Hollywood movies

[Only IN Hollywood] Hail Viola Davis, The Woman King and new action star

Ruben V. Nepales
[Only IN Hollywood] Hail Viola Davis, The Woman King and new action star

WARRIORS. (L-R) Lashana Lynch, Viola Davis, John Boyega, Thuso Mbedu, Sheila Atim.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

'A totally Black female-led film would terrify Hollywood,' says Viola Davis. 'It doesn't terrify me.'

LOS ANGELES, USA – “I was the old warrior. So, I absolutely thought I was going to die,” Viola Davis said about the training she underawent and the breathtaking action scenes she performed in her epic film, The Woman King.

But when you watch the actress in The Woman King, you will agree that she’s the fiercest warrior – man or woman – that you will encounter in recent cinema.

Regarded by many critics as one of the year’s best films, the historical action movie shines a light on something many of us did not know about: that in the 17th to 19th centuries, the West African kingdom of Dahomey existed and that an all-female warrior, Agojie, protected this empire.

The Woman King, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Dana Stevens with a story by actress Maria Bello, is based on true events and set specifically in the 1820s. In a stunning turn, Viola plays General Nanisca, who trains the next generation of female soldiers.

STRONG. Viola Davis in ‘The Woman King.’ Courtesy of Sony Pictures

But more than a historical epic, The Woman King is a kickass action spectacle that is entertaining from start to finish. The film may be set in Africa, but its portrayal of the fight against tyranny and oppression is universal.

Viola and Gina assembled an impressive cast, most of them making their breakthrough performances in this rousing film that some hail as a feminist action flick.

These actors include Thuso Mbedu (Nawi), Lashana Lynch (Izogie), Sheila Atim (Amenza), and John Boyega (King Ghezo). Viola, these talents, and the rest of the cast engage in fierce battle scenes that they intensely trained many months for.

“The fact that I am alive and speaking to you is a testament to Gabriela Mclain and all of them, because I just said, ‘I’m just not going to make it,’” said Viola in our video conversation about the film’s fitness instructor. Gabriela is one of many accomplished women that the film tapped, which include cinematographer Polly Morgan and editor Terilyn A. Shropshire.

Viola, impressively buff and muscled in the film, added, “I have all kinds of things going on right now. But I’ll tell you, when you broke the barrier, that great wall of pain, when you broke that great wall of pain, oh my God, the satisfaction of knowing you could do it.”

“Listen, we had one scene in the movie. I’d always tell Thuso. When she had to, I told her, ‘Run.’ So, we did that scene in the movie. I said, ‘Run,’ and she ran, and all I saw, it’s like that character of Jack in The Incredibles.”

“All I saw was a blur of Thuso running by past me and I’m supposed to run behind her. I was like, ‘Cut, cut, cut.’ I was like, ‘Thuso, slow down.’ By the way, she didn’t slow down.”

“But oh my God. Running beside this just extraordinary actress. And she absolutely mastered the art of sprinting.”

“Oh, I hated it,” admitted Thuso, a South African native whose credits include the series, The Underground Railroad. She was paired with Viola in our interview.

Viola turned to her costar and said, “But literally, you tapped into the Agojie warrior spirit with the physical training. It’s brutal.”

“It looks real and painful because it was real and painful,” Thuso replied when asked about the fight scenes. “I was told very early on in my audition process that we would be doing our own stunts. I had to undergo a physical and fitness test for our stunt coordinator to determine whether I’d be able to do my own stunts or not.”

“We were safe and protected the entire time but we were pushed to our absolute limits. Then when we got to the limits, we were pushed even further. It was hard but it was amazing. And seeing it on screen is absolutely mind-blowing for me.”

“I’ve always wanted to do action but I didn’t know if I had it in me to do it and what it would take for me to do it. We had martial arts, different weapons training. We had the spear, the machete. We had combat training. We had running, like sprinting training.”

“We had physical strength training with Gabriela Mclain and this was maybe five hours a day. I know Viola would even train in the mornings before shooting. I would hide. I would run and hide if it was a shoot day.”

Smiling, Thuso recounted, “They’re like, ‘Thuso, where is Thuso?’ It was a lot. It was too much. I know that a lot of us had bumps and bruises. I have little scars on my body as we speak right now.”

A DISCUSSION. Viola Davis (L) and Thuso Mbedu in ‘The Woman King.’ Courtesy of Sony Pictures

“I busted my knee at some point but we kept going because what we are experiencing right now, for me, is nothing compared to what these women would’ve been going through back in the 1800s.”

Asked about her struggle to get the film made – a process that took many years – Viola answered, “It’s difficult for everyone to get anything off the ground in Hollywood. People see the inception of the film. They see it when it’s on the screen. They don’t see the middle, the process.”

“Going in rooms, or fighting for actors, for the director, for the budget, the fight, fight, fight, every single day. And so, this film took seven years. But as you saw on the screen, this world, what Gina did, with these performances – Thuso, Lashana, and Sheila, all these beautiful actresses – they’re totally worth it.”

“Something that someone said to me is what other people think of you is none of your business. So, you know that films that are different, a totally Black female-led film would terrify Hollywood. But that’s none of my business.”

“It doesn’t terrify me. It looks right to me. It looks like my life. It looks like how my life has always looked. It’s something that I always knew that we were capable of.”

“And so, I understand, until God takes me from this life, that’s my narrative. I’m not as concerned with how other people see the journey, how difficult it is, how hard it is. I know that I have a great gift. We had a great gift to give to them.”

On how she and Gina tackled a sexual assault scene, which was not graphic but a crucial element in the story, the Oscar and Golden Globe best supporting actress winner for Fences said, “It was the big R word, responsibility. We have a responsibility to those sexual assault survivors.”

“And we have a responsibility to Nanisca. Whenever you get a character, whatever their personal journey is, it is your job, your responsibility to tell it as honestly as possible.”

“That is the way you honor the character, all of it, even their mess. Even if they make choices that are inhumane, you honor the character by being as truthful, honest as possible.”

“One of the things that Gina made me do is read a very great book about sexual abuse survival, which is Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxanne Gay, who was gang raped when she was 14. It’s about her journey to healing, which she’s still on the path with.”

“That sort of out-of-body experience you have with sexual assault, and that follows you throughout your life, that can cause all kinds of issues. It never leaves you. I don’t care if you do have a sword.”

“And that was really important in humanizing Nanisca. It was a great juxtaposition to being a woman king but at the end of the day, just a woman trying to survive. That is your way into Nanisca as the audience.”

“So, it had to be handled very delicately – the scene with Amenza, certainly the scene with Nawi at the end – the juxtaposition of the scenes of rape and her being tied up and Oba coming in, that you see a real journey that something else is going on that needs to be paid attention to. Gina was very careful with mapping that out.”

We asked the two actresses to comment on how remarkable it was that in the late 1600s to the late 1800s, there was such a progressive social structure in the Dahomey culture. They had gender parity; they had male and female roles for each position. Not to mention that there was an all-female warrior unit.

Thuso replied first: “Me being South African and knowing a little bit about South African history and being from a tribe that had a very harsh monarchy because I’m Zulu, I know that Shaka Zulu is the most well-known Zulu King when it comes to Africa. I appreciate what the Dahomey had in place. I appreciate that as we tell this story now, we see the positiveness of a structure that we can learn from even today.”

For her part, Viola remarked, “What the Dahomey kingdom was looking for is autonomy and agency, to be in control of their own destiny, to be completely self-sufficient. And that’s what was so magnificent. I always say it’s like, I don’t think that people change. Time changes but people don’t.”

“What we want at our core is ownership. If we were to reach back in time, there were a lot of progressive and liberated people. There probably were and especially in Africa where there was more, even though a lot of countries are patriarchal structure, there is a lot of matriarchal female structures.”

“We just don’t tell those stories. So, when we do tell the stories, it’s always a surprise. But as you dig into that vast history that is African, you would see more of those structures and more of those kingdoms.”

“For me, it blows my mind because I’ve always been told that as an African American, that that didn’t exist. So, I believed it. And man, was my world blown open. This is a completely self-sufficient culture. It’s not a surprise. It’s just you’ve never been told. And that’s why it makes this story very valuable.”

On what she would say to audiences of various races who watch The Woman King and see themselves represented, Viola, one of the leading figures in the entertainment industry, shared, “To use your voice, to know that you have a voice and that you know that you have the power to change, that you don’t have to just go with the flow and have other people decide what happens to your body, to your life, that tells you that you are less than, that you have no value because you are not beautiful to us, that sort of erases you and doesn’t see you.”

“You see you. And your job is, I’ve been reading this quote, once you free yourself, your job is to free others. That’s your job, even as women. And if you subscribe to the narrative, then you subscribe to the narrative that you have no voice and you have no power.”

“And silence is for the oppressor. We know better so we have to do better. We are stronger than that now. And you certainly see that in every last one of us, Izogie, Nawi, Nanisca, Amenza, Ode – all of us – is that we were given a set of circumstances that were seemingly impossible to overcome. And yet we found our warrior fuel.”

“We found a way to matter. That is Izogie, Amenza, Nawi, Nanisca, Ode, and Fumbe’s gift to the 21st century women, finding your warrior fuel, shifting the narrative.”

Thuso said, “One of the reasons why I chose to be in this industry is why I believe this is what I was created to do. But also, I believe that I can use this gift to bring about change and impact but also recognize that we are in the business of entertainment.”

“So, if we’re able to bring about change and make an impact through entertainment, then we have served our purpose. Because this is not a documentary, but we are speaking on things that are necessary for the now. And so, if people can enjoy it while taking home a good message, then, yeah.”

Gina, whom we talked to by herself, discussed the film’s casting – the ensemble is one of the best assembled among the films this year.

“Certainly, Viola Davis was attached when I came aboard,” began the filmmaker behind Love & Basketball and The Secret Life of Bees. “So that was a huge one. But when I read the script, Lashana and John popped into my head immediately as two people I wanted in the film. It’s a beautiful thing to know something so strongly and then it happens.”

“Both came aboard and wanted to be a part of it. Sheila and Thuso came through auditions and it was a thing of just their performance. Both of them are incredible actors. They’re not well known. I hope they will be after this but it was pretty clear really quickly that both of them needed to be a part of this film.”

SENTINEL. Sheila Atim in ‘The Woman King.’ Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Gina discussed the most challenging scene in the film. “The most difficult scene, because it was a collection of scenes, was the oil battle. This is the ultimate conflict within the film. It was a lot of background but we were also shooting in the middle of Omicron and that forced me to shift the way I would normally shoot where we couldn’t have as much background as we wanted.”

“We have actors fighting against stunt people face to face. Sweat, blood, no masks, how do we keep people safe? And so, figuring out that, what we need was to quarantine everybody, who’s going to be within that battle, test everybody every day so that the actors felt safe enough to give us everything in those scenes.”

“And also, we only had 11 days to shoot the entire battle which was intimidating, to say the least. But ultimately, for our teams, it just became like a military operation. And so meticulous on how we planned it that we were able to get it done.”

“It was just a decision that we made from the outset,” Gina explained about filming in South Africa, instead of settling for sound studios in the US. “We wanted to shoot on the continent. We wanted to be able to give this film the scope and epic field that it deserved. Can’t do that with green screen.”

“I wanted to give the actors a 360 environment to play in, which is what South Africa and KwaZulu-Natal gave us. And just on a personal, emotional level for the actors, for me, they wanted their feet in the soil. They wanted to feel that.”

“They wanted to tell the story of their ancestors on the continent and that fed everybody. And then just having the passion of that crew. Our crew was, of course, 90% South African and they just all had a passion to tell the story and felt honored by the opportunity to tell the story in a film of this size. So, it was just an incredible environment to be in.”

The director discussed, from her perspective, how she wanted her cast to be fit, gain muscles, and battle convincingly as Agojie warriors.

CHARGE. Viola Davis and cast in ‘The Woman King.’ Courtesy of Sony Pictures

“When I came aboard this, I knew from the outset that I wanted the actors to do their fighting and stunts,” Gina recalled. “Viola was already on board, as I said, but when I cast every single person, the first thing I talked to them about was, this is what it’s going to take. Will you do everything it’s going to take to embody these characters fully?”

“And all of them, of course, said, ‘Yes.’ But it’s one thing to say yes. It’s another thing to truly put in the work. I even said, ‘You’re going to go online and see these cool videos cut to music of other actors who have gone through this and it’s going to look cool and fun and it’s not cool. And it’s not fun. It is really hard.’”

“And so, for them, it was an hour and a half of weight training with Gabriela Mclain in the morning. And then you took a break, either napped or did errands. Then you came back in the afternoon for three and a half hours, sometimes four with Danny Hernandez, our stunt and fight team to learn the martial arts, to learn hand to hand, weapons, the choreography.”

“Some of them I also had train with a running coach, Jerome Davis, because one of the things that drives me nuts when you watch an action or sports film, is if the actors can’t run. I was an athlete – it drives me nuts. So I wanted to make sure they look good running.”

“And then they had the dance training as well, which was as extensive as the fight training. So, they were just constantly working out. And then on top of that, they had to totally cut down on their eating, which was a lot. So, everybody was on specific meal plans and this went on for months.”

“Thuso was cast in April. She started training in May and trained all the way to the end of shooting in March and this was six days a week. Viola started training hardcore in July but she really started about six months before that. And then Lashana and Sheila came from their other movies and joined and started about three months before.”

“So, they all put in this incredible work. It was the hardest thing, probably any of them had ever done because it’s not just a physical fight with yourself but it’s a mental fight. But because they were all doing it together, it was such incredible bonding for them. It totally brought them together as a unit.”

“And what you see up on screen, that connection that they share, that sisterhood, it was built in those gyms and weight rooms.”

On casting John, Finn in the Star Wars film and TV series, whom we almost did not recognize in The Woman King because, well, he did look kingly: “I was enamored by John’s work for a long time. Then I saw a video that he did that went viral during the reckoning, after George Floyd, where he was imploring Black men to protect Black women.”

“And I just remember watching and thinking, I want to work with him. I loved what he seemed to be about and the command that he had within that. He had everybody listening to him, inspired by him.”

“There’s a line of stage direction I wrote, which says, ‘He walks as if the earth is honored by his burden.’ And that’s John. That’s what he brought.”

“I remember the first day he showed up on set. He wasn’t even working that day but he landed. He came straight to set to watch these other actors work and immediately, everyone’s eyes go to John. He has such incredible charisma.”

FACE OFF. Viola Davis (L) and John Boyega in ‘The Woman King.’ Courtesy of Sony Pictures

“Ghezo was a young king in great conflict who had ascended to the throne by deposing his brother. John did not only bring the swagger and charisma of a king but brought the conflict, the youth, brought those flashes of anger. And it was incredible to watch but also how he was with the other actors.”

“He was there to support these women. He wasn’t the lead and he came aboard and he even said, ‘I’m not the lead. I’m just here because I want to work with Viola. And I want to be a part of telling this story, of supporting these women.’ And he never showed anything less than that any day.”

On how bringing on board Leonard Wantchekon, an economist and Princeton University professor from Benin (as Dahomey is now known) as historical advisor in the film that blends fiction and reality, Gina said, “They’re fictional stories within an absolutely truthful world. Everything that was going on historically was what was going on at that time.”

“And so, it was very important to be authentic and truthful about every aspect. And that’s what world-building is.”

“I found Leonard actually from a Washington Post article. He’s a descendant of these women. And he has an incredible team because they’ve been working on a book about the women in this culture. And so, we had access to everything, whether it be, what did they eat? What were their clothes and fabrics? What was it made out of?”

“Indigo dye was a really big part of their culture. And so, let’s infuse that into the costumes. What was the hierarchy? What did the politics look like? It was invaluable to have Leonard.”

“To have his knowledge because he was also so passionate about the fact that we were telling the story of his ancestors and it wasn’t just, we had to get it right but also the importance of bringing humanity to these women, which had been lost through the years.”

“It was just this, oh, they’re Amazons. And that was just a Western term put on these women. And for us, it was exciting to reclaim the name, Agojie, which was their original name that had been lost. So, all those elements, it was just important to have people that were from there guiding us in getting to the truth.”

History experts have brought up that Dahomey took part in the slave trade. The Woman King filmmakers cite this matter in a scene where Davis’ Nanisca tries to convince Boyega’s King Ghezo to end being involved in the slavery trading.

For Gina, what kept her going to help make The Woman King a reality was this: “In fighting for this film to get that final sign off that yes, we got to make this film, there was just this one image that I just kept in my mind, which was the first day that I’d be standing on set, looking around, seeing these beautiful Black women in front of me and being able to say, action, for the first time. That was the driving force to be able to tell their story.”

“This group of actors that we assembled who were so passionate about telling this story – it was such an incredible environment to be in. It was the hardest shoot of my career, certainly, and the hardest for most of these women, but also the most joyful and rewarding because of this world we got to recreate and this history that we get to tell. But also in a package of, I hope, a ride that is incredibly fun.”

Asked what impact she hopes the film will have on audiences around the world, Gina replied, “Foremost, I want an audience to be entertained by this film, to be able to get lost in this story and these characters, but also in watching this film, I hope that the audience is enlightened in learning about people that they had no idea existed.”

“I hope they can be inspired by these women and this story, and ultimately feel empowered when they leave that theater to find that innate warrior in them, to find that fighter within them, to find in this way, it’s a sisterhood. But I want everybody to be able to look at this and feel connected.”

We also interviewed Sheila, Lashana, and John as a group. The two actresses discussed the intense physicality of their roles.

London-born Lashana, whose credits include Captain Marvel and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (she played Maria Rambeau), pointed out, “It’s nice to have entered the world and had a taste because even though, yes, we’ve been a part of physical films, but being able to do your own stunts for an entire film is a different experience that I can’t liken to anything else, actually.”

TACKLE. Lashana Lynch in ‘The Woman King.’ Courtesy of Sony Pictures

“I feel really grateful that I am physical. I’ve played sports and went to the gym which I thought would be enough of a foundation to do my own stunts but it was not.”

“It feels great to be able to be in physical command of your character and to be able to shape them before you’ve even harnessed a script, which is not a given. It doesn’t always happen.”

“I feel really great that my body’s capable of things that I never thought it was capable of and that Izogie was pushed to a different level after Gina very kindly asked if I could do my own stunts. That sends something up your spine when you’re asked that but I’m glad I was able to rise to the challenge a little bit.”

Sheila, who was born in Uganda and raised in the UK where she made her mark in theater, shared, “The beautiful thing about the opportunity to do your own stunts and be in a film that was this action-heavy is that there’s really no ceiling in terms of how far you can push yourself. My previous action experiences have been limited by maybe the size of my role or just by how it all fits in.”

“For this project, they just said, ‘Go for gold and keep pushing.’ It wasn’t a case of, ‘You only have to get to this level of fitness, and then that’s it. You can coast.’ Throughout the process, we were constantly trying to increase our weight when we were training with Gabby Mclain, the personal trainer.”

“We were trying to up the complexity of the stunt choreography all the way through the five months. It was different in the sense that the horizon was really broad for what we were able to achieve, and it really was just up to us to keep on pushing the envelope.”

For John, the main incentive to join the movie was the chance to act alongside Viola. “I wanted to just collaborate with Viola Davis, number one, because I’ve watched her movies and TV series. I saw that as a great opportunity. Gina personally reached out to me as well, which I felt very flattered by because I respect Gina’s work. Then, it was the opportunity of the story.”

“Working with, in my opinion, some of the best Black women in the industry, who have shown that they can do whatever within this field. I just wanted to be a part of their journey, also. Then, I just came down.”

With a grin, John added, “It was filming in South Africa. Only a few weeks’ work. Why not? All flights paid for. Accommodation.”

Sheila chimed in on Viola: “It was great. It really was everything I hoped it would be and more. Not just because she’s such a prominent and powerful figure of advocacy for Black people, actors as well artists, but because she’s a really nice person. When we are talking about empowerment or advocating for change, that can sometimes get left out of the equation.”

“It’s really important to just be interpersonal and be able to relate to people; be able to make people feel comfortable, welcomed, and supported. She was so brilliant at doing that for all of us all throughout the team but particularly the actors who were working with her and sharing scenes with her. It was such a wonderful experience.”

ORDERS. Viola Davis (R, foreground) and fellow actors as women warriors in ‘The Woman King.’ Courtesy of Sony Pictures

“For me, working as an actor, I don’t just want to create good work. I also want to have great experiences with the people that I’m working with. So I’m really grateful that I got the opportunity to collaborate with Viola because she’s definitely one of those people.”

Lashana commented, “To have a Black leader who is a real human being, who is very, like you said, interpersonal, who you would look for when you’re going through something on set, struggling with a stunt or emotionally, or it’s a really long night shoot and you don’t really know where you’re at.”

“Viola would always be the one that would come with this…. I don’t know where she pulls her strength from but she pulls it from this really magical place that really reverberates around the set. When morale is down and it’s been a long day, it’s incredible to look at your leader and draw strength from her but feel like you’re not taking it from her.”

“It’s a circle: you’re giving to her, she’s giving to you, and it just builds. It was above and beyond the experience that I thought I’d have with her. She’s a really incredible human being, a really beautiful soul, and someone that I feel really grateful to have worked with very early on in my career. I learned so much just by watching her stand, let alone watching her act.”

“There were moments where a few of us would be at the side of the set or there would be an end of a rehearsal. She would end the scene and I’d just watch what she was doing. It was like a free masterclass on how to be. I really needed that because there were moments where I struggled on this set, just wondering if I was doing something okay, was the stunt okay, and do I look okay?”

“Am I a representing Agojie women okay? She reminded us that everything would be okay, all the time, and I’ll be forever grateful for that.”

Wrapping up this piece, we return to Viola’s quotes on her message and advice to the young generation and audience: “Anything that you can leave behind for the next generation to make a clearer path – not an easy one – but a clearer path, is worth it. You have to understand that our lives as women, and as dark-skinned, Black women, are fraught with so many obstacles.”

“And then the obstacles that really everybody has it hard, I understand it. But there are a set of obstacles in our path that I know I wish weren’t there when I was younger. And so, I’m going to use the big R word again, responsibility.”

“It’s our responsibility to make a clearer path so that at some point, we can see the world as it should be, as it should have been from the very beginning.” – Rappler.com

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.