When Viola Davis was cast as the star of Steve McQueen’s crime drama Widows, her first thought wasn’t about the character she’d be playing. “My first thought was, ‘I’ve got to lose weight,’” Davis told Yahoo Entertainment, on speakerphone with co-stars Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo. “And I remember going up to Steve and saying, ‘I need a trainer. I’ve got to lose weight.’ And there was a big pause and he was like, ‘Why?’”
Hearing Davis’s anecdote, Rodriguez let out a howl of laughter. Throughout the Widows press tour, Rodriguez, best known for the Fast and Furious films, has refused to make comparisons between McQueen’s female-centric drama and that testosterone-and-NOS-fueled franchise. But the Furious films are a good illustration of what Hollywood expects from women in heist movies: Regardless of whether they’re at the center of the action (as Rodriguez’s character often is), they should look like models, embrace every excuse to wear a bikini or cleavage-bearing gown, and step aside at a moment’s notice to accommodate male characters’ plot lines. Even 2018’s previous all-female heist film Ocean’s 8 climaxed with its heroines in designer gowns and full makeup. So the fact that McQueen cared more about Davis’s performance than her waistline or hairstyle (he told her not to use treatments or extensions) almost defied belief.
“It wasn’t like, ‘You have to lose weight in order to play Veronica. In order to play a lead role, you gotta be va-va-va-voom,’” Davis explained. “It was, ‘You could still be you.’ So for me that was incredibly liberating, that I could start with my talent. I’ve never experienced that before.”
Widows follows the lives of four Chicago strangers who plot a crime together after three of their husbands and boyfriends die in a robbery-gone-wrong, leaving the women to collect a debt. With a script by McQueen and Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, the film takes unusual care in exposing the complexities of its lead characters, rather than reducing them to a set of skills or quirky traits. Davis’s character, Veronica, is a constellation of contradictions: a righteous union leader who basked in the life of luxury afforded by her criminal husband (Liam Neeson), a devastated wife and mother whose grief hardens her into a ruthless, calculating mastermind. Alice (Debicki) is an immigrant’s daughter who is emotionally scarred by a life of abuse, yet manages to turn that into a strange kind of power. Rodriguez’s Linda, a bridal shop owner whose gambling-addict husband tanks her business, is level-headed and resourceful but with perilous blind spots. Erivo plays the smallest of the three roles, but even her character Belle, a single mother who spends her life doing high-speed sprints between jobs, isn’t easily categorized.
“I guess for me, the most liberating thing was the idea that in being super physical and muscular, it didn’t mean that I lost my femininity; it meant that that was just one in a combination of things that made me who I am,” Erivo said.
Widows also makes space for the grittier details of women’s lives that are usually avoided onscreen: the struggle to find childcare, the compromises made with men in order to survive, the codependent relationships between mothers and daughters. It’s hard not to see these things as the influence of a perceptive female screenwriter. And while the actresses noted that McQueen and Flynn worked in collaboration, so they don’t know for sure who created which story, both Debicki and Rodriguez sensed Flynn’s hand in their characters’ family plotlines.
“I think that the relationship between a mother and a daughter — the way that a mother can repress her daughter, project upon her or live vicariously through her, and that equaling a kind of abuse — was really interestingly tackled in the film,” said Debicki (whose character’s manipulative mother Agnieska is played by Jacki Weaver).
“I think they did an incredible job also with Linda’s mother-in-law,” Rodriguez said of her character, who is blamed by her late husband’s mother Lita for his death. The actress said that she has known many women like Lita, who idealize their sons but are deeply suspicious of other women. “With parents who are very Catholic … they always treat the boys like kings, and the woman is always the devil,” said Rodriguez. “I found that it was written very accurately, just from my experience of being a Latina and growing up in an extremely religious environment. So I really loved that, and if Gillian had anything to do with that, I think it’s really awesome.”
Widows is in theaters now.
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