There is no one word to describe Widows. Director Steve McQueen and screenwriter Gillian Flynn brilliantly craft a film that feels more like an analysis of society than a narrative about four very different women planning a robbery. But then again, when your leading ladies are Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo and Elizabeth Debicki, you better believe your film will pack a punch.
In the span of 129 minutes, Widows checks off the requisite list needed to complete a heist—acquiring weapons and a getaway car and driver, staking out the target—while simultaneously interweaving threads of political corruption, racism, economic inequality, and patriarchy through each woman’s personal journey of grief and growth.
Widows is boundary-breaking in many respects. For one, Davis’ role was originally crafted for a white woman. It’s frustratingly rare for a woman of color, particularly a dark-skinned black woman, to have a leading role in an action film that doesn’t stereotype her—even rarer still to show that dark-skinned black woman being sensual, being loved, which the opening shots of Widows depict for Davis’s character, Veronica Rawlings, and her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson).
For another, of the four leading actresses, three are women of color and none play a type. Veronica, Alice (Debicki in a transformative performance), Linda (Rodriguez) and Belle (Erivo) are meaty roles that rebuild the definition of an empowered woman—strong but vulnerable, smart but flawed. This is where we begin when I sit down with Davis, Debicki, Rodriguez and Erivo for a conversation at the Toronto International Film Festival, one that evolved into a discussion about patriarchy, race, balance, and much more.
Harper’s BAZAAR: I want to talk about this evolution of an empowered woman. How did you bring these women to life, with all their complicated layers?
Elizabeth Debicki: That was the gift of the script. They’re all well-written women, which is rare and becoming less and less rare. There was a density to them. They were layered. I don’t like that word “multi-layered,” they just are.
Cynthia Erivo: I think that’s one of the things, these human beings act like human beings. They just happen to be women. Each one of us had to dig to find something we don’t get to show in front of people or onscreen or on the stage very often. I spent a lot of time singing and that’s what people have seen me at. It’s like, I’ve done more than that. I just happen to be able to sing.
Rodriguez: Like an angel!
Erivo: Thank you.
Rodriguez: Let’s not ignore.
Viola Davis: But you know, the foundation of this movie and the foundation of the heist is these women are catapulted together because of a loss. They have to overcome internal obstacles, or at least face them down, in order to perform this heist. They have to tap into things they never tapped into when they were with their husbands. You also see how these women gave over most of their ownership, if not all of it, to their husbands. And now they’re in a part in their lives where they literally have to own themselves… I think in those moments you really see what you’re made of. It’s not about being nice, it’s not about being pretty, it’s not about wearing a mask. You see us in all of our rawness.
Rodriguez: I think what I found the most beautiful with the portrayal of women in this film is the sense that we’re allowed to just be without pretense. I’ve always been repulsed by the idea of women who make what I consider stereotypical choices in life. I’ve always been repulsed by the idea that women can love so unconditionally and be stepped on constantly by (mostly male) people who take advantage of them. It was very scary for me to play my mother, basically: This woman who falls in love with this man who’s completely unreliable and then has two lives she has to be responsible for and provide for without any help. For me, I grew up around that. I grew up watching women suffer constantly. And to see somebody celebrate the strength in that, instead of the weakness, I found to be so special because it led me to respect my own mother. It led me to open up my heart and understand the beauty of unconditional love. It is strong even though it’s soft; it’s way stronger than any of these dudes with these power-hungry moves in the world. It just took my ego and destroyed it.
“It’s not about being nice, it’s not about being pretty, it’s not about wearing a mask. You see us in all of our rawness.” —Viola Davis
BAZAAR: For the longest time, women—and women of color in particular—have been stereotyped, especially in Hollywood. Can you talk about this moment we’re in right now, where we’re demanding to be seen as individuals?
Erivo: We were talking about this last night, telling stories that are people who are just living. That’s something you don’t see a lot of when it comes to women of color. I remember getting jealous of Call Me By Your Name because I’d never seen a film that explored sensuality, love, sex for a woman of color in a way I’d seen in this movie for a young white boy. I know it exists because I’ve lived that, and I know other women have lived that. I think we’re all in a place where we’re trying to make people see that we are humans first and we have stories that we want to tell that aren’t the things you’ve seen constantly. There’s a vast number of stories that just don’t get told, that show us as human beings living human lives. I think we’re all trying to make the choice of what we’re going to do and we’re becoming vocal enough to say, “No, this isn’t acceptable. I don’t want to put that onscreen and I don’t want to put that in front of young people watching to make them think that’s all there is.”
Rodriguez: You’re talking about who takes up most of the space at museums: This is man’s expression of mankind. In order for there to be an expression of humankind, you need the female participant involved. We’re in a place where developed countries around the world are living cosmopolitan lifestyles. The cosmopolitan lifestyle is the first step to becoming a citizen of the world. We’re reaching a point where, in developing countries, there’s a form of expression—I call it the “Olympics of Hollywood” because it’s a world stage where the expression of a culture can come and speak to the world in a universal manner, using a universal language which is Hollywood. Slowly but surely people who are creative, who are artists, will reach this cosmopolitan stage of existence and be able to express themselves. Only when you’re not struggling to survive do you even have the time to be creative enough to come up with a Shakespearean text.
Rodriguez: These various cultures, they’re in a petri dish. And until they’re in this world stage of a cosmopolitan lifestyle, they won’t truly have the space to speak on that world stage. You gotta take time, be patient, and watch. I’ve seen such beauty come out of the African-American culture on the world stage recently, and from women. I’m so proud of women right now. I’m patient. I’m not angry at anybody. I think it’s going in the right direction and I really am hopeful about the future.
BAZAAR: The connection between the film and what’s going on in the world is extraordinary. As the conversations around inclusion and which stories get to be told continues, how do you hope they’ll change not just your careers, but the careers for future generations of women?
Debicki: Steve and Gillian wrote this script long ago, before we suddenly had this amazing transparency and ability to jump to this place of conversation so quickly. The thing I noticed on an everyday level is we feel we can be more vocal, but also with each other—[for] women who are getting together or having lunch, it’s something we’ve wanted to talk about for a long time and now we just can, with more ease. I can stand on a red carpet and someone doesn’t say, “Who made your shoes?” They say, “What do you think about female empowerment?”
Davis: Or sexual assault.
Debicki: Or sexual assault or domestic violence. Or, “How do you feel about things that are important to discuss?” Steve and Gillian wanted to make this before that. It’s interesting to me that #MeToo was after we made this movie.
Davis: I think it takes an extraordinary amount of courage to be an artist. Because you have to be a truth-teller, and that’s the only way change is gonna come—if you put the truth out there, even through your character. If I’m up there and I’m being self-conscious because I’m a dark-skinned actress and I want to look like Halle Berry, then I’m gonna have the hair, I’m gonna go to the gym, I’m gonna have the body. And all of a sudden I’m not gonna be representative of that 53-year-old dark-skinned woman… I wouldn’t be honest.
Debicki: Who’s really hot by the way.
Rodriguez: And by the way, those guns… Damn!
Davis: Thanks. [But] I’m also not being honest if I have yet another conversation about the pay gap between women and men, and not talk about the pay gap between Caucasian women and women of color. If I don’t say that, I’m not living in my truth and my integrity. The longer you go without telling the truth, the more the lie continues. I find that every time I get the question, “Will change come? Will it change?” Change will come if we do it ourselves. If we, people of color, put it in our own lap. Trust me, when an actor gets power, sometimes they want to harness that power, they want to hold onto it and they don’t want to take risks. They want to do what’s been done before. They don’t want to bring it into the future, they don’t want to be progressive, because if you’re progressive you may fail. But the key is, for people of color, for women of color, when we do get some semblance of power, it’s to put things out there that represent our voice and our truth. That’s what Steve did with us. All of us are different, all of us had this sense of honesty and realness. We weren’t all running around showing our ass. Although, I’ll tell you, in the scene with Liam Neeson—before I said, “Okay, Steve, we’ll talk about this because I’m not showing my ass.” If it were a little different I’d think about it.
Erivo: That scene was so real though. It didn’t need that to tell the story of you two. It didn’t need that.
Rodriguez: By the way, can anybody just agree with me on how prominent the Irish race is multiculturally? I’ve seen African-American McDougals and I’ve seen American-Indian McFlys.
Erivo: In the UK, the signs they used to have said “No dogs. No blacks. No Irish.” That was the sign that used to be outside of shops. While we were going through all the nonsense in the UK, so were the Irish. It’s so weird because when you go to London, there’s such a camaraderie between Irish people and people of color.
Davis: But then in America, it’s totally different. It’s the immigrant thing that we can’t wrap our minds around because black people are not immigrants here. They didn’t come here by choice. And it’s not just to get on the slavery train. We didn’t come through Ellis Island. It is a different sort of history. It’s almost like the divine right of kings. You learn a lot about that when you do Shakespeare, that there are certain people who are closer to God than others. The people who are closer to God are the people of the highest stature, the kings, the queens. That’s how I felt growing up here. Anyone who was the closest to being white was the best, which is what Jim Crow was rooted in, which nobody talks about anymore. Let’s just sweep that under the rug. The Irish, growing up, where I was from, definitely didn’t associate with African-Americans. I mean, a lot of them were my friends until they called me the N-word and then I saw something else. I thought Steve painted a beautiful picture of that in this movie.
BAZAAR: That does connect to what [Rodriguez] said about what our history is based on, and how it’s always been centered on men, particularly the white man, and how that’s dictated how we’ve told our stories so far. The film actually does hint to that because there’s clear corruption of power and it is passed down through generations, white man to his white son. They were the leaders of an urban community and they were the most corrupt—like what we’re seeing play out in our government right now. How do we overcome that?
Rodriguez: The history of corruption goes back to kings and queens. There’s always a loophole, whether it’s a law or democracy you’re using to find that loophole. There’s always going to be somebody taking advantage of somebody. Wealth is never created without taking advantage of the lesser-than or the one that has less, because that’s the advantage. You can’t create wealth without it. This is a long-standing problem. It’s up to the kids to really decide what kind of humans they want to be in the future.
Debicki: I might be the eternal optimist but it’d be nice to elect a woman someday.
Erivo: I think that is the truth.
Debicki: I think that’d be extremely helpful for humanity.
Erivo: I think we’ve had too many men ruling too many things and they f*ck it up every time. What’s wonderful about this [movie] is that Steve has both the feminine and masculine voice within him. He’s very comfortable with using both of those, but he’s also surrounding himself with women on set and behind the camera. You take a look at something that only has a male creative, and 99.9 percent of the time, what actually comes out of it is detrimental to women. I genuinely think that goes through everything, so I do think at some point this government really needs a woman to run something.
Rodriguez: I think every government does. It’s a matter of balance. You can have all this money, and you can have all this power, but there’s no happiness if you’re not working on your soul. You have to work on your internal and that’s what the feminine is. The feminine is about community, it’s about nurture, it’s about sustainability. That part of the soul is just malnourished, in society in general, and it’s because of power and grab, and it’s because of this masculine material world that rules and runs most governments around the world. It’s just outdated and incomplete without the woman.
Debicki: Women know what they need. If their needs aren’t being represented by somebody in power then we’re simply not getting what we need… It’s crazy that we still have to say this film is good because there are lots of women who want to see themselves onscreen, but we’re in the baby stages of making that very clear to people in power, who are predominately men.
Davis: But that’s why it’s really horrific too, when you see women in power and you see them doing exactly the same thing that men do, making exactly the same choices. Madeleine Albright says there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support women.
“We’ve had too many men ruling too many things and they f*ck it up every time.” —Cynthia Erivo
BAZAAR: Which is why feminism has been so complicated, as it’s often left out women of color. There is a white woman in this film, the character of Jack Mulligan’s wife, who knows what terrible things the men in her life are doing, but she’s doing everything to keep them in power. What message do you want to tell these women who don’t see that we have to be inclusive, and support all women?
Erivo: It’s women being scared. We need to encourage them not to be afraid that no one misses out. No one loses anything for helping each other. There’s not less for you if you give me some.
Davis: In fact there’s much more.
Erivo: There’s much more. If we share our ideas, if we share our space, if we share our devices, then we have more. That, I think, is the encouragement I’d give, because we can’t create unity, we can’t create balance if we’re not all on one accord. At some point we have to come together.
Davis: I just think it’s rooted in race. The fact that women of color and Caucasian women sometimes are on a different plane. It’s class too, but I’m just saying the history of race is so steeped in separate but equal: Putting a black doll in a white doll hand, having kids point to what doll they think is the most stupid, what doll they think is the most ugly, what doll they think is the most insignificant, and every single time they choose the black doll because it was cemented in their mind that black is wrong. That was the whole basis of Jim Crow, the whole basis of separate but equal: Kids are not being taught the same things, they aren’t growing up the same way. They’re being taught that they’re less than, less valued, and that cemented in our minds, too. It’s a class thing, it’s a race thing, and it’s a sex thing. Michelle said it, it’s a self-reckoning.
I go to these events all the time in Hollywood: Variety Power of Women luncheon, where you had 3,000 women in a room and a lot of them are CEOs, producers—they’re in positions of power—and you see maybe five women of color in there, and I’m one of them, and maybe my guest. Listen, I love women. I’m just speaking a truth. I’m not a human speaking from a place of anger. Or go to Elle‘s Women in Hollywood event, that’s another event that’s sort of awesome. It’s beautiful when you see that feminine energy and you see the sharing and the interaction, and you see the permission for women to air their grievances. But where’s the women of color? And it’s by invite! And the person who’s inviting the other women is a woman. It’s recognizing that we’re just there. It’s recognizing that we’re present. I will put a little bit on Reese Witherspoon. I think she’s doing something awesome. She has that Octavia Spencer series. I think she has a script for Zendaya. There’s a recognition of understanding that we’re not invisible. That when you talk about women you’re not just talking about women who look like you.
Rodriguez: These are markets, at the end of the day. These are gaps in the market. One day someone will see the value in that and fill it. It’s like watching a baby grow. My words of encouragement would simply be “acknowledge that.” Focus on the fact that this is a business and there’s a disparity. The grand majority of humans on this planet are not white, and they pay money to go see movies. I’ve made an entire career out of this, and made myself very rich. It’s a baby that’s growing and eventually people will see and know the opportunity in it.
Davis: Absolutely. Can’t add more to that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.