Why Steve McQueen Wants His Actors to Be ‘Difficult’

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Photo Source: Suzanne Tenner

When Steve McQueen was casting the female leads of “Widows,” which Fox releases in theaters Nov. 16, he was explicitly advised not to work with Michelle Rodriguez.

“She’s not worth meeting because she’s difficult,” he recalls being told repeatedly. “I thought, Hm, that’s funny. That’s what people say about me. Often, if you’re a white male director, you’re seen as a perfectionist, but I’m seen as ‘difficult.’ ”

So the 49-year-old director of “12 Years a Slave,” “Shame,” and “Hunger” went ahead and met with Rodriguez in Los Angeles. “She’s the most interesting, fascinating, intelligent woman—so engaged in life and what’s going on around her. We got along like a house on fire,” says McQueen. “Anyone who’s deemed ‘difficult,’ maybe they’re just grappling with so many interesting things. My goodness, do you just want everyone to be easy? It’s boring!”

The cast of the gritty crime thriller, in which the titular women attempt to finish a heist planned by their late husbands, also includes Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Carrie Coon, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, and Liam Neeson. “I just want our films to reflect the audiences paying to go into the cinemas, that’s all,” says McQueen of the diverse ensemble. “Very simply and moderately asked, for them to have that experience of looking up at the screen and seeing themselves.”

When selecting a setting for the reimagining of the 1983 British miniseries—“Unfortunately, not much has changed since then,” he laments—McQueen opted for contemporary Chicago. “It’s a heightened version of a modern-day city, where [we can portray] race, politics, policing, gun crime, religion, class—all these fractures in society and how they interact with one another,” he says. “It was very important to do. It’s not about ticking boxes, it’s about telling truths.” (Though, next time, he won’t include as many on-location night shoots, he admits with a laugh.)

The film’s script, which McQueen co-wrote with Gillian Flynn, is drenched with timely social commentary, because, as with any genre film, “there are no rules, only conventions,” he says. “If we don’t break those rules, we might as well be playing the same picture, time and time and time and time again.”

One standout scene lingers as a lengthy, unconventional take, in the heist subgenre or otherwise. As Farrell, playing an old-school local politician, is driven from a visibly impoverished district to his multistory headquarters, the camera sits atop the windshield, capturing how quickly the socioeconomic surroundings improve; meanwhile, his confidential conversation with his staffer is audible for the audience. This disparity between the two neighborhoods, coupled with the characters’ revealing chat, evokes the real-life inconsistencies between politicians’ public and private behaviors.

“I’m a British filmmaker, so, basically, we always try to stretch the pound and figure out how we can tell three or four things with one shot,” explains McQueen of crafting the particularly effective sequence. “The fact that the distance was so short between these two places, it was asking me to do that in the way that only cinema can.”

As the current political era continues to yield difficulties on both sides of the pond, “Widows” reminds viewers that such corruption can take root in our own backyards. Nevertheless, citizens should not consider themselves defenseless. “Some politicians are about the people and some politicians are about their own power,” says McQueen. “Sometimes we feel paralyzed, we think that we’re helpless. But we can start by being aware of that—know what we’re up against, in so many ways—and know how we can navigate ourselves through that environment. If it rains, we can’t stop that from happening. What we can do is choose our raincoats.”

It doesn’t really matter to McQueen, however, if politicians themselves see his “Widows.” “I care about the people seeing this,” he says. “The people can put them in power and they can vote them out. The people are the ones who have the power.” 

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