Long live Mcqueen
From Hunger to the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave,
Steve Mcqueen’s films are visceral and punchy. As his heist thriller Widows opens, he talks to Guy Kelly about defying expectations
From sex addiction to slavery, Oscar-winning film director and Turner Prize-winning artist Steve Mcqueen has made a name tackling difficult subjects. Next up, a remake of Lynda La Plante’s gritty 1980s classic Widows.
As epiphanies go, it came at as good a time as any. It was Wednesday 16 March, 1983, and a 13-year-old Steve Mcqueen had started to notice the world didn’t have high hopes for people like him. Or, to put it in plainer terms, people who looked like him.
‘It’s a very critical age, it’s when your compass sets,’ he says. ‘I have been underestimated my whole life, that’s just how it is, [but] when you’re a black child growing up in London, it’s what you learn to expect.’
Mcqueen was at home after school, in the west London suburb of Ealing, lying flat on his stomach on the living-room carpet. His hands were locked in a V-shape, propping up his head. His eyes were fixed on the television. And it was there, at 9pm, that reassurance appeared in the unlikeliest of forms. Namely, as four uber-permed women hell-bent on criminal revenge.
The programme starting was Widows, a six-part ITV thriller written by a then-untried writer named Lynda La Plante, and its premise was a subversion of a familiar genre: when some armed robbers are killed in a botched raid, their surviving widows band together and decide to follow the plans left by one of the deceased, Harry, in order to complete the gang’s final heist themselves. British audiences had never seen anything quite like it. Mcqueen certainly hadn’t. He was engrossed.
‘I saw myself,’ he remembers. ‘I just identified with the women as people who were deemed to have nothing to give. Their value was in their appearance and they weren’t seen as capable, just as I wasn’t. Here were some underdogs, defying everyone’s expectations. That had an amazing resonance for me.’
Steve Mcqueen is now 49, and the artist, screenwriter and film director really, truly, joyfully does not care what the world expects of him. Since the late 1990s he has been based in Amsterdam, where he lives with his wife, the Dutch writer Bianca Stigter, and their two children, Alex and Dexter.
Mcqueen won the Turner Prize when he was just 30. Four years later he went to Iraq as an official war artist. His first feature film, Hunger, about the 1981 strikes by republican prisoners in Northern Ireland, won him the Caméra d’or (the prize for best first-time director) at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008. He represented Britain in the Venice Biennale the next year. His second feature, Shame (2011), about a sex addict, was nominated for two Baftas. Three years later, 12 Years a Slave –the true story of a free man, Solomon Northup, who is kidnapped into slavery – earned three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, making Mcqueen the first black director ever to win Hollywood’s most prestigious honour. He’s been named in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. He’s been made a CBE…
But he never forgot Widows.
‘You carry things in your pockets as you go along your journey in life,’ he says. Over the years, it kept recurring. In Hollywood in 2011, he noticed how many talented actresses weren’t working, and thought again about Widows. Then in 2013, while working on 12 Years a Slave, he decided he wanted to make something about women next (his first three films had male leads, including Michael Fassbender twice). As luck would have it, the following year he met La Plante in person at Buckingham Palace, during a reception.
‘As you do,’ he says, with a laugh. ‘We had an audience with the Queen… and Lynda La Plante was lining up – so I said, hello, I’m Steve, all the rest, and I asked whatever happened to the rights to Widows, telling her I’d like to make it into a film…’ He throws his head back to laugh again. ‘Buckingham Palace! Meeting the Queen! True story. Hey, you’ve got to take the opportunities when you can, right?’
And he did.
We meet in a suite on the first floor of Claridge’s. Mcqueen – head freshly shaven, thick-framed glasses in his hand – wears a purple T-shirt, two-thirds-length tracksuit shorts, trainers, and the kind of navy French worker jacket that’s become something of a personal trademark. Before entering, he pauses at the door to admire a poster for his remake of the 1983 TV series. It shows the glittering cast he assembled, including the women who anchor the film: Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo.
‘Looks pretty cool,’ he mutters. In the room, he removes his jacket, orders a coffee he will drink within three minutes, and shakes his arms loose. His wristwatch is still on Amsterdam time. ‘OK, all right, let’s do this. Let’s go.’
Liam Neeson – who plays Harry, the gang leader whose plans his wife, Veronica, follows, in the new Widows – recently said ‘you find yourself wanting to please Mcqueen’. I can understand that. He is faultlessly polite, open and cheerful, yet he has a way of listening that is so engaged, so honest, it leaves you feeling you’d really better say something smart or say nothing at all.
When Mcqueen hears something he likes, he nods vigorously, stares at the table, mutters that it’s interesting and implores you to develop that thought (‘Please, continue, go on, that’s good’), regardless of whether you can. When he hears something he doesn’t like, his face will crunch into a scribble of deep frown lines. Combine this, in your mind, with
a voice that climbs from estuary to Ian Mckellen at moments of high emotion, and you can imagine the effect. It’s both exhilarating and exhausting. He would make an abysmal poker player.
When Mcqueen won the Turner Prize in 1999, beating Tracey Emin’s bed, the jury ‘admired the poetry and clarity of his vision, the range of his work, its emotional intensity’. Nineteen years on, the quote could easily apply to Widows, which is as entertaining as any thriller of recent years, but shot with more panache than the rest put together. He has an innate ability to build tension from nothing, playing with the rhythms and movements of film, then landing on still, striking tableaux – a hallmark identifiable in everything from the early short film Exodus, shot in 1992, which followed two men walking down Brick Lane in east London, to Hunger in 2008.
Like the original, Mcqueen’s Widows centres on women bound by the loss of their husbands, their grief galvanising them to take on an armed robbery. Instead of London, though, the action takes place in Chicago in 2018, and Mcqueen somehow finds room around the one-liners and explosions for themes as heavyweight – and relevant – as structural racism, political corruption, childcare (rarely has there been a thriller in which armed robbers have a babysitter shortage), police brutality and, above all, misogyny.
‘It’s using genre to talk about bigger things,’ he explains. ‘You can ask intellectual questions, but when you put them into the genre, it’s Pandora’s Box. You open the door, then BAM. “Where am I?”’
Some were surprised when Mcqueen announced the film. ‘I saw an article saying, “Brilliant director slums it.” Well, no – it’s raising one’s game and bringing it to a broader audience,’ he says. ‘I want people to leave still thinking about the picture. If you’ve got them thinking even for 30 seconds, you’ve won.’
Mcqueen enlisted the bestselling author Gillian Flynn (who adapted Gone Girl from her own novel) to co-write the script. Their bond ‘was instantaneous… it was like jamming’, he says. (He’s a Miles Davis fanatic; jazz references crop up frequently.)
Flynn lives in Chicago, a city Mcqueen first visited with Stigter, when she covered the 1996 Democratic National Convention for a Dutch newspaper, and has returned to ever since. ‘It’s steeped in politics, and it’s also one of the most segregated cities in the United States. It was a kind of perfect microcosm of the world.’ To prepare, they spent weeks speaking to the FBI, church leaders and local politicians, including the unpopular mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s former senior adviser. One of the film’s 60 locations was the housing project on which Michelle Obama grew up.
‘The day before we got there, two people were shot and one person was killed there, so [authorities] erected these 10ft spiked fences,’ Mcqueen recalls. The decision to tackle crime in the area by enclosing the whole space affected him deeply.
‘People were being caged in, rather than protected. Kids used to run around and now it’s like a prison, with trees cut down for CCTV cameras. We visited the area months before, and we could hear the voices of schoolchildren having a good time playing, but they were screaming when the fences were going up. It was very heavy, I was very upset about it.’
One morning, Mcqueen’s nine-year-old son, Dexter, joined the other children. ‘This security guy came up to me and goes, “You need to get your child off the swing, people are very territorial around here.” There was an idea about people there that just wasn’t true.’
He ended up giving a talk to the young people in the area ‘to learn about what they were doing’, and works with various inner-city charities. ‘I did what I could do,’ he says, with a shrug.
Widows has many fine male performances – Londoner Daniel Kaluuya (star of last year’s Oscar-winning Get Out, though Mcqueen cast him before its release) is particularly menacing as a violent henchman – but it is the four women who shine.
‘When we first met, we all had dinner together,’ Mcqueen says. ‘Everyone just let rip, effing and blinding. It was like speed dating, in a nanosecond everyone was themselves.’ Cynthia Erivo, a British actress who won a Tony Award in 2016 for her performance in The Color Purple , had no previous film experience. Mcqueen had never seen Elizabeth Debicki act, but bumped into her at a film premiere he didn’t want to be at, then heard she was in a play he admired (Jean Genet’s The Maids, in 2014) and offered her an audition. Meanwhile Michelle Rodriguez, a veteran of action movies like the Fast and the Furious franchise, had a reputation for being ‘difficult’ that he found appealing.
‘Some people told me not to work with her, but Michelle was the glue. I think what happens, often, is that people who are perceived as difficult are actually just challenging.’
And then there was Viola Davis, holder of the ‘triple crown’ of acting – an Oscar for Fences last year, an Emmy, a Tony – to lead the gang. For Veronica, the wife of Neeson’s Harry, Mcqueen ‘wanted somebody who had command and gravitas, but faults we can relate to. I met Viola and it was like it was meant to be.’
Accepting his Oscar in 2014, Mcqueen thanked his mother, Mary, for her ‘hard-headedness’. His father, Philbert, was a bricklayer, and Mary worked two jobs, including in a maternity hospital, to support Mcqueen and his older sister, Deborah. Both parents came to Britain from Grenada, but it was Mary who engineered the family’s move from
the White City estate in west London to the suburbs in Ealing , buying a house without her husband’s knowledge.
‘She was the one doing things, running back and forth, making things happen. So was my father, but when you come from a working-class family, you try to make things work, and she really did.’
Mcqueen is dyslexic, and as a boy wore a patch for a short time to correct a lazy eye. At his secondary school – the motto of which is ‘hardships do not deter us’ – his grades were dire, and he was dumped into a class for children expected to achieve little. But he had a talent for art, and it was his mother who encouraged him to study at Chelsea College of Arts, then Goldsmiths, before he took up a place on a film-making course at Tisch School of the Arts in New York (alma mater of Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers). He quit after a few months, later admitting the teaching prevented him from being able ‘to throw the camera up in the air’, but he was on his way.
One of Mcqueen’s first dates with Stigter, in the mid-’90s, was to see Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. He remembers seeing the audience stand up and applaud at the credits. ‘He isn’t the most emotional director, but what I love about him is his command,’ he says. ‘Sometimes you can have both. What I want to do is reflect the world, but at the same time hold on to it. If people trust you, they don’t mind where you take them.’
So far, it’s an intention Mcqueen has made good on. All of his previous features have focused on subjects many directors wouldn’t go near, but the brutality on show was made accessible by the films also looking beautiful. 12 Years a Slave was particularly praised for educating audiences about a chapter of history often sugar-coated. It may be too early to know its legacy, especially since it was so much a film of the Obama era, but that is not Mcqueen’s concern.
One person who doesn’t seem to have heeded that film’s message is Kanye West. In May, the rapper slipped from his usual provocative ground into grossly offensive territory when he appeared on gossip site TMZ and said, ‘When you hear about slavery for 400 years – for 400 years? That sounds like a choice.’ West has been a good friend of Mcqueen’s for years, and Mcqueen directed the video for his All Day/i Feel Like That (2015). He called West after the TMZ incident.
‘I said to him you shouldn’t… Well, I just told him that I loved him, and that TMZ is not the best platform for that conversation, and that’s it really,’ he says, smiling in a way that suggests a certain ‘Kanye will be Kanye’ attitude is needed in order to be friends with West. ‘I was slightly disappointed, to say the least. But I still love him.’
Widows certainly sees Mcqueen ‘reflect the world’, and pitilessly. It is dripping with contemporary issues – one scene, featuring Colin Farrell’s crooked politician delivering a vile rant in the privacy of his car, was inspired by Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape – but perhaps most pertinent is the story of women seizing independence from violent men. Production began long before #Metoo or Time’s Up, but those movements appeal to the activist in Mcqueen.
‘I’m just happy that my daughter [Alex is 20, and a student in London], and women in general, can be listened to seriously now. Years ago people wouldn’t think about raising their voice because they’d be deemed disruptive, similar to black people if they raise a complaint about racism. So this discussion is important.’
Mcqueen dedicated Widows to Eva Mottley, one of the stars of the original TV series, who committed suicide at the age of 31. She had left the programme after alleging racial and sexual abuse by the production crew.
It is difficult to imagine Mcqueen off-duty. ‘I have to work, I don’t have a choice,’ he splutters, incredulously, when I ask how he switches off. (Though when I call him two weeks after our meeting, he’s at home, cleaning a fish tank. ‘Yeah, we bought new fish,’ he says brightly.)
After 12 Years a Slave he was ‘offered everything, superhero movies, all that kind of stuff ’, but he is instead doing precisely what he wants. There is a series about the West Indian community in Britain, made for the BBC, ‘because I want my mum to see it’. There is a video installation about Grenfell Tower, which started with some filming from a helicopter last winter. He also hosts a podcast for British Vogue, and there is a plan to create portraits of all 2,410 Year 3 classes in London. Mcqueen has briefed 30 photographers to use the same structure: the children standing or cross-legged, teacher in the middle. The resulting artwork will go on display at Tate Britain and around London in 2019.
‘The form is interesting, because it will be a regimented thing where everyone is equal, but from there the individual will emerge,’ he says. ‘I’m very excited.’
He may be a workaholic, but it is a good time to be an artist, Mcqueen believes, especially with the world as unsettled as it is. He knows he has a platform, an ever-growing one, and feels ‘a huge responsibility’ to use it wisely.
‘Look,’ he says, stretching his arms wide. ‘We’re sitting here on this planet, and often we cannot do a damn thing about our environment. But whether it’s Brexit, Trump, taxes or whatever, one doesn’t have to feel paralysed. You can get depressed, or you can try to change the course of your environment.’ His face relaxes at last.
‘The way I think of it is like this: it may be pouring with rain outside, but you know what? At least you get to choose the colour of your raincoat.’
Widows is released on 6 November
Mcqueen withDeadpan. The four-minute film was part of the exhibition that won him the 1999 Turner Prize. ´ With his mother, Mary, and father, Philbert, at the award ceremony that year. With rapper Kanye West in 2013
Mcqueen with his wife, Bianca Stigter, and their children, Alex and Dexter, in 2014.Meeting the Queen during a reception for the dramatic arts at Buckingham Palace in the same year.At the Oscars after 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture
Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo in Widows.Michael Fassbender in Shame (2011). Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave (2013)