Viola Davis on her new movie Widows

Viola Davis. (Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)
Viola Davis. (Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)

There are few working actors today with the talent and charisma of 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 would disagree.

After training at the famed Juilliard School, Davis made a name for herself onstage before stepping into film and TV work in the late 1990s. Steven Soderbergh was one of the first to spot her talent, casting her in Out of Sight, Traffic, and Solaris. Denzel Washington too, in his directorial roles in Antwone Fisher and later Fences, recruited Davis to great effect.

Her mainstream breakthrough came with her first Oscar nomination, for a tiny but devastatingly powerful turn in Doubt, opposite Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. She landed another nod for The Help, an emotional look at the vital importance, yet howling inequality, of the position of African-American maids in the southern US states at the time of the Civil Rights movement. She would finally win Best Supporting Actress for Fences, Washington’s adaptation of the August Wilson play that had already won Tony awards for both himself and Davis. Filling out her awards cabinet further, that film brought her a BAFTA and Golden Globe, while her hit TV show How to Get Away with Murder gave her an Emmy, the first African-American woman to win Best Leading Actress on prime time.

Most recently, Davis has taken the lead role in Steve McQueen’s Widows. 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 – something she discusses below…

Do you remember when you first met Steve? Was it on this film or had you met before?
A: 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?
A: 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 questioned how people 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?
A: 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 color, 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?
A: 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 color. 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.

So tell me about Veronica as you see her. How would you sum up her personality?
A: 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 leveled. 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. 

Do you think she truly loved Harry? Or was it about security?
A: I don't think the movie would work if you don't believe that she really loved this man. I think, if it started with her saying, 'Well he's an asshole and I never really loved him anyway, I was just in it for the money', that would not work. Then there's no purpose, there's no reason, no kind of motive for ownership if she didn't actually love her husband. It's a stronger choice, which is why I feel that Steve opened with that image of love. 

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.
A: 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 Rhymes and her vision of how she sees women of color, 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 traveling in real time through different neighborhoods 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 Neeson, 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 color in films. Usually, it just stops at a social message, that's it, so you intellectualize 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.

What's your process on those questions? Do you sort of map out your character's life story to this point?
A: Yes! Absolutely. That's the only way to become an actor. That's why I'm so vocal about people of color on the screen. When you're preparing a character, as an actor, you're preparing a human being. I need to be a complete nerd for a few minutes and sit down and say, 'OK. Where was my character born? Do I have brothers and sisters? What made me move to Chicago? When did I meet my husband? When did we fall in love?' Blah blah blah! Then, slowly but surely, you begin to build a human being. But what you do NOT do when building a character, you do NOT build a character from a social message. You're not being an actor when you're doing that. You don't say, 'OK, so what do I want to represent in my character? Do I want to represent strength? OK, so how do I do that?' Then you're not being specific. When people sit and watch stories, they see human beings unravel; they don't see ideas unravel. If it's the right idea then it's up to the director to interpret; that's not up to an actor. 

You move through life as someone with specific memories, specific trauma, specific joys, specific things that turn you on or don't turn you on. That's being a human being! That's what you're invested in when you go to the movies. Often times that is not fleshed out with people of color, they're just not. Even in the greatest movies, you're not. Every once in a while you'll see one, but for the most part, very rarely do you see the characters' pathology. Usually, that's left on the shelf. Steve McQueen does not do that. That's a huge reason why I decided to do this movie.

So what is his approach? Does he do a lot of rehearsal in advance of shooting?
A: Yes. He does a lot of rehearsal. I think we did a few weeks, and I have to say that the rehearsals were not only about attacking the script and tearing it apart and talking about our characters' relationships with each other, but it also acted as a therapy session, with us talking about ourselves. The beauty of what Steve does, I always say that he's a great mixer of the feminine and masculine in a man. He is someone who sees you; he sees all the things that other people see, but then he sees all of the stuff that you try to hide. He sees my shyness, he sees my femininity. Same with Michelle Rodriguez! Michelle Rodriguez is known for Fast & Furious, kind of being the tough girl, maybe being a little difficult. There's a little bit of that in her, but she is so much more. The vulnerability, the feminine energy, the enormous intelligence that comes out of Michelle Rodriguez: he sees all of that and he coaxes it out of you. Almost like a psychological explorer. He coaxes it out of you and he tells you to celebrate it. Let's use it in some way! Let's put it in the movie. You may be ashamed of it; I see it as a thing of beauty! So I would say that most of our sessions were about that. 

Then by the time you got to the set, he is one person who doesn't move on unless he sees honesty and complexity. He always says, after all the takes that he wants, when he's good with it, then he'll say, 'OK, this one is for you, and just don't think about anybody. Don't think about any of your failures in the past; don't think about anything people have ever said about you. Just leave it all on the floor. Leave no stone unturned. Dare to make a mistake. Just go for it!' I have to say, when I left the movie, I always say that every great director I have ever worked with was both a director and a teacher. One of the things I left there with was that mantra, to leave it all on the floor. That's sort of how I'm approaching my life right now. Just go for it. What do you have to lose?

I want to ask you about the three other Widows. I think you were cast before them, so what was your reaction when they came aboard, and how did it work out?
A: 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 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.

I love in this film that when Veronica assigns tasks to her team, she sets the wrong tasks to the wrong people because they all don't know each other well enough to know one another's strengths. It felt so realistic.
A: Yes! Absolutely, and the fact that even though I've taken the position of leadership, it doesn't necessarily mean that I know what I'm doing. My husband was the leader when he was alive so I'm sort of stepping into his shoes. But that's life. I don't care if you have a nine-to-five job and have the same routine every day. I don't care how much you plan your day, your week, your life. You cannot predict life. You just can't. Every day is a surprise. You don't even know if you're going to be alive tomorrow. That is the haphazardness of life. That is the improvisation of life. So it's only in the movies that you absolutely know where the story is going to lead, how it should end, how people should look. If Liam has a wife, she needs to look this way because this is the sort of woman that he would be attracted to, when in reality, in life, we don't know that! There are 324 million people in the United States alone. We don't know who people are attracted to! We don't know what their secrets are. We don't know the secrets of people who have been in your life for years, and that's the beauty of what we do as actors. We give you life, and the more honest we can be with it, the more we can show you all the things I just mentioned, the more we can make people feel less alone. 

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?
A: 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 favorite, 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.

Have you heard from audiences that have seen the film? Have audiences taken the messages that you wanted them to take from this film so far?
A: I definitely feel like a lot of people have taken great things from the film, the things that we've talked about, absolutely. I do not listen to it too much because there's a part of me that feels like we're in a zeitgeist, coming out of a past where... it's like Michelle Rodriguez said so beautifully that women just recently started coming into our own. We are definitely coming out of that with people of color, all of those things, so there's a certain amount of criticism that I don't listen to because I see that 95% of critics out there are probably male and almost always Caucasian, and it's through their lens that this movie is seen, and I don't always trust that. 

The value of women in cinema in the past has been based on our looks and our youth. And can we just say, can we collectively agree, that that is not our value? So if they don't see hot women, I think that that can throw you. I think that opening shot can throw some people too because, once again, Liam Neeson is not my slave owner, he's not my pimp, he's my husband. That's it. No statement. That's where it begins and ends. But you know what? It should not stop filmmakers from putting their truth out there. We've got to continue to fight for our truths, and have the courage to fight for our voice too.