Viola Davis is known for her dramatic powers, but for her latest role in King of Women, The 57-year-old Oscar winner proves she’s ready to launch a whole new career… as an action hero.
“I had a swagger with this one,” Davis tells Yahoo Entertainment of her virtual star in director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s stirring 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 Lady King takes place in 19th century West Africa, where an all-female army – led by Davis’ commanding general, Nanisca – defends its ruler, King Ghezo (John Boyega), against a rival tribe intent on subjugating the base remove his power. But Nanisca’s steadfast resolve is tested when a new hero, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), with whom she shares a personal history, as well as the responsibility of former allies such as Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim) join the battles. since they cannot return.
Although Davis has previously appeared in spectacle-heavy blockbusters such as The Suicide Squad and Ender’s game, The Lady King the first time she was at the center of the action. And Prince-Bythewood says the star is committed to getting her body into fighting shape. “Her work ethic is insane,” praises the director. “I remember the first call I had with Viola and our fight coordinator, Daniel Hernandez. We told her: ‘We’re not going to put you in our box – you’re going to create a box, and we’re going to do it. looking good.’ She’s strong, so we built around that.”
Speaking to Shape magazine recently, Davis’ trainer, Gabriel Mclain, revealed that the actress underwent a DNA health analysis before production that helped improve her diet and exercise regimen. “Viola put in the work to build her body to be an athlete,” declares Prince-Bythewood, adding that the star performed several stunts of her own, including a climactic duel that sometimes required advanced training. “I told her, ‘You have to have that,'” recalls the director. “That scene speaks so much about her character and what she was going through, and I didn’t want it to be cut around a stunt double.”
Reflecting on the experience now, Davis describes her time as an action hero as “scary” and “satisfying”.
“I shrink from proposals,” says the actor. “I’m very much an introvert … but this is one role where I would get on the phone with all my friends, especially Juilliard friends, and say, ‘You know what I did today?’ …. I came braggadocios!”
Davis’ new bravado was certainly not shared by her co-stars. “She enjoyed it,” laughed Mbedu. “It was difficult, but we were achieving great things. Gina was always there [saying,] ‘More swagger!’ And Viola would say, ‘I should have asked for more money!'”
Meanwhile, Atim marveled at how Davis’ commanding presence kept the rest of the cast grounded during what could have been a difficult shoot. “She leads by example, and everyone respects her, because she is a true professional and truly dedicated to the craft.”
Along with action movie swagger, The Lady King it also offers a new interpretation of African history, pointing to the role of rulers such as King Ghezo in the slave trade. In the film, Ghezo maintains relationships with slaves as the source of his kingdom’s wealth, even as Nanisca pressures him to sever those ties. Prince-Bythewood says that piece of history was hard to come to grips with, but also unavoidable. “It was important to tell the truth, and I knew going in that that’s what we were going to do,” she notes.
Similarly, Boyega felt conflicted about wrestling with that particular piece of history. “You certainly 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 how Gina put that into the story and explored it. You have to be committed to what the story is and also to show the truth of this era. As an actor, I had to avoid my own opinion and give the audience the truth.”
Lynch faced those harsh truths directly in one of the most dramatic scenes in the film, where Izogie is trapped in the slave market and handled by a slave, played by Hero Fiennes Tiffin. “That was a very difficult scene to shoot,” on the No Time to Die The star recalls, adding that it took many days to film. “Reading the script, that was the one part that made me really nervous. I cried a lot while shooting it.”
The actress credits Prince-Bythewood and her co-star, Tiffin, for 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 – for a young man to come to this woman and take care of herself and her body and have agency for her. And then Gina is one of the best and nicest directors I’ve worked with ever, and she took great care of that whole series. I’m thankful that I didn’t have to put myself through too much to get what we did.”
Prince-Bythewood describes that sequence as “intense,” and praises Lynch for portraying the reality of what happened to real women like Izogie, who were forced into slavery. “She honored it and it was as real as it gets. When you have an actress like Lashana who feels everything so deeply, it’s a very exciting 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 Lady King.
“We wanted to tell the story of these incredible women who defended the kingdom,” says Prince-Bythewood, adding that she was inspired by films such as Brave Heart and Gladiator. “It was a chance to show another side of Africa that we don’t see – the beauty of it, and the kings, the warriors, that’s something that is missing from so many stories. It was exciting to be able to do that.”
— Video produced by Kyle Moss and edited by Jimmie Rhee
The Lady King now playing in theaters