Viola Davis plays a woman who brings together a group of women to pull off a heist after the deaths of their criminal husbands in ‘Widows’. She tells Laura Harding why this kind of film is so important.
It’s been almost two years since Viola Davis won her first Oscar. Up on stage in front of Hollywood’s biggest stars, clutching the long skirt of her bright red dress in the same hand as her gold statue, she described why she became an actress, saying it is the only profession that celebrates “what it means to live a life”.
It was a moving moment, watching a powerhouse figure such as Davis moved to tears in front of so many people.
Watching it now, it’s a reminder of how much has changed in Hollywood since then and that the stories she talks about, of those lives lived, are changing, too.
That feels pertinent to Davis’s new film, Widows, about four women who come together after their husbands are killed in an armed heist.
They plot to pull off the robbery their husbands had planned out before their deaths.
Based on a British mini-series by Lynda La Plante from the 1980s, it has been skilfully updated by director Steve McQueen to contemporary Chicago.
It tells a story not just about women who have been underestimated, undermined, or abused who are taking control of their lives, but also about race, class, and politics.
“It came at the right time, in the right zeitgeist, when people are ready to receive it,” says Davis. “As opposed to 10 or 15 years ago when they would’ve been like,’What?’
“I always say that art and movies reflect the times anyway. And certainly that’s the case with this movie.”
Davis plays Veronica Rawlins, a woman left to pick up the pieces of her life after her career criminal husband is killed in the disastrous robbery.
She soon discovers that when he died in an explosion, her husband took stolen money with him.
That money belongs to a local gangster who soon comes to collect.
She also learns her husband had left elaborate plans for another heist and endeavours to finish the job herself to raise the money, recruiting the widows of her husband’s co-conspirators to pull it off with her.
Moving the action to modern Chicago gives McQueen, who penned the script with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, the chance to explore issues of race that don’t exist in the original series.
“Race is such a huge part of our culture, the same way that sexism is,” says Davis.
“And I love the way that the film explores that in a way that’s seamless. The way the N-word just comes out of the politician’s mouth as if they’re nothing.
“People dehumanised without batting an eye and yet in the midst of all that you have a love story, which is me and Harry Rawlins (her on-screen husband, played by Liam Neeson). And that seems to be right.
“That looks like life to me, that’s sort of like it is. On one hand we’re saying that people are better than others, we’re treating people as less than, and at the same time we find each other and we love each other.
“And I think at some point in life, maybe not in my time, we will understand that we’re all the same.”
This struck Davis most when she and Neeson were filming scenes in bed together.
“I felt like he was familiar to me,” she recalls.
“It was nice and I’m thinking of the racial implications of it.
“I know people can roll their eyes but something needs to be said about it, really.
“Because at what point in the history of cinema have you seen someone who looks like me and someone who looks like Liam Neeson in bed together, kissing, romantic, in love, married?”
Davis was also struck by how much of the story was about women cleaning up the messes of men.
“I think that it reflects the truth,” she says.
“I think that is kind of the unspoken language — that we do clean up a lot of the mess.
“You have a lot of mums leading the families after the man has left it and ruins it — I think that’s what Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class (a play from 1978) is about.
“And I love that these women take ownership of their lives. I mean they do it in a way that’s very messy, that maybe is not very likeable, but the objective is to now own themselves and to heal. I love that.”
That is a word that frequently hangs over actresses — likeable. Is she likeable? Is she relatable? Would you root for her? They are questions rarely asked of their male counterparts.
“I hate ‘likeable’,” says Davis.
“I shouldn’t say I hate ‘likeable’. I feel like I’m likeable.
“But it’s sort of like when someone comes up to you on the street and says, ‘Why don’t you smile?’ It drives me crazy.
“I feel that authenticity and being honest with oneself is far more important than being likeable.
“I feel at some point the claws have got to come out, per se, in order for you to step into yourself and create boundaries that people can’t pass and abuse.
“And at some point you have to teach people how to treat you. And sometimes that’s not about being nice and about being likeable.
“And I think that at some point in your life you have to embrace your mess and embrace that is who and what you are, and forgive yourself.”
- Widows is out now