John Boyega on The Woman King, King Ghezo, and working with Viola Davis | TIFF 2022

by W. Andrew Powell

The Woman King is a fierce period drama, brought to life with epic performances, and a passion that can be felt in every scene. Set in the early 1800s, Viola Davis stars as General Nanisca, the leader of the Agojie, the elite, all-female warriors who serve the king, and she has a mission to free her people.

The film also stars Thuso Mbedu and Lashana Lynch, with John Boyega as the king of the Dahomey tribe, King Ghezo, and during the Toronto International Film Festival I had a chance to speak to him about the film, playing the king, and stepping onto the incredible set.

For Boyega, there was one reason in particular that convinced him to take on the role.

“Viola Davis,” he said. “Viola Davis. I got an email from Viola speaking about the movie and [she] invited me to come down and potentially join. I got a letter from [writer and director] Gina [Prince-Bythewood]. They expressed about what they want to do with the film and what my involvement will mean to the project. I was like, ‘Yes!’ I would have come down if it was a smaller role.”

Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu in The Woman King
Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu in The Woman King

“This is one of those movies that was like, this [has] got nothing to do with a career move. It’s got nothing to do with what’s best or exposure. None of that’s actually got anything to do with being a part of something that I feel is quite historical, and something that is memorable.”

The film’s story was inspired by the history and culture of the West African kingdom of Dahomey, and Boyega’s character was based on the real King Ghezo. From that historical figure, Boyega brought the man to life especially through his relationship with Nanisca.

“There were some factual elements that we explore through the film,” he said, “and we had quite in-depth discussions about how his dynamic would be with Nanisca, and how his dynamic would be with other women, his wife and the various other dynamics he has in that kingdom.”

“So we played with it. I got comfortable with the idea that he was highly irritable, that listening was like a burden, and an energy that gave it some lighter tones too, because I find it funny when people get angry being misunderstood in a certain kind of comedic way. And he would like weave that into obviously this commanding presence as well.”

“But what you’ll finding is a young king, to a certain extent, and certain moments [also] unsure of himself, and playing those elements was so cool.”

Viola Davis and John Boyega
Viola Davis and John Boyega

The film is filled with powerful performances, strong characters, and incredible, award-worthy art direction, costumes, music, and cinematography. At the heart of it all, Boyega was truly impressed and inspired by Davis and what she brought to the film.

“The first day on set, Viola was bleeding from her foot, and I look down and I go, ‘Oh, your foot.’ She looked down, she looked up and was like, ‘time to roll the camera.’ It was like the Django, Leonardo DiCaprio story; let’s continue and get it done. It was that devotion that for me showed the levels we were dealing with here.”

“The girls were speaking about it earlier that they were cold, they were out in the water, and then they had to get themselves wet for the scene and they were using their fingers to pat themselves down. And Viola came, just got a bucket and went [mimes dunking himself in water] and threw the bucket.”

“You want your lead to have that energy, because that energy then dictates how we move, and she had done just that.”

Watch the full interview with John Boyega above for more on making the film. The Woman King is in theatres on September 16.

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures.

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