes.
Boyega felt similarly conflicted with struggling with that particular piece of history. “You definitely have your natural opinion about that kind of trading,” says the Star Wars star. “But at the same time, [it’s important] for the integrity of the film, and for how Gina incorporated and researched that into the story. You have to commit to what the story is and also show the truth of this era. As an actor, I had to get around my own mind and bring the truth to the public.”
Lynch confronted those harsh truths directly in one of the most dramatic scenes in the film, where Izogie is held captive in a slave market and mistreated by a slave trader, played by hero Fiennes Tiffin. “That was a really difficult scene to shoot,” said the… No time to die star recalls, adding that it took several days to film. “Reading the script was the only part that really made me nervous. I cried a lot during the filming.”
The actress credits both Prince-Bythewood and her co-star, Tiffin, with helping her through the scene. “Hero took me aside and said, ‘Let me know what you do and don’t want to do,'” Lynch recalls. “That was really amazing – having a young man come to this woman and really take care of her and her body and have agency for her. And then Gina is one of the best and nicest directors I’ve ever worked with, and she took very careful with that whole series. I’m grateful I didn’t have to put myself through too much to get what we did.”
For her part, Prince-Bythewood describes that sequence as “difficult” and commends Lynch for portraying the reality of what happened to real women like Izogie, who were forced into slavery. “She honored it and was as honest as possible. When you have an actress like Lashana who feels everything so deeply, it’s an incredibly inspiring environment to be in.”
At the same time, the director emphasizes that slavery is only part of the bigger story told in The woman king.
“We wanted to tell the story of these incredible women who defended the kingdom,” says Prince-Bythewood, adding that she was inspired by films like brave heart and gladiator. “It was an opportunity to show a different side of Africa that we don’t get to see – the beauty of it, and the kings, the warriors, that’s something that was missing from so many stories. It was exciting to be able to do.” Which.”
— Video produced by Kyle Moss and edited by Jimmie Rhee
The woman king is now in theaters