Jumping into genre territory might seem like an unexpected move for the director of the best-picture-winning 12 Years a Slave, but Steve McQueen doesn’t take his films lightly. With Widows, out Friday, McQueen brings his steely, highly observant style to bear on the action-heist genre, crafting a high-tension thriller that’s as smart as it is exciting.
Based on a 1983 British series of the same name, Widows stars Viola Davis as Veronica, a woman whose husband, played by Liam Neeson, was recently killed in a heist gone wrong. Before getting a chance to properly grieve, Veronica is confronted by a local crime boss and his brother — played by Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya, respectively — who want her to get back the money her husband lost. Veronica recruits the widows of the other men killed in the heist to help: Alice, a young woman (played by Elizabeth Debicki) who takes up high-end prostitution to cover her bills after her husband dies; Linda, a mom and store owner (played by Michelle Rodriguez); and Belle, Linda’s go-to babysitter (played by Cynthia Erivo).
The film marks McQueen’s first venture into the realm of straight-up genre, and he brings along his cool and precise style, weaving together a complex drama that extends beyond the women’s attempt to make good on their husbands’ heist. We also get insight into Chicago’s political landscape via Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall, a father and son trying to hold onto their dynastic power on the city council. Politics enters in other ways too with a sharp lens on urban economic disparities and with race and gender informing every choice each character must make.
Introducing the film at its world premiere in December at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was received with wide critical acclaim, McQueen highlighted the cast’s diversity on stage that night. “Behind me is what we call society — what we see in our everyday and what we have onscreen,” he said. “Let’s keep on doing movies about us, who are in this theater, instead of what other people think should be on the screen.”
I spoke to McQueen the day after the Widows premiere about about infusing genre filmmaking with politics, why diverse casting comes naturally to him, his experience working with Viola Davis and presenting the realities of everyday life onscreen — no matter the kind of story.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Mic: The movie’s gotten a really good response from audiences so far.
Steve McQueen: I love it, that the audience [was] so engaged.
That’s the joy of a genre movie, no?
SM: It doesn’t always happen. Of course, I go to the cinema a lot, and just because it’s genre doesn’t mean you’re going to get an audience response.
I went in expecting just a straight heist movie, but there was a lot more to it, including some sharp political commentary. Was that something you were really intent on bringing to the film?
SM: I think it’s the reality we live in. It’s what’s going on out the window. It’s a far-fetched fiction, but steep it in reality is what you want to do. Take even The Godfather, quite far-fetched. Yes, it is about the Mafia, but at the same time you steep it in reality and what comes out of it is a kind of humanity. You recognize those characters. Grief [as in Widows] brings a certain kind of recklessness and some kind of yearning, and at the same time there’s a sort of liberation within that. I wanted to portray that with these women.
The cast is incredible across the board, but particularly the main group of women. What were you looking for when you were casting them?
SM: I was thinking of each individual person. It wasn’t about getting a group together that would — I never think in that way. I was looking for, “Who’s Belle? Who’s Linda? Who’s Alice? Who’s Veronica?” And then they have to come together to see what happens.
In a lot of movies of this sort, the characters aren’t as realistic as they are in this.
SM: You know, it’s a journey. It’s an emotional journey as well. They’re carrying this baggage, but at the same time they’re having to do this in order to survive. They’re having to do this heist because otherwise... it’s a rock-and-a-hard-place situation. I saw this TV show when I was 13 years old, being a 13-year-old black kid in London and seeing these characters who were all judged by their parents and deemed not to be capable. I had the same sort of reaction to myself in a way, and there was a linkage between me and those women. I came back to the story after about 35 years, and it’s kind of a very personal story that way.
You spoke at the world premiere about displaying reality in the film through the diversity of the cast. When you’re crafting this movie, obviously you’re focusing on the heist aspects, but how much is diversity on your mind while you’re making it? Because it was clearly on your mind when you were presenting it.
SM: It was not on my mind at all, because you look out the window and that’s the cast.
But you made a point of it at the premiere.
SM: I had mentioned it because the silver screen doesn’t represent me very often, but it’s not “on my mind” because it’s like, look around. You don’t even have to try. It’s like, there it is.
So when people talk about the difficulty of making more diverse representation happen onscreen, you would say that’s kind of bullshit.
SM: Who’s saying that? Who’s saying it’s difficult?
I don’t know about “difficult,” but I think there are a lot of people who approach it as though it’s real work. Like, we have to work hard to try to improve these things, when it seems like you’re just able to cast it. Like, what’s the problem?
SM: I think you’ve answered your own question.
Sure, but I’m curious because it struck me that it’s something you specifically have on your mind.
SM: It’s not on my mind at all, I don’t worry about it — I just do it because it’s my environment. I don’t know, maybe it’s difficult for other people, but obviously not me.
Fair enough. I do have to ask what it’s like to work with Viola Davis.
SM: Viola’s fantastic. She’s genius. She’s just amazing. She’s a deep well. And I think she’s just got so much depth to her, she’s like an iceberg. And that comes up to the surface when needed. She just has that kind of gravitas.
What was the collaboration with her like?
SM: She wants to work with a director who can actually help her, and I’m interested in someone who can help me because I need to be inspired as well. That’s what it’s about, that collaboration and that relationship. But also at the same time it’s about — you know what it’s about most of all? It’s about having an environment which is safe. From catering to the electricians, to makeup and the camera department, to everyone on set. Because when actors come into an environment, they’re very sensitive.
They’re like a thoroughbred racehorse: They see if things aren’t cool, they’re very skittish. So when they’re in a situation where the environment is safe and nurturing, then they can go for it, they can make mistakes, they can form their face, they can try things out. So for me as a director, it’s about the environment, making sure that it’s our movie. It’s very, very important.
The other character I was really curious about is Elizabeth Debicki’s Alice and the presentation of sex work, which I thought was very nuanced. I feel like that’s not the case in many films.
SM: Well, I remembered the TV show and that character’s mother was a prostitute, and she said [to her mom] something along the lines of, “I don’t want to be like you.” But then our character is pushed into it because of, well, money. And it’s been a choice for women forever. Not a great one, but it’s been one. What was interesting [for me] was, what’s available to you?
If you’re Jatemme [Kaluuya], your options are not great so you turn to crime. And if you’re a woman with hardly any money and a situation like [Alice] finds herself in, you have that option. And sometimes you turn to it and sometimes you don’t. You’ve got a dark-skinned, poor black man in the southern part of Chicago. What are his options? You get a white blonde woman, Polish, poor, in a certain part of Chicago, what are your options? So it’s just about that: options which are available to you.
This was your first proper genre picture. Did that change your directing approach at all?
SM: No. I think conventions are there to be broken. So anyone who tells you like, “This is how you make a Western, this is how you make a heist movie, this is how you make a mobster movie,” are kidding themselves. There are no rules. The only rules are there to be broken or to be revalued and reset. That’s it. Otherwise, you’re just making the same movie all the time. It’s nonsense.
People who say that they understand or know what something should be, it’s absolute, complete nonsense and they’re not very bright, therefore you don’t get great movies. With respect, not saying Widows is one, but you don’t get great ideas. It’s all about breaking rules in any regard — genre, filmmaking and so on — and that’s what I was trying to do.
Were there any particular things you were trying to do that were “out of bounds?”
SM: Bringing our society into the fore of this fiction. Having situations where women have to think of child care. It’s important — this is what happens, and this is not domesticating these situations, this is reality. With men, it’s almost like there’s this situation of, I’m going to say, irresponsibility, and with women there’s responsibility. But that’s cool because guess what, they care. And it’s very important that that is put into the narrative because one wants to identify with these characters. That’s what makes it exciting, that’s what makes it thrilling. You root for them because when it’s steeped in our reality, for me personally, it’s exciting. It’s a roller-coaster ride where you have glimpses of our world and the reality of our times.