Gina Prince-Bythewood on Cast, Action and Camera in THE WOMAN KING – Leslie Combemale interviews

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Gina Prince-Bythewood is an inspiring female filmmaker, having carved out a career as both writer and director with a succession of critically acclaimed films, from the classic Love and Basketball to her most recent project The Old Guard, which broke records around the world for viewership on Netflix. She has won scores of awards along the way at Sundance, The Independent Spirit Awards, the NAACP Image Awards, the Black Reel Awards, and the Hugo Awards, and her winning streak shows no signs of ending any time soon. This isn’t just luck. Prince Bythewood has an intense work ethic, a powerful respect for artists above and below the line, and a passion for storytelling that drives her in all she does.

Now with the new historical epic The Woman King, currently at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, the director has added yet another winner to her filmography. Based on historical events, it stars Viola Davis putting in one of the best performances of her career (she calls the film her Magnum Opus). It is centered on a cast of Black women portraying members of the Agojie, a legion of female warriors who protected the Kingdom of Dahomey (now part of Benin) in 1800s Africa. Full of action, the performers in The Woman King do nearly all their own stunts, and every actor portraying a member of the Agojie plays a powerful, fully-formed, three dimensional character.

The lead character General Nanisca (Davis) is training fresh recruits to become part of the sisterhood of warriors who live and train inside the palace walls with King Ghezo (John Boyega), whom they also protect. She has the aid of her second in command Amenza (Sheila Atim), who also leads all rituals and initiations, and Izogie, (Lashana Lynch), a fearless lieutenant that demands everything and more from those she trains. Small but determined, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) is just one of many young women searching for belonging. She is willing to do whatever is necessarily to become the fierce fighter all the Agojie must be. All these women put everything on the line to protect their way of life, and the fellow warriors they call sisters.

We spoke to Gina Prince-Bythewood about the cast of her newest production, her collaborators above and below the line, and how The Woman King has changed her as a director.

Leslie Combemale: Thuso Mbedu as Nawi is so impressive, especially having to play against Viola Davis in her first feature.

Gina Prince-Bythewood: Thuso is incredible, a generational talent. She came via audition. I hadn’t seen Underground Railroad yet, because it hadn’t come out. I was really curious where we were going to find Nawi, because she’s still such a young woman, but such a complicated character, and she had to be an incredible athlete to be able to do what she needed to pull off, and she had to go toe to toe with Viola Davis. Where were we going to find her? Thuso’s face popped up on my screen, because at that point we were still doing remote auditions, and I immediately cared about her, before she even opened her mouth. That was an incredible moment. Then she did open her mouth, and she’s so good, and she was just doing things differently than anybody else was in their audition. She felt like she was on another level. Then I had her meet Viola, and that was such an inspired conversation, and afterwards Viola said, “I don’t even know her, but I feel maternal towards her.” Then there was a last step. She was honest, which was great, and she said, “I’ve never done anything athletic in my life. But I want to, and I promise that I will do everything to be ready.” So she met with Danny (Hernandez, stunt coordinator) and I, and it was supposed to be an hour workout session, so we could see what we were working with, and it ended up being two hours, because she kept asking to learn more and more and didn’t want to stop. And we knew she had enough that we felt we could build on, but more so, it was her work ethic, and her attitude towards it of wanting to be great, and we knew we could trust her.

LC: Sheila Atim plays Amenza, a character that is both a warrior and a spiritual leader, and she is magnetic onscreen. How did you find her?

GPB: With Sheila Atim, I was fortunate enough to see an early cut of Bruised, and at the end of that film, the first thing I said was, “Who was that?” She just popped off the screen, and my editor Terri Shropshire was actually working on that film as well, and she said, “You’ve found Amenza.” We had an incredible conversation, and Sheila, she makes every frame better. She’s just so striking. We knew that we couldn’t double her, how do you double Sheila Atim? So we knew she’d have to do all her own fighting and stunts as well. I didn’t know what her work ethic was until this film, and she literally kept that spear in her hand all the time just to get better and better and better. It was just such an inspired, passionate group, who wanted to be great, and wanted to work with Viola, wanted to be in that environment of greatness, and come up to that level, and tell this story and tell it authentically, and make sure that we get it right. And I can’t say enough how inspiring an environment that was.

LC: Lashana Lynch built a character in that movie that is completely different from anything I’ve ever seen her do.

GPB: Yeah, literally yesterday, I told her, “I’ve seen this movie 100 times now, throughout the whole editing process. I do not see Lashana Lynch in one single moment. I only see your character.” And that is an amazing thing.

LC: You talked about, when you released The Old Guard, that it was important for all the action to further the storytelling, and that’s how it is in The Woman King. Can you talk about the fighting and stunts and what they put themselves through? How it impacted their performances and the vibe on set?

GPB: With every one of them, I had that conversation, and it was literally looking them in the eye and telling them, “I need you to do this. And this is why, because the best action does come out of story and character. And I need performance in these action scenes. I need to know that you’re going to do everything you have to, and it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be probably the hardest thing you’ve ever done.” And all of them, every single one, said, “I got you. You can trust me. I’m going to do it.” And they did. And it was months of training, weight training, about an hour and a half with our trainer Gabriella McLean. She is a genius. She did DNA testing with all the women to see what type of training their bodies would respond to, because it’s not a one-stop-shop kind of thing. She also determined what kind of nutrition their bodies responded to, and how much sleep they needed to maximize their training. That was really helpful, that specificity. And then also none of this training was about “let’s get you skinny”, it’s about “let’s get you athletic”. You are a warrior.

Everybody marveled at Lashana’s back in the film. Her back is glorious. She looks like a warrior. That is what these women would look like. And we knew that all these different warriors had different body types, that was really important, too. We didn’t want to put out into the world that you have to be 6ft tall and statuesque to be a warrior. You can be 5 ft 4, like Thuso, or 6 ft tall, like Sheila Atim. All types can be warriors. So that was incredible. It was weight training in the morning, and then they would take a break, then they’d come back in the afternoon, for 3-4 more hours of weapons training, martial arts training, choreography, and running. They had a running coach. That was really important. On top of that, they’d have the dance training, which was just as intense because all the dances that we created were based on the type of dances that they had in that era that real women danced, they were very aggressive. It starts on volume 10 and stays on volume 10. With that whole combination, they were just training constantly, and it takes an incredible mental toll on you. It’s a constant conversation with yourself to not give up. The beauty of starting the movie that way, it was part of the rehearsal process, part of them building their characters, part of building the sisterhood that shows up onscreen, because they went through this together. They coached each other. They were competitive with each other in the best ways. They’d build each other up when somebody wanted to quit. If someone was crying and didn’t think they could get through it, you had somebody there right beside you saying you can do it, and picking you back up. That went on throughout the entire pre-production and shoot. They continued to lift each other up and to praise each other. When you saw their bodies changing, and they talked about it, when you do that level of work, it changes the way you walk into a room, how you carry yourself what you think about yourself. Viola says, “I came out of this feeling like a badass at 56 years old.” That type of swagger showed up on screen.

LC: Cinematographer Polly Morgan does an amazing job lighting these women and the scenes with them together. What are some of the ideas you both felt were central to the visual storytelling.

GPB: In my first conversation with Polly, I told her we needed to make the women look more beautiful than they’ve ever been shot before. There has been a horrible tradition of Black women being shot badly, and sometimes not even being able to see them, or see them properly. That was not going to happen in this film. We started from there. I use the words ‘intimately epic’, and that’s what I wanted it to feel like, that we have these incredible relationships and intimate moments, and then we have big epic moments. Both need to have equal weight, the quiet moments and the set pieces. We wanted to make sure that we were giving this film, and this story and these women scope, and give them the bigness that they deserve, and in all the action, knowing that it’s personal, knowing that they’re really doing their own fighting stunts. It was about longer takes to showcase their athletic ability, and bringing Terilyn Shropshire, our editor, in as well. We don’t want to hypercut any of this, because then it looks like we’re trying to hide stunt people. Showcase these women, the work that they put in, the badass aspects of them, and also the performance and the personal stake. In all these set pieces, we stay on their faces or stay in a long take, so that an audience can really be invested in what they’re watching.

LC: What did you learn from The Woman King that you’ll take to your next film?

GPB: What I learned is shocking to me, because it’s so counter to everything I’ve been about my whole life. And that is that vulnerability is a strength. As an athlete, you never show weakness, you don’t cry. You cannot show vulnerability because you’ll get crushed. And then moving into being a director, and certainly a female director in this business, you do not show vulnerability. We do not cry, we do not show any moment of weakness. You just can’t. In this process, in putting that as a narrative for these women, and showing their humanity, that meant showing their strength and their vulnerability. Knowing that it didn’t take away from, but enhanced who they were. Working with these actors who valued vulnerability, and who were able to be vulnerable with me, and in bringing the personal that we were all bringing to this project, that was huge for me. That’s not to say I’m going to sit and cry on set, but there were moments where we all went there, and that was a beautiful thing and something that I will now take to the rest of my career.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.