How Viola Davis transformed herself into an action hero for 'The Woman King': 'I had a swagger with this one'

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Viola Davis is a well-known dramatic powerhouse, but for her latest role in The Woman King, the 57-year-old Oscar winner proves that she's ready to launch a whole new career... as an action hero.

"I had a swagger with this one," Davis tells Yahoo Entertainment about her ferocious star turn in director Gina Prince-Bythewood's rousing period epic, which had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. (Watch our video interview above.)

Inspired by actual historical events, The Woman King takes place in 19th century West Africa, where an all-female army — led by Davis's commanding general, Nanisca — defends their ruler, King Ghezo (John Boyega), against a rival tribe intent on undermining his power. But Nanisca's steely resolve is tested by the arrival of a new warrior, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), with whom she shares a personal history, as well as the responsibility of leading allies like Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim) into battles from which they may not return.

While Davis has previously appeared in spectacle-heavy blockbusters like The Suicide Squad and Ender's Game, The Woman King marks the first time that she's been at the center of the action. And Prince-Bythewood says that the star committed herself to transforming her body into fighting shape. "Her work ethic is insane," praises the director. "I remember the first call that I had with Viola and our fight coordinator, Daniel Hernandez. We told her: 'We're not going to fit you into our box — you're gonna create a box, and we're gonna make you look good.' She's hella strong, and so we built around that."

Viola Davis goes full action hero in The Woman King. (Photo: Courtesy of TIFF)
Viola Davis goes full action hero in The Woman King. (Photo: Courtesy of TIFF) (TIFF)

Speaking with Shape magazine recently, Davis's trainer, Gabriel Mclain, revealed that the actress underwent a DNA health analysis prior to production that helped hone her nutrition and workout regimen. "Viola put in the work to build her body to be an athlete," Prince-Bythewood confirms, adding that the star performed a number of her own stunts, including a climactic duel that required hours of advanced training. "I told her, 'That's gotta be you,'" the director recalls. "That scene says so much about her character and what she was going through, and I didn't want to have to cut around a stunt double."

Reflecting on the experience now, Davis describes her time as an action hero as being both "terrifying" and "satisfying."

"I shrink from compliments," the actress adds. "I'm very much an introvert ... but this is a one role where I would get on the phone with all my friends, especially ones from Juilliard, and say, 'You know what I did today?' .... I became braggadocios!"

Her co-stars definitely didn't mind Davis's newfound bravado. "She enjoyed it," laughs Mbedu. "It was hard, but we were achieving great things. Gina was always [saying,] 'More swagger!' And Viola would go, 'I should have asked for more money!'"

Meanwhile, Atim was struck by how Davis's commanding presence kept the rest of the cast grounded during what could be a difficult shoot. "She leads by example, and everyone admires her, because she's a true professional and really dedicated to the craft."

Lashana Lynch, Davis and Sheila Atim in The Woman King. (Photo: TriStar Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection)
Lashana Lynch, Davis and Sheila Atim in The Woman King. (Photo: TriStar Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection) (©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Besides action movie swagger, The Woman King also offers a nuanced depiction of African history, touching on the role that rulers like King Ghezo had in the slave trade. In the film, Ghezo maintains relationships with slavers as a source of his kingdom's wealth, even has Nanisca pushes him to sever those ties. Prince-Bythewood says that confronting that piece of history was difficult, but it also couldn't be avoided. "It was important to tell the truth, and I knew going in that that's what we were going to do," she notes.

Boyega similarly felt conflicted about wrestling with that particular piece of history. "You definitely have your natural opinions about that kind of trade," says the Star Wars star. "But at the same time, [it's important] for the integrity of the film, and for how Gina put that into the narrative and explored it. You have to commit to what the narrative is and also show the truth of this era. As an actor, I had to bypass my own opinion and bring the truth to the audience."

Lynch confronted those harsh truths directly in one of the most dramatically-charged scenes in the film, where Izogie is held captive in a slave market and is manhandled by a slaver, played by Hero Fiennes Tiffin. "That was a really tough scene to shoot," the No Time to Die star recalls, adding that it took multiple days to film. "Reading the script, that was the one part that made me really nervous. I cried a lot during shooting it."

John Boyega in The Woman King. (Photo: TriStar Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection)
John Boyega as King Ghezo in The Woman King. (Photo: TriStar Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection) (©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

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 want to do and what you 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 great care with that whole sequence. I'm grateful that I didn't have to put myself through too much in order to get what we did."

For her part, Prince-Bythewood describes that sequence as "tough," and praises Lynch for portraying the reality of what happened to real women like Izogie, who were forced into slavery. "She honored it and was as truthful 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 one part of the larger story being told in The Woman King.

"We wanted to tell the story of these incredible women who defended the kingdom," Prince-Bythewood says, adding that she was inspired by such movies as Braveheart and Gladiator. "It was a chance to show another side of Africa that we don't get to see — the beauty of it, and the kings, the warriors, that's is something that's been missing from so many narratives. It was exciting to be able to do that."

— Video produced by Kyle Moss and edited by Jimmie Rhee

The Woman King is playing in theaters now