You wouldn’t necessarily expect the director of 12 Years a Slave to follow it up with a movie adaptation of a TV series first shown in the UK in the 1980s, but artist-turned-filmmaker 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 identified 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.
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.
You added a political race to the story, which seems to have replaced the more police-driven elements of the TV show. Why was that important?
Well, what’s interesting is there are no police in my picture. The police are complicit within the system of the city. I loved that idea. But it [the political element] wasn’t instead of that; it’s how we live now. I wanted to bring our reality, or the reality of Chicago, within that plot. How we live, and how we try to access our way through the quagmire of a world we are given, and that we do have possibilities to change it. Sometimes we feel so paralysed by the world we live in that we don’t have a handle on it, but I think somehow we do. If it rains, at least you can choose the colour of your raincoat. Even that is an actual decision.
Let’s talk about the Widows themselves. They’re all in different socio-economic layers. How long did it take to get them all situated in their respective worlds?
It was long because, again, the characters have to be believable. I think Belle was the first one, that was Cynthia Erivo. As far as Veronica was concerned, I didn’t know what race she would be – if she’d be Latino, black, white.
And then Viola was the person. She for me fits the Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford mould. Greta Garbo! 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. 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. With Michelle Rodriguez, she thought of her mother, got her involved in it.
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 difficult”, and I was like, no,
I want to meet her and see. Actually, she said no to me at first but then I met her and we got on like a house on fire. Never, ever, ever take what people say [at face value]. Find out for yourself.
Even for fairly small roles, you cast great actors. Is that to give your stars something weighty to react to?
It’s all about the women. All about the women! When in doubt, go back to the women. So if we’re stuck making the film, maybe in the cutting room, go back to the women. So yes, we gotta give them [the men] depth and purpose. Even if it’s a small role, they’ve got to be like icebergs. Even if it’s a small role you have to sense this huge mass below. I think we’ve done that, I hope we’ve achieved that.
There’s a striking scene in Widows where Colin Farrell’s politician character is racist in front of his black driver.
That was me telling the truth. That happens all the time. I was talking to my driver on the way to the airport yesterday, and he said, “Sometimes I just have to play dumb.”
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 flawed 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 you passionate about outside of work?
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 out in cinemas across the UAE from Thursday November 22.