Widows: Director Steve McQueen and his Perfect Cast

Based on the popular U.K. television series of the same name, created by Lynda La Plante, Widows is directed, co-written and produced by Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen, whose 12 Years a Slave won the 2013 Best Picture.

How to describe Widows?

Call it a heist caper with a social conscience, or a violent thriller with a feminist bent, or an ensemble-driven feature in which every part is perfectly cast, or a dark tale of ordinary women doing extraordinary things, or a crime picture in which the violence is not vicarious and there are no cheap thrills and frills.

There was not much in Steve McQueen’s resume to suggest that he can deliver an entertaining film for the mass audience.  After all, thus far he has made art films, such as Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave,  most of which serious, sometimes to a fault.

What unifies the panels of McQueen’s filmic world is that their characters are always grounded in a realistic and particular socio-political contexts, in a recognizable reality that ordinary viewers can relate to.

Widows not only offers great parts to actors of color, but also fulfills expectations that justify each of the aforementioned labels.

Favorable reviews and positive word-of-mouth should help Widows become McQueen’s most commercially successful movie to date.

Female-Driven

“I remember seeing Lynda La Plante’s TV show Widows at 13 years old,” recalls McQueen. That these women achieved something no one thought they had the capability of doing left a big impression on me, especially at a time in my life when I was being judged in the same way. Many years later, when I first came to Hollywood, I was struck by how many talented actresses weren’t working. I decided then that after I made a movie about slavery I will make a female-driven film.”

C0-Written by Gillian Flynn

When McQueen approached writer Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) to co-write the script, she jumped at the opportunity.  “Steve McQueen called me, which was a great phone call to get out of the blue,” she recalls. “He knew I lived in Chicago, and he wanted to do a heist film starring four women, so I’m already in. Then it’s going to be shot in the town I live in and love, Chicago, which is such an underused town and such a cool town.  And he wanted to use all the neighborhoods and really employ the city as its own character.  And you just don’t see Chicago enough, the real Chicago in film. So, I was immediately, like, ‘Where do I sign up?’”

The story offers a twist on the typical heist film in that each character that intersects comes from different ethnic, financial and social background. “My favorite part about heist films are when the team comes together. I love that,” Flynn notes. “That’s one thing I wanted to keep about that heist feel, was that these women were coming together, not because one was a jewel thief, and one was a safe cracker, that type of thing, but because they just happen to all be connected by their husbands. “

Producer Iain Canning says: “He’d grown up watching the show and it was powerful for him when it was on television, this story about this group of women, which was very rare, and it just sounded like an interesting, new area for Steve to move into. He’s made these incredible films about incredible subjects and it just felt like it was a good moment to tell the story about this group of ordinary women in extraordinary circumstances who have to fight for their survival.”

The filmmakers assembled an impressive cast of actors for the film. McQueen says it was very important to make his cast feel comfortable and at-home, so to speak.  “It’s very simple: they’re all great actors and you need to create an environment in which they feel safe to experiment and explore. That’s what I hope I provide actors, a safe space to fall on their faces, brush themselves off and try again in search of some kind of truth.”

Viola Davis

Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis was cast as Veronica Rawlins, the narrative’s lead widow who must pick up the pieces of her life after her husband, Harry (played by Neeson), dies in a failed heist.

Davis says it’s a role that she never imagined she’d be asked to portray. “It’s a huge departure for me,” she exclaims. “I wouldn’t imagine myself being in this. First there’s a nice love scene in there. It’s kind of action-packed. I don’t know, I just didn’t see it.  So, Steve McQueen literally coming to me and saying, “I do see you in this role,” was sort of exhilarating to me.”

Davis says she found herself drawn to her character as well as to the story. “I liked Veronica’s journey,” she relates. “I liked that she was sort of mysterious, but at the same time she was familiar to me. I liked the fact that there’s a love story at the center of it. I like me in a love story, because, you know, I played a lot of lawyers and detectives and CIA directors, people like that. It’s a hell of a love story.”

Veronica is married to career criminal Harry Rawlins, played by Liam Neeson. When you first meet them, the couple have already been damaged by a tragic death. “They very much are bonded by grief,” she notes. “And then Harry dies in a heist accident, and she’s left with nothing, literally nothing. Nothing in terms of finances and nothing in terms of even emotional reserve. But she decides to live.”

She decides to live by finishing the heist Harry was supposed to commit. Step one: employ her crew, the widows of Harry’s cohorts in crime. “It just starts off with all of us being strangers,” Davis explains. “But the one familiar element is that all of our men died in this fire, and they were all thieves. That’s the only thing that binds us together.  And, also the fact that we’re all broke and we need to survive now.  We’re in survival mode.  But other than that, we couldn’t be any more diametrically opposed.”

Davis notes that her chemistry with Neeson was natural, especially in the ‘bed’ scenes. “I felt like he was familiar to me,” she observes. “It was nice and I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m in bed’, and the racial implications of it.  And, I mention this and I know people can roll their eyes, but something needs to be said about it, really.  Because at what point in the history of cinema, have you seen someone who looks like me and someone who looks like Liam Neeson in bed together, kissing, romantic, in love, married?”

Michelle Rodriguez

Rodriguez plays Linda, a widow struggling to keep her family and dress shop afloat after her husband’s death. Rodriguez admits she was afraid to take on the role at first. “I think it was the challenge of considering the woman that I’m playing weak; my fear of that, of projecting a character like that to the world,” she recalls. “I’ve always been all about making women as independent as I possibly could, especially the image of a Latina woman, who faces the machismo of our culture. That’s my go-to thing.”

It was her decision to face her fears of the unknown that made up her mind. “I sat down with Steve and he’s just such an artist,” she recalls. “So, I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve been doing this for fifteen years.  And I’m very comfortable in my little niche of making action movies. But I’m not going to evolve here.  There’s no room to grow.’”

Rodriguez’s character is being naïve and trusting when we first meet her. “Linda got pregnant young in life and married her high school sweetheart, and was a mother very young.  She didn’t really have much of an opportunity to decide, really, what she was going to do with her life. Her greatest manifestation was the story you see here. She’s a woman who’s loyal and loves her man and loves her family.”

Elizabeth Debicki

Elizabeth Debicki is cast as Alice, the Polish immigrant and controlled wife.  Debicki wanted to work with McQueen. “Steve has an incredible warmth and generosity and sensitivity and he’s also very exacting and instinctive in a fascinating way. He is rigorously in pursuit of truth in its rawest form. As an actor I am always looking for someone who is going to ask that of me. Steve did while creating an environment that is collaborative and empowering and safe. There is huge freedom in that trust. Working with him is incredibly liberating.

Debicki’s character, who’s married to Florek (played by Jon Bernthal), is the least savvy, most sheltered of the widows. “When we meet Alice her world is very small and repressive. She’s gone from living with her mother in a controlled environment where she’s her mother’s doll, to being dominated and controlled by her husband. She is very submissive, she can’t conceive of life being otherwise because she has internalized what others have told her about herself, that she is worthless and that she needs them in order to survive. She’s told she cannot be independent emotionally, financially, socially and she believes this,” she explains, “when I think of Alice’s journey, it’s such a huge arc for her through the course of the story. She goes from being someone who has accepted what the world tells her she is – a daughter and then she’s a wife, Something to be seen and not heard, a woman who mustn’t ask for what she wants or needs – to a woman taking control of her life.”

The process of joining up with the other widows and taking part in the heist develops her sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

Cynthia Erivo

Cynthia Erivo, in her first major film role, portrays Belle, an ally who steps in to help the widows in their quest. “I just think it’s a massive vote of confidence for Steve to put someone who’s really new at film in a role like this,” Erivo says of McQueen’s decision to cast her. “It’s not small, it’s a wonderful role to be a part of, and he trusted me in it.”

Erivo’s character is strong and complex. “She’s very straightforward.  I want to even say stoic at times.  She’s from the South Side so she’s no stranger to the danger that happens around her area,” she notes. “She’s a single mother, and she’s a hairdresser but she’s got smarts about her and she has almost no fear.  She just knows what needs to be done in order to survive. That’s where she comes from, so when she meets these women, it isn’t a second thought that she’s able to help.”

Colin Farrell

A politician who figures into the widows’ master plan is Jack Mulligan, played by Colin Farrell.  Farrell feels a bit sorry for his character, whose life was already mapped out for him based on his family lineage.

The son of Tom Mulligan, played by Robert Duvall, Jack is meant to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming the next alderman for the 18th Ward of Chicago. “So, there is obviously this very distinct lineage that I am supposed to fall in line with, and Jack Mulligan is supposed to carry his father’s torch, his father who carried his father’s torch, but it’s not really what he wants. It’s not really what he’s dreamed of doing,” Farrell explains.

Not only is Jack dealing with his own personal demons but he is running against an enigmatic opponent. “There’s a shift in the power politic that is potentially happening, and the person who’s running against me is an African-American gentleman from the 18th Ward, who has a history of criminality in his life,” Farrell explains. “And he’s choosing to go ‘straight’, but he’s running against me. And the ward that I’m running to represent is predominantly African-American, and so it’s not looking good for my character at all.”

Farrell was honored to work with the legendary Duvall. “He’s extraordinary and just what I’ve seen up close, in person, the scenes we’ve done, has been incredible. He’s a cultural cinematic icon and I get to work with him.”

Robert Duvall

The feelings were mutual, according to Duvall, who found Farrell to be an exceptional actor. “We are talking and listening, which is not that easy,” Duvall says of their acting process. “It’s not that easy necessarily, and especially when it gets to certain emotional levels, but Colin’s very good at that and I love to take from other actors when it’s real within an imaginary set of circumstances.”

Duvall says not only did he relish the opportunity to work with McQueen, he was attracted to his character and the complicated love-hate, father-son relationship.

“He’s an elderly guy who’s somewhat ailing physically and still trying to keep some kind of control,” Duvall explains. “Even though his son – they hate each other, love-hate – is really running the show, he’s trying to tell his son we’ve got to keep this city in our hold, in our grasps.  It’s our city.  We made it. We got to keep control and he doesn’t want to hear this, but it’s that relationship thing that I liked, that I like in any part that I try to take, and I figure maybe I can do something different with.”

Brian Tyree Henry

Brian Tyree Henry, best known for his work in the acclaimed TV series Atlanta, plays Jamal Manning, Jack’s political opponent in the 18th Ward and a man to whom, Veronica discovers, Harry owes money.

“I definitely was attracted to the story based on the line-up and the director. But also the writing is unbelievable,” he says.  It was the character’s honesty that appealed most to him. “This is his home,” he adds. “You know, he says that to Jack.  He’s like, ‘You know, your family is on this ward, done all these things with this ward, but look at it.  Like it hasn’t gotten anywhere. What have you really contributed to us?’”

“I, however, feel like I can bring something to that.  And I think that’s the best thing about Jamal is that he and his brother, they’re from these streets.  They’re from this area. They really do care about the people there. Now, you know, as politics go, you kind of got to do what you gotta do to get where you want to get.”

Daniel Kaluuya

Actor Daniel Kaluuya, who plays his brother Jatemme, became like family during the production. “Daniel is one of the most phenomenal people I’ve ever met,” he says. “And I really do feel like he’s my brother and that really informed how we could play them.”

Kaluuya, best known for his role in the acclaimed thriller Get Out, is also Jamal’s protector. “It’s easy to think of Jatemme as the muscle, as you know, the bully or the henchman that does what Jamal wants, but I think that Jatemme really wants the best for his brother and wants to be right there,” Henry explains. “Whereas Jamal loves him dearly, but I don’t want to say he’s using him as a pawn, but at the end of the day Jamal is going to do what he’s got to do to get where he’s going to get.  But there is a true depth to their relationship there, ‘cause it’s just been us.  You know what I mean?”

Kaluuya sees his character as Jamal’s street alter ego. “He’s Jamal in the streets,” he observes. “You basically see how they got to where they are, and Jatemme is one of the main reasons why and how they’ve managed to get the support of the community and the funding of the community through how Jatemme moves.  And he basically does a lot of things he shouldn’t be doing.”

In addition to helping his brother politically, Jatemme is also responsible for muscling in on Veronica to collect the money Harry owes Jamal. “Veronica’s late husband did something very not nice among brothers,” Kaluuya explains. “And they want some payback.  They’re just not going to let things lie.  But it’s in the middle of a political election, so they have to do things in a more discreet way.”

 

 

 

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