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Elizabeth Debicki Finally Got to Play ‘Ordinary’ in Widows

Elizabeth Debicki. Photo: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

In a relatively young career, Elizabeth Debicki has already become known for playing the glamorous type: Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby, the villainous shipping magnate Victoria Vinciguerra in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and most prominently, Ayesha in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the high priestess of an alien race of perfect, golden people. The casting choices have often leaned into Debicki’s modelesque height and looks (and in the case of Guardians, exaggerated them). In the heist thriller Widows, Steve McQueen gives her the chance to play someone she has long wanted to play: someone ordinary, trapped within the ordinariness of their reality. There is glamour, but that comes later — and at a cost.

As Alice, she plays a struggling, working-class woman who has to begin relying on her wits after her abusive husband (played by Jon Bernthal) dies. Her narrative arc is the most dramatic, as she goes from a woman who suffers to one who doles out suffering. During a press junket at the Toronto Film Festival after the film’s premiere, we discussed the finer points of the film, from affecting a Polish accent to her slapping scenes with Viola Davis as well as how she felt seen by Steve McQueen as a director.

The following discussion includes spoilers for the film.

The film, and your role as Alice, really speaks to the ways in which women are reasserting power after being underestimated. Did that resonate with you? 
Yeah, and that is fundamentally why I took the role. One of the things that really spoke to me about Alice is how repressed she is by the wife and daughter role that she has to play, and it is this very truthful portrayal of that patriarchal oppression which is quite cultural, but is also everywhere. And that matriarchal repression too, which we don’t really talk about that often today. But I think the ordinariness of her circumstances and how systemic her lack of self worth is — she just believes that she can’t really do anything other than this. I always felt there’s a version of all of these characters that, if these circumstances hadn’t happened, and they hadn’t lost their husbands, and had to sort of claim their space in the world, and who actually are they when they’re not the wife of these men, they would probably just go on like that. And instead, they’re thrust into these circumstances where they have to grow.

There is something really beautiful for me to get asked to play somebody “ordinary” and “normal” and just somebody embedded in their average circumstances. I guess what I mean by that is to play a housewife, to play someone young, of a low socioeconomic background. I really haven’t gotten the chance to play a lot of those characters before, for whatever reason.

You’re half Polish. Is there a specific reference point for the accent that Alice puts on at the gun show?
My cousin! My cousin. I sent her a Whatsapp and I said, “Can you record this for me?”

The dialogue? 
The dialogue in English, which kinda felt very beautiful for me, somehow. It was very close to the bottom. It is funny: When I hear myself do it, I hear her, because I really use very specific things she does when she speaks English. There are many parts of me and my Polish heritage in Alice and I never really got to explore that before in films. But because of what she says in that monologue, when I sent it to my cousin, she was like, “Oh no this is terrible. Is this your character in the movie?” And I was sort of like, “Well kind of, a little bit.”

But it is such brilliant scene. I think you can underestimate Alice really quickly and you think you have her pegged, and then you realize there’s this really savvy thinker in there. She is very smart, but in an offbeat kind of way. The fact that she goes to the auction but can’t drive the car — everyone is like, that is absurd. I remember thinking, I would totally do that. But Alice is from the beginning, a survivor. All of these women are. But there is a strain in her that is sort of unbreakable. She is not a broken person and she doesn’t see herself as a victim. None of these women become victims of their circumstances.

The film explores grief in a beautiful way too, because each of these women deal with it so differently. I love the scene when we really see her grieving. It starts with the line, “I think I should get a job.” Like, she has never had a job before! The whole thing is thrown, and I think grief does that. It sort of dismantles your identity. But instead of being demolished by it, they rebuild themselves to be stronger with each other. And that’s what I actually love so much about the Veronica–Alice relationship in the film — Veronica is, for the first time ever, a sort of role model and then becomes so close. But she is. She is a strong woman. In the beginning Alice would look at and think there is nothing she could learn from her.

What was it like slapping Viola Davis?
That played in a really interesting way last night [at the Toronto premiere]. People were like, Wow. There was a ripple through the audience and I had hoped that it was because of what that scene does for that character too and you just think, my God she really is so abused. I mean how many times do we see her be hit and it is basically like half an hour of the film. It is a lot.

I’ll never really forget shooting that, because we shot it at night, and there is an interesting subterranean place you go to when you shoot nights — and a lot of this movie we shot at night. We had been working through the day, and by the time we entered into that scene, Viola and I felt we were both incredibly open to really going to that place. The fact that that scene begins in that aggressive way — they are so full of grief, those two women. And there is the sense of, how dare you do this, how dare you have that with someone else when I can’t have that with someone, and Alice being defensive because she feels like Veronica is projecting everything that the world seems to project onto her — that she is this sexual object. I think they trigger each other so much in that scene to this point where it just explodes. There is something so sad about it. The place it ends up … and physically, where they end up in that scene is kind of the metaphor for me for the film. Just the two women that have nothing holding each other up. And it is really poignant, I think.

But finding that, we churned through that scene. We really went into it. It was messy and pretty traumatic and all the good things. All the things you want, really. But it is really the only scene we have together just the two of us, and it felt like a wrestling match. We were up for it and wanted to find it and Steve was really in it with us. I am proud of that scene.

Did you hit? 
No.

It was very believable. 
We are good at acting, aren’t we? No, we had a great stunt coordinator. [Laughing]

Apparently I just really want to know how you slap people without actually slapping people. 
I know. You know what it is, the slap is so interesting because it is all about what is happening on someone’s face.

On the recipient’s face?
Yeah, or the giver too. I was shocked the first time I watched it back, because I didn’t watch it when we were making it. Just before I hit Viola back, there is this rage. And I remember feeling that but when you watch it, you are kind of like, Oh God that’s what it looks like. It reminds me of that moment where we see Viola when she is first putting makeup on to go to the funeral and the sound that comes out of her is sort of grief but rage. I am fascinated by the reality of it and what it looks like because I feel like we are experiencing it all of a sudden in an incredibly transparent way. Women are angry and they want what’s theirs and what they deserve and you can’t get there by being nice anymore. It doesn’t really get you really anywhere.

It’s not like you ever could. 
No, and yet we did for a long time. We played nice.

Have you ever felt underestimated?
Yes. Sometimes I think I underestimate myself. I think we all do. People say, Do you ever get pigeonholed into a niche? In a way. Not because I play sort of bizarre variation of different roles, and I have been really fortunate to do that and expand and push myself, but I think we can be pigeonholed by the way we look as actresses more than actors.

How have you felt that?
Not in an everyday sense, but I think my height is something … I mean, you’re probably the first journalist who’s not asked me directly about it in question three: How do you feel about being tall? How has it affected your work? And I always find it an odd question. And interestingly, Steve was somebody who helped me. Typical Steve, he’s so sensitive. He’s got this incredible radar for what’s actually going on, and you can tell him one thing but he knows it’s the other. But I remember one day he pulled me up [when I was] slouching on set, compensating for somebody else’s height, which was a really seminal moment actually. I remember being really struck by it, because I hadn’t realized I was doing it. But also what Alice deals with, this sort of objectification of you look like this, you are pretty or feminine or sexy or whatever — actresses are navigating that all the time. You say, “No, I don’t want any of that, strip it all off, I don’t want to wear the makeup, I don’t want to be beautiful for you. I don’t wanna be desirable, palatable, nice, or whatever.”

Or you use it. 
Or you use it. But that’s another conversation too about using your femininity in that way which is also something that Alice always really interestingly unpacks.

But yeah, I’m sure I’m underestimated. But it’s a funny thing, being underestimated, because it makes me push harder, work harder, even if it’s just for myself which isn’t a bad thing. I’m an ambitious person, so I always want to keep pushing. You never really know what you’re capable of.

Was there a scene that was particularly difficult to shoot? 
There’s two different challenges: one was the emotional terrain, which was often quite grueling and dark. But that’s also perversely a joy as an actor to have that kind of material to play with. The heist stuff I found really scary. I was so adrenalized, like high-octane. We shot a lot of it at night and I really just didn’t sleep for days, because I would lie back in bed when the sun was rising and my heart was just beating, because I had never really done anything like that before. And we really did do all those things you know. We would shoot the sequence where we’re putting all the money in the bag; we shot it for so long and by the end of it my arms didn’t work anymore.

You know what happens to Alice with the bullet and the wound, and it was a really dark tunnel we were in for about a week and a half of night shooting. When I think back to it, it’s like a fever dream I don’t really remember. I remember when we just started: When they first go in the house, Alice is the one who knocks on the door, and when the security guard opens the door, she has to say, “Put your fucking hands in the air.” I was like, “Steve, I can’t do it. I’m scared. Give the line to Michelle. Give it to Viola.” And again he knew, and he was like, “No, this is you. This is your challenge, and it’s Alice’s challenge. You have to be brave enough to do this.” To suddenly be this incredible masculine energy, this aggression, and this rage and violence — I’m so opposed [to] violence as a human being. And the sequence where we go and then hog-tie the bodyguard, I remember looking at Michelle with the cable cord ties, and I was like, I don’t know. I don’t know. But then I remember just thinking, This is perfect. This is exactly how Alice would feel. I’m just gonna do this. 

The film ends with a scene between Veronica and Alice. How did you feel about shooting that as the way to punctuate the film and what the arc of their relationship says?
I remember being incredibly sad to shoot, this sort of chasm between them. You see Veronica say multiple times, “After this, this is it. We never see each other again. It has to finish here, if something happens, you’re on your own.” You really see that land with Alice, because I think the further the film goes the more she feels connected to her. She becomes this mother figure, sister figure, protector for Alice. Ironically, of course, what Alice really needs is to be completely on her own, and when we see her at the end of the film, she’s together. She’s bought a coat; she can drive a car. These beautiful little triumphs for somebody who had nothing, and could do nothing, and hadn’t even really crafted an identity.

I know it sounds really flippant, but when we picked out the outfit, I remember saying to my costume designer, “It’s so nice to think of her going to like Bloomingdales and buying a coat.” She had nothing. And it’s really clever how it’s shot as well. You see her come in and she looks together and then she sees Veronica over there, and she’s just completely undone by that. And I feel what you really see is two women who wanted to be able to speak to each other and reconnect, but Alice is remembering, Oh it’s not allowed, you can’t do it. And you can see she really wants to breach that and have her in her life. I always felt when I walked out of the café in that scene that the character accepts: Okay, this is how we do it as women. We’ll just be stoic, and I’ll be modern, and I’ll go on and I’ll be on my own. And actually that beautiful moment of reconnection and what a relief that is to know that the thing they built together they can still have in this life. It’s a microcosm of the concept of sisterhood, and how important it is. We are stronger together and you don’t have to do it all on your own.

It seems like Steve saw you could do something more rooted.
He did that for all of us. He put aside the thing we’ve done already. Oh, I know you can do red and blue but actually what I want is green and yellow. He wasn’t really looking for that. For all four of us, we really were ready to give that and we were just looking for the right vessel for it. Steve made us feel seen as women and actresses and it’s such a relief to have that. Really, we were waiting for it. We were each waiting for it. And then we got to do it together.

That might be true for all of us.
Yeah, I think that’s the human experience isn’t it? Gosh, this got meta real fast. It’s not even 10 a.m.!

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