In Steve McQueen’s first meeting with Viola Davis, two years ago at her home in a verdant neighborhood of Los Angeles, he told her the story of his initial encounter with “Widows” — the 1983 British mini-series that has possessed him for 35 years and which will finally be exorcised on Nov. 16, with the release of his take on the brainy, pulpy heist thriller.
A 13-year-old McQueen had been up late in his parents’ living room in London when the show came on television and left him spellbound. “I just immediately identified with these women who were onscreen,” he recalled again last month, sitting next to Davis in a downtown hotel here for the film’s premiere. “They were being judged by their appearance and being deemed to be not capable, similar to how I was being judged as a black child growing up in the ’80s in London.”
The director, whose last film, “12 Years a Slave” (2013), made him the first black Academy Award winner for best picture and the third to be nominated in the directing category, pitched Davis on the adaptation, which follows women who inherit the blueprints for a robbery from their slain gangster husbands in Chicago. The ensemble cast also includes Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo.
“She’s like De Niro, in a way,” McQueen said of Davis, who emitted a bashful laugh that filled the gaudy hotel meeting room. “She reflects something visceral and unpredictable in humanity that you somehow connect to.”
Davis, whose soul-scraping performances on the stage and screen have earned her Academy, Emmy and Tony Awards, recalled how her suitor charmed her. “I felt like he saw me as a vast paradox,” she said of McQueen. “In a different way, it’s sort of like the first time I met my husband — something registers where you feel comfortable enough to open the floodgates and let out all of who you are.”
In a wide-ranging interview, the two discussed their careers, the need for collective action against racial inequity in Hollywood and transcending structural barriers to creativity for black artists.
“I can do anything I want to do and I have,” McQueen said, in one characteristically disarming riff. “See the track record.”
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Steve, this movie is a bit of a pivot for you, genre-wise, after “12 Years a Slave,” “Shame” and “Hunger.” Was there a thought that you wanted to switch gears?
STEVE McQUEEN No, I’m interested in great stories. I never thought I was doing anything other than trying to make a good story and hopefully a decent film. The next one could be an underwater musical comedy starring Viola. It doesn’t matter. If the story’s great, then let’s get on with it.
VIOLA DAVIS Anyone who’s seen this film knows that it’s so much more than a heist movie. But oftentimes, because of Hollywood, the audience expects to come in with their popcorn, Sour Patch Kids and Diet Coke, and just escape, relax and tune out. They want a story to be wrapped up with a label and a pretty bow. But that’s not our job. Our job is to feed you humanity in a way that you’re not fed in your everyday life.
Did you see an opportunity with this movie to have the best of both worlds? Humanity and popcorn?
McQUEEN Look, when I did “12 Years a Slave,” I never knew that it would be a blockbuster. But we made $25 million on DVD sales alone in North America within the year. With “Widows,” I wanted to reach a broad audience without losing any of the audience that came to “Shame” or “Hunger” or “12 Years.”
McQUEEN Because it’s time. As an artist, I have a responsibility to reach as many people as I can. And I wanted to make a film about certain kinds of people, who aren’t necessarily considered “box office,” and then have those people come to see the film. That was very important to me. I don’t see the point of preaching to the converted. We have to have dialogue. Otherwise, we’re just sort of navel-gazing.
DAVIS All we want from women is for them to be pretty, and for them to be kind. And it’s those shallow qualities associated with womanhood that we see on screen. So we always feel less than. We always feel like the predator’s prey. We always feel that boot of male influence and power. That’s what #MeToo and Time’s Up is all about.
This movie is a realistic journey into women gaining ownership of their lives. And not at the expense of who they are. The feminine energy and the vulnerability are still there. But I think it’s a fantasy in every woman to do something bold and brash and not nice, to bust out of themselves and social norms to get at some level of authenticity. I think that’s what attracts people. I know that’s what attracts me.
The movie is coming out at a time when, from entertainment to politics, women are indeed being bold — demanding change and giving voice to their rage.
McQUEEN I’m grateful. But it’s hugely bittersweet. I based this film on a TV show I saw 35 years ago and nothing’s changed. Absolutely nothing’s changed. But the fact that, as an object, this film can be useful — I’m very grateful for that.
DAVIS I always say the three famous words: And now what? It’s got to keep going. It can’t just be “This is a time for female rage, so this is a time for female-centric movies and maybe some black artists.” It should’ve been time years ago. This is what it always should be.
McQUEEN What’s happening with #MeToo and Time’s Up is amazing — these are huge, giant steps. But I just feel sometimes, as a black filmmaker, that it’s still going around in circles.
We’ve had this debate within the black film community about being represented as filmmakers and actors and stories. We never seem to break through. It goes up and then down. With #MeToo and Time’s Up, it just goes on and on and on. And I think it’s because there are people in situations of influence who are actually behind it and are doing a genius job.
I wish those people would get on board with a black movement. Too much of this stuff is, “Oh, I’m very happy for the black actors or actresses who are doing well.” And it’s like, White man, you’re part of this! You should be saying, “Hey, I’m with them. I’m out there.” That civil rights method: WE, not them. I don’t know what you think about that, Viola.
DAVIS If you’re a black actor — especially actress — who gets to any level of power and you say, “I’m going to produce my own film and I’m going to be the lead in the film,” you need a No. 2 who’s going to get that film international distribution. That means you need a big white star.
If it’s a big white male star, the whole budget is their salary, their per diem. Which means they don’t want to be second fiddle to you. So how do you find that man? Or, if it’s a white female, well she’s already fighting to [be No. 1 in] her own film. So it’s all of those dynamics that nobody publicizes.
McQUEEN That said, people wanted to be in this movie because of Viola Davis. Liam Neeson wanted to be in this movie because of Viola Davis. Daniel Kaluuya. The list goes on. So it slightly contradicts what you’re saying, because you’re so brilliant. People want to be associated with brilliance. And that’s all we have as a commodity.
DAVIS And it’s been a journey for me to get to that point. I’ve been doing it for 30 years. And now that I’m 53, I’m at the point that a lot of actresses, especially Caucasian actresses, were at at 21. You can have a Caucasian actress who started when she was 18, and now she’s 60 or 70 and she’s had enough roles in every single decade to last her whole career. My hope for actresses of color is that there would be enough of them who could do a “Book Club.”
McQUEEN We need to come together, regardless of background, and support each other and defend each other. Look at this movie: It’s four women of different backgrounds, different classes who come together to do this heist. That’s the only way we’re going to win.
DAVIS I always say, you won’t see any film this year that opens like our film. With me and Liam Neeson in bed together — the Caucasian cute boy and me at 53 with my natural hair and dark skin. And the only thing it’s telling you is that these are two people in love. That’s it. So what it forces the audience to do is not go straight to their heads and cut off their heart.
When you compose an image like that, do you have to be conscious of what it might trigger in people’s heads? The political dimension?
McQUEEN No. No, not at all. It’s L-O-V-E. I mean, do you think I’m conscious of my wife being white? No. That’s not where I come from. That’s not to say that it’s not visible, or it’s not important. But it’s not a spectacle. It’s two people in love.
DAVIS In order to bring people into the 21st century, you’ve got to speak your truth.
But that implies that it’s your goal to bring people into the 21st century. Isn’t that political?
McQUEEN Look, if I was aware of [doing] that, then we wouldn’t do it. Now don’t get me wrong — there’s no innocence involved in it. It’s not naïveness. But I see images like [a middle-aged, interracial couple kissing] quite often. It’s my reality. So it’s nothing new to me. And the fact of the matter is, it’s not new to the audience.
Davis Every artist can either tell their story or sell their story. Selling it means they go to different studios and get everyone’s opinion and eventually sell their soul. It’s the artist that says, “I’m not going to do that. I’m going to speak my truth” who brings people forward. It’s a conscious decision to be courageous.
McQUEEN I don’t want to have to deal with what’s in certain kinds of people’s minds and what they see as normal or not normal. That’s not my business. Let them get on with it, and let me get on with what I’m getting on with, please. Like I said, if I want to do an underwater musical comedy with Viola, why not? I can do anything I want to do and I have. See the track record. Apart from HBO stopping me from doing a television show, and that’s their problem.
How about you, Viola? Do you feel creative freedom despite it all?
DAVIS Yes. And here’s the thing: If there’s any change happening, it’s because we’re changing it. The Octavia Spencers, the Halle Berrys, the Taraji P. Hensons, the Kerry Washingtons, the Gabrielle Unions. People will say, “You’re 20 percent of the population, so if 22 percent of movies out there have people of color in them, you guys are doing pretty good!” [In 2016, the last year for which figures are available, only 13.9 percent of studio films starred people of color, according to a U.C.L.A. study.]
But just because I’m 20 percent of the population doesn’t mean I want 20 percent of the pie. I want the whole freakin’ pie. Which is why I have a production company. I’m tired of people saying, “You’re not attractive, you’re not sexual, you’re dark-skinned.” [Impersonating such a person] Well you understand that, Viola. Your deep voice … or whatever it is.
I don’t understand [expletive]. I understand that in my life I’ve seen big women, deep-voiced women and women who never wear a skirt who are still having sex. So their ideas are not reflective of my world.
McQUEEN I think you’re only limited by your imagination. And I will say that to any black artist. When you look at jazz musicians and what they were doing? They were revolutionizing everything. Coltrane, Miles. Where was the barrier? The only barrier was the instrument that they had in their hand.