When the 2023 Oscar nominations were revealed this past January, award pundits and movie buffs alike griped about one particular omission: Viola Davis being left out of the Best Actress category. Though Cate Blanchett (Tár), Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All at Once), Ana de Armas (Blonde), Andrea Riseborough (To Leslie), and Michelle Williams (The Fabelmans) all gave noteworthy performances in 2022, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King was built on Davis’ back, leveraging her movie-star magnetism into a powerhouse physical performance. With the movie out and at No. 1 on Netflix, Davis’ snub feels even more frustrating. This is an actor working on every level, a fact that becomes more apparent when one learns how it coalesced.
In The Woman King, Davis stars as Nanisca, the militant leader of the Agojie, an all-female army protecting the West African kingdom of Dahomey with the ferocity of Greek Spartans. Covered in scars and haunted by the past, Nanisca commands her troops with singular focus. Threats come at them from every angle — the violent Oyo Empire wants to overrun them at home, the Europeans want to control them from afar. But the Agojie only begin to crack when their king (John Boyega) begins to compromise, and a young woman (Thuso Mbedu) emerges to challenge the norm.
Davis’ interpretation of Nanisca is calculating and cutthroat, much like her roles in Widows, Fences, and even the Suicide Squad movies and the Peacemaker TV series, as the ride-or-die Amanda Waller. But Nanisca draws power from her emotional core — she’s always human, even when she’s larger than life. Though Davis, a producer on The Woman King as well as its lead, recruited Prince-Bythewood to helm the film after directing Netflix’s grounded superhero movie The Old Guard, the filmmaker ultimately demanded more from her star than just a calibrated historical performance: Davis and her costars needed to move like fighters, too.
“[Work on the film] started with me telling Viola and then all the other actors, ‘You’re going to be doing your own fighting and stunts,’” Prince-Bythewood told Polygon in a sweeping interview published at the time of release. “The training started months before, six days a week, two times a day. It was the hardest thing they’d ever done. It was also part of the rehearsal process, to build up character. Doing that to your mind and body changes the way you walk, changes the way you think about yourself. They became athletes. They became warriors. And it completely bonded them, because they were going through this hell together. That kind of sisterhood that we built [in training] showed up on screen.”
For all the rigor that went into playing Nanisca, Davis never lost the cerebral edge of the character. Nanisca went to hell and back long before the events of The Woman King, and when we pick up with her in the story, a key event from her past comes slamming back into focus. Prince-Bythewood revealed that over the course of development on the film, Davis wrote an entire notebook worth of backstory for her character, leading to rewrites of the screenplay. And two days before they began shooting The Woman King in South Africa, the actor flagged a major issue that came up in her own meditation on the character: The screenplay painted Nanisca as a younger woman, but at the time, Davis was 56, and she wanted to play the character as a 56-year-old.
“And why not? She’s an aging warrior. She is at a time in her life where you question everything. Is what I put my body through, my mind through, worth it? How can I have an impact on this kingdom? And it was ultimately to push for change. So she wanted to use that,” Prince-Bythewood said.
A scene early on in the movie was born out of the alteration: After a heated battle, an aching Nanisca heals in a Dahomey bathhouse. She squirms with pain. Prince-Bythewood winds around her with the camera to reveal a scabbing cut across the back of her shoulder. The cast of The Woman King was told early on that, historically, the Agojie never demonstrated pain — and in the movie, they don’t show pain in public. But in this tender moment, Davis lets the militant act slip away. She is not a superhero.
“That’s the beautiful thing about Viola, she has no vanity,” Prince-Bythewood said. “[She’ll do] whatever is best for the character.”
The Oscars overlooked Viola Davis in 2023. They’ll overlook great performances again. But with The Woman King readily available on Netflix and beyond, there’s really no excuse for the rest of us. Nanisca is a prime example of an actor throwing themselves into a role, figuratively and literally.
For more on The Woman King, read Polygon’s interview with Gina Prince-Bythewood.