For “Widows,” Steve McQueen crafts a masterful locomotive of a film that goes beyond what we’ve seen in a typical heist movie.
Using Chicago as a rich backdrop, the director showcases a drama around three widows — Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) — who decide to take on their late husbands’ upcoming heist to make sure their future is safe. They’re joined by Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who is Linda’s children’s baby-sitter.
What results is a socially relevant film magnified by the powerful stories these women have to tell. One that brings important discussions around police brutality, political corruption and domestic abuse to the forefront. Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki has one of the most pertinent arcs as Alice, a survivor of domestic and patriarchal abuse, who strives for a different life.
amNewYork spoke to Debicki, 28, about the film, which comes out this Friday.
It’s incredibly empowering to watch these women handle their own problems. They’re challenging so many stereotypes that we see in cinema. What was your first reaction to the script?
I thought it was remarkable because it’s about four women who speak to each other about something other than the men in their lives. I read it through the eyes of [my character] Alice, and I was so taken by her journey. It’s rare that you get to play a female role that has such a nuanced and authentic trajectory. It’s not a fist-pumping Hollywood version of it.
These widows all suffered losses before they lost their husbands through different circumstances. Your character is in an abusive relationship. How did you approach that?
I felt a deep connection to Alice. On one level, it’s because I’m half Polish and I’ve never played anybody of Eastern European descent. I [also] observed the patterns of abuse, albeit not domestic abuse, but I certainly have seen the kind of structure of recurring abuse in Poland, because culturally, it’s such a patriarchal defined society, and the role of women is very repressive. … It’s a lack of insistence on an education, and it’s just not available to them. I’ve observed that in my life and I felt like I knew what that was.
You could clearly see Alice could’ve gone down a path that was expected of her by her mother but she doesn’t, and it’s empowering to see.
It’s such a powerful message and it’s also in the way that she gets to that point. It’s a twisting, turning journey of breaking down a lot of psychological demons for her. They’re broken down by these small victories she has on her own. Veronica (Viola Davis) takes the shape of someone who she learns she can trust. In a way, maybe she’s the first woman who has ever stood in front of Alice that is presented as a version of feminist truth, which is someone saying, “Just get on with this. I believe in you. You don’t need me to hold your hand.” Veronica sets her free in a way.
How was it to create that bond with Michelle and Viola?
It was a dream job. I love those women so tremendously and so truly as women — full stop. They’re just amazing humans. We got to know each other very fast and with a lot of depth because of the space Steve [McQueen] opened up. Even before we were on set, he was really insistent that we had a lot of time together to just be honest with each other. We took full advantage of that space and we learned a lot from each other.
In the film, Veronica wasn’t taking it easy on the girls because they were doing a quote-unquote man’s job. Did that spirit embody the process off screen when working with Steve McQueen?
Yeah, Steve is just the most remarkable director I’ve certainly ever worked with and it comes with who he is as a person, which is this really interesting combination of complete compassion and sensitivity. I think what was clear from the beginning from reading the part and getting to know him, is that he won’t take anything but the truth of the thing and he will work until he has it. I trusted him so much that I wanted to go to the places I need to, which could be very dark. It’s a purging in a way because you know it’s in such good hands and you don’t question it.
When you have these themes at work, it could’ve been heavy-handed and one note, but it wasn’t.
Yeah, and I think that’s because the women really represent this cross-section of humanity. The four of us couldn’t be further from each other in almost every way (age, race, life experience,) and creatively very different careers, too. Once you put us all together and the film with its message — it could be on the nose but instead, it resonates truthfully. When we made this film art imitated life so it was organically happening anyway. It’s a piece of activism, especially in how it shows Chicago, it’s brutally honest. The scene where the car drives five blocks and you see the insane disparity of wealth. You don’t need to say “there’s political corruption” in the city, you just get in the car and drive for five blocks.
Those scenes with Jacki Weaver were so heartbreaking — to see this breakdown in communication between mother and daughter, it’s an obvious power struggle that’s there.
Its super heartbreaking and I feel like a lot of women will watch those scenes and feel it resonate in their own minds. I think the power struggle between women wanting to live vicariously through their daughters while simultaneously taking power from them by not letting them grow or leave the nest because then they lose their identity, and their sense of worth — is so murky. It’s such an important thing to say that this woman isn’t just abused by her husband. Her mother is encouraging her to repeat these cycles of selling her body because that’s the way she has felt worth in her own life.
The heist itself looked pretty intense. How was it filming that on a technical level?
It was intense because I don’t do action films, so I felt really intimidated. When we were rehearsing, I went up to Steve and looked him in the eye and said, “Can you PLEASE give the line to Michelle? I can’t do it. I’m not badass.” He just looked at me and said, “Go stand back by your mark so I can light the shot up.” My experience of doing that heist and feeling like I pulled it off was exactly like how I’m sure Alice would’ve felt. Once we shot it, I felt really strong and empowered by the end of it. [Also] it was such a relief to put something baggy on and not be in a bandage dress and heels.