The heist thriller Widows has arguably the most impressively stacked ensemble cast, including Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Daniel Kaluuya, Michelle Rodriguez, Brian Tyree Henry, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Jacki Weaver, Colin Farrell and Cynthia Erivo.
Which makes it all the more impressive that 28-year-old Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki has been singled out for her performance as Alice, a young woman who gets out from under the repression of her abusive husband and her exploitative mother to discover she has more to offer than anyone, including herself, had previously known.
“She resonated on many, many levels,” Debicki said of the part during an interview in Los Angeles, California.
“I mean, I’ve been looking and waiting for some time to play somebody like Alice, somebody who was very real and raw and multidimensional, had an arc that was quite an amazing sort of growth in that woman’s life. So there was me as the actor looking at it and thinking, ‘I just want to get my hands on that.’”
In the movie, Davis plays Veronica, a woman who is suddenly in debt to a dangerous gangster when her husband, a career criminal, dies during a robbery. Desperate, she hatches a plan to commit what her husband had planned as his next job and recruits the other widows from his former crew – played by Debicki, Rodriguez and Erivo – to take on an audacious act of armed larceny.
Widows is directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave), who co-wrote the screenplay with Gone Girl and Sharp Objects author Gillian Flynn.
Much of the movie is the four women planning how to execute the heist, and Debicki recalled how exciting it was for the four actresses.
“It’s so interesting how charged the energy was around us four. It was really remarkable, and I’ve never experienced anything like that,” Debicki said. “I don’t think anything with Steve is down to chance. He knew the chemistry that he was cooking up when he put the four of us together.
“And how much art mirrored life mirrored art in the making of this film is kind of remarkable,” she added.
“Because you have four women who are so different from one another; we could not be further removed from one another in where we come from, who we are, our ages, how we look, our life experiences, our experiences as actresses.
“Yet when we got together, the space that Steve opened up as a director was one of, we didn’t have time to be anything but honest.”
Debicki first came to the attention of American audiences with her role as Jordan Baker in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby.
She appeared onstage with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in a production of Jean Genet’s The Maids in Sydney and New York.
She also appeared as an international villainess in Guy Ritchie’s 2015 The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Then she received acclaim for her role in the 2016 mini-series The Night Manager.
It might be easy to draw comparisons between Debicki’s role in Widows, as a woman coming into her own, and her part in The Night Manager, in which she played a kept woman striving for independence.
“I didn’t really think of it like that, but of course we can draw parallels,” Debicki said.
“They’re both women who don’t have a source of independent income, which is incredibly disempowering.
“And when I think of both of those roles for me, they were maybe the most pivotal roles I’ve played as an actress because they challenged me; they are very, very far from what I am, me personally. And I felt like there was a great amount of truth, and I also felt a great deal of responsibility to bring nuance to it.”
Director Susanne Bier, who won an Emmy for her work on The Night Manager, recalled what led her to cast Debicki.
“There was a danger with that character that it could have been the classical sort of eye candy,” Bier said. “Not to say Elizabeth is not eye candy, but she’s not a cliche, and I really wanted to avoid the cliche of a gangster’s hot girlfriend.
“She’s like an amazing, astounding beauty, but she’s not your standard hot blond, trophy girlfriend. She’s just very different. She adds so much depth to everything she does.”
McQueen recalled a specific moment during a scene in Widows where the four women are in a warehouse preparing for the heist.
Davis’ character has had them place dirt into small plastic containers to replicate the weight of the cash they will be hauling off and how much they can carry in different denominations.
“Elizabeth picks up the Tupperware, looks at it and shakes it and feels the weight of it,” McQueen said. “And it reminds me so much of someone like Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven, when he’s got the scatter gun and he rattles it before he loads the gun. I mean, it’s just gold. No, I never said to her to do that.
“She picked up that Tupperware box and felt the weight of it and then put it back,” he said. “It’s kind of minuscule, but that’s what the audience is doing anyway. And she’s doing it for them. You can’t buy that. You can’t teach that. You just have to have it.” – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service
Widows opens at GSC International Screens on Jan 17.