This interview with the cast of “The Woman King” first ran in the Guild & Critics Awards / Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
By any reasonable calculation, “The Woman King” was a risky movie to make. Set in 19th-century Africa, starring a huge cast of mainly Black women actors — many of them not widely known — it faced big questions about whether the movie would find its audience.
Incredibly, it did. Willed into existence by a team that included director Gina Prince-Bythewood and producers Viola Davis, Julius Tennon, Mario Bello and Cathy Schulman, the release from Sony’s TriStar Pictures has made more than $90 million at the global box office since its September release. Critics have also embraced the film (as have audiences: It has a 99% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes), with the L.A. Times’ Justin Chang identifying the movie’s hat trick of taking “an old-fashioned template to deliver a floodtide of exhilarating new images.”
“The Woman King” is based on the true story of the kingdom of Dahomey (located in modern-day Benin), where a female cadre of warriors — the Agojie — protected the powerful state and its king. The film stars Davis as the general Nanisca; Thuso Mbedu as the neophyte warrior Nawi; Lashana Lynch as warrior Izogie; Sheila Atim as Amenza; and John Boyega as King Ghezo. TheWrap editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman spoke to this remarkable cast at the Toronto Film Festival.
This film seems to be something very different than I’ve ever seen Hollywood produce before: a film about an African story of self-empowerment with an African cast, shot in Africa, led by women, a woman director, a woman lead producer. Viola, you spent many years getting this film to come to life. Can you tell us how you started it and why?
VIOLA DAVIS It started with Maria Bello. She took many trips to Africa. She does a lot of philanthropy work, but she thought of this story. She presented me with an award at the Skirball Center. And when she presented me with the award, she pitched the script to the audience. That was her introduction of me. And she ended it with, “Wouldn’t you want to see Viola as the Woman King, Nanisca?” And everybody just cheered. That’s where it started.
And from there it was the fight. I call that part of the journey “the fight.” I wish people could be a fly on the wall so they can understand the process of getting a film made: a lot of walking out of rooms, just cussing, just putting my hands up going, “Oh, my God, can you believe that happened? Can you believe we have to fight for this?” Fighting for everything. Fighting for actors, fighting for the director, fighting for the integrity of the project. Fighting to not shift and change the script or water it down to fit other scripts that had been made before that didn’t… I’ll just say that weren’t as Black.
By which you mean had more white characters, or had more…
DAVIS Well, it’s a longer conversation. Fighting for, I don’t know, hairstyles. Fighting for making sure that every actor in it was dark-skinned. The Agojie were dark-skinned women. Fighting for little things like that. Fighting for a proper budget because without the budget you cannot get certain things made. Fighting for directors—that was a big thing because the studio approves directors like the Christopher Nolans, the David Finchers, the Steven Spielbergs. They’re busy doing other things. They’re not going to direct “The Woman King.” And then fighting for other female directors who are names, (but) they’re busy doing other things too. And fighting for the directors who are names but are too frightened of it. People who never even read the script, frightened of telling a story of Black female empowerment.
DAVIS (That) would be a better question for them. Because we are a mystery, I think, to a lot of people. And then to finally get it made, to finally have your feet on the soil of South Africa, was really close to a miracle. (Laughs)
Thuso, what was it like to be part of this project?
THUSU MBEDU It was absolutely amazing on every single level. I was able to train with Viola quite early in the process. We’re doing everything ourselves. It was hard, extremely hard. But beautiful, you know — it broke us in the way that it needed to, but also built us up.
John, you get to stand there and look very beautiful in your robes.
JOHN BOYEGA No fighting at all.
What was it like to be sort of the singular man surrounded by this army of women?
BOYEGA Well, it was like being at home. I’ve got two older sisters. Mom’s whole family is mostly women. So there was an element of that. But the difference with this was that there was something inspirational to watch. We weren’t just in an environment in which you compare, as a male or a female — they were working as hard as anybody. They transformed their bodies.
You said at the premiere that you felt that you had reached some kind of crisis in your own life as an actor. Can you talk about that?
BOYEGA I wouldn’t call it a crisis. If you are continuously building yourself and you are continuously looking in the mirror, it’s actually just a process of life that you should actually have a moment to sit down and go, “OK, what am I doing? What direction am I going in next?” And in that consideration and confusion, Gina’s letter came through and it had the vibe of a call to action. It wasn’t necessarily just about a career move. It was more about “Come and support, come and be on set with other artists.” And for me, it was like a reintroduction to why I fell in love with acting.
Were you surprised that a studio was getting behind a movie like this with this theme and this cast?
BOYEGA To a certain extent, but that doesn’t move me anymore. My question then goes, have you fully supported those that are in charge? Have you made sure that you’ve given them the best opportunity and the best resources to get it done? Are you going to market it? Are you going to push it? These are questions that we have continuously asked throughout the whole process until digital release.
Lashana and Sheila, what was this experience like for you?
LASHANA LYNCH Every time we get asked that question I just inhale really deeply because there’s so much to say. There’s so much ground that we were able to cover as actors, as people, as Black women. Even before being cast, I felt really happy that the industry was preparing for this shift. This is a big leap for someone who looks like me to be happy that a studio’s getting behind it and is putting together the most powerful cast who are able to be their most dedicated selves through a director who really cares about them, cares about their well-being in tackling such deep narratives as Black women. I felt like I was able to heal a little bit of myself, to heal from my ancestors onwards. It was a special, spiritual experience to me.
SHEILA ATIM I always try to pick roles in projects where I feel like there is something new about them, whether it’s the project itself or it’s something new for me on a personal level, something that I haven’t tackled before. Just hearing Lashana speak, I realize there were so many elements of this project that were new for me. Working with that many Black women at the same time, I’ve never ever had the opportunity to do that. Both in front of and behind of the camera, doing our own dancing — which was definitely something that I have not done on screen yet. The level of ambition that the project had to have — all of that in one project meant that I absolutely had to be a part of it.
But I think it really hit me while I was there and continues to hit me afterwards. Having seen the film now a couple of times, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. But with that comes huge challenges because, as Viola mentioned before, we are stepping into territory that can make people nervous. The industry is very risk-averse. And so to be able to go through all of that, come out of the other side and say, “We did it. We executed it,” is something that I’m so proud of.
Read more from the Guild & Critics Awards / Documentaries issue here.