YOU WOULDN’T NECESSARILY expect the director of 12 Years a Slave to follow it up with an adaptation of a TV series Àrst shown in the UK in the 1980s, but artist-turned-àlmmaker Steve Mcqueen didn’t win a Turner Prize by being predictable.
Widows is a Chicago-set crime drama about four wives who plot a heist after their husbands die. It speaks eloquently about grief, politics, gender, race and more – as does Mcqueen. Serious, strong-minded and passionate about his work, he strikes you as a man who wants to communicate with his audience, mindful of art’s potential for change.
Why did you choose to tell this story?
When I was 13 years old I saw this TV show, Widows, and I identiàed with these women. I was a black child in London and these were women who were deemed incapable. They were judged by their appearance. I was judged by my appearance, but in a totally different way. It stayed with me for 35 years.
It’s wonderful to see Viola Davis in a glamorous central role.
Think about Katharine Hepburn, think about Joan Crawford, think about Greta Garbo, these incredible icons of cinema. I think Viola is the same. I didn’t have a race in mind when I was thinking of Widows. I just spoke to a few people and Viola was the one I wanted to work with on this project.
Why did you move the story from London to Chicago?
I wanted to put it in a modern, heightened city, and that was Chicago. Crime was never far away from us. Within 15 minutes, you go from rich to poor.
How was co-writing with [Gone Girl author] Gillian Flynn?
Gillian’s very muscular, a great artist, and I wanted to collaborate with her. It was easy from day one, it was like that [snaps Àngers]. It all had to refer back to the women. If in doubt, go back to the women. That’s what the movie’s about. More broadly, it covers race, corruption in politics, religion – all kinds of power and political devices. I was already developing things when Gillian came into the creation, and she was just amazing. We’re each as tough as the other, so that was great, having a person to throw things at and for things to be thrown at me. We were grappling and coming up with ideas. It wasn’t a case of what this person could provide and what the other person would provide; it was actually, have we got some kind of synergy? And we did.
Did you talk to Lynda Laplante, who created the original series, as well?
I did, I did. The funny thing about Lynda Laplante is that I met her at Buckingham Palace – as you do! There was an event for the Queen, and then some of us were taken for a sort of private audience with the Queen, and she was in the line-up. I asked her, “What happened to that project called Widows?” That was in 2014.
So it took another three years from that point before you were shooting in Chicago. Yes. I knew I wanted it. The idea popped into my head in 2011, after Shame, because I was in Hollywood and it was a situation with all these actors I knew, who were around but weren’t working. I thought, wow. Okay, you’ve been carrying this for 35 years, this TV programme, but you had no idea you were going to be a Àlmmaker. You had no idea this would be a Àlm you wanted to make. But then it obviously was a big idea and I thought, okay, this could be a possibility, and that was in 2011. So I started going to Chicago, talking to people like the FBI, former members of the criminal world, politicians.
How easy was it to create the world of Widows once you got to Chicago?
It’s really organic. If you take a character like Jatemme [Daniel Kaluuya], who is so steeped in violence he’s numb to it. The Àrst thing you see of him, with those two gentlemen he shoots one and the guy is paralysed. In the third situation, you see him, he’s so numb to violence that he doesn’t participate; he just watches TV. So that is a reáection of how violence has affected so many people in Chicago.
Let’s talk about the Widows themselves. You’ve located them all in different socioeconomic layers. How long did it take to place them all in their respective worlds?
It was long because, again, the characters have to be believable. I think Belle was the
Àrst one, that was Cynthia Erivo. As far as Veronica was concerned, I didn’t know what race she would be. I had to Àgure that one out. And then Viola was the person. She has this gravitas, like those movies that were made in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and were the norm, but now apparently it’s weird that these people can carry major, epic pictures. I thought, that’s great, okay, Viola. With Elizabeth, that again was a journey in how this Polish-american girl had not been deemed clever, just been used, and that was how that developed. It’s interesting because Michelle [Rodriguez] said no to me at Àrst. So then I had to audition other women, over 100 of them, and I couldn’t Ànd anyone. I had to go back to her and say, “Can I please meet you?” She said yes and we got on like a house on Àre.
Did you tailor your direction specifically to each actress?
Each is different and you move towards them. Some people said, “Don’t deal with Michelle Rodriguez, she’s difàcult”, and I was like, no, I want to meet her and see. Never, ever, ever take what people say [at face value].
Cynthia Erivo is quite a find.
I loved working with her. My casting director brought her to my attention and I went to see her in The Color Purple [on Broadway] and I thought she was amazing, a natural. She’s got a Tony, a Grammy and an Emmy already. It won’t be too long until she gets an Oscar.
You directed a Kanye video. What’s he like? Kanye is wonderful. Look, like all of us he is a Áawed human being. He’s a guy; he’s a geek; he has ideas he’s bouncing off the wall. He tries not to censor himself and it lands him in trouble, but he’s extraordinarily talented. But yes, he does make big gaffes.
What are your passions, aside from film?
My family and literature. I’m reading Miles Davis’s [auto]biography for the third time.
He’d always experiment, take risks, and I think that’s the only way one can actually grow. What’s the Samuel Beckett quote? “Fail again, fail better.”
→ Widows is in cinemas across the UAE from November 22.
The female cast of Widows