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‘Widows’ director, cast offer a fresh slant on Chicago, its rich and poor parts

As Viola Davis speaks at the Chicago International Film Festival, "Widows" co-star Michelle Rodriguez and writer-director Steve McQueen listen in.

As Viola Davis speaks at the Chicago International Film Festival, "Widows" co-star Michelle Rodriguez and writer-director Steve McQueen listen in. | Barry Brecheisen

Viola Davis opens up about how rare it is for her to have an opportunity to play a character who has a life beyond being a mother.

Michelle Rodriguez cordially bats away a question about the difference between working with a female-dominated cast, as opposed to the boys’ club of the “Fast and Furious” movies.

Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen talks about why he wanted to make this particular movie in Chicago.

That’s already an all-star panel (to put it mildly) on this Chicago stage. But I still need to get to the mega-successful author and the Tony Award-winning performer, among others.

There are Q&As, and then there are Q&AAAAAAAs. This would fall into the latter category.

Over the years, I’ve done well over 100 public question-and-answer sessions with filmmakers and actors — and sometimes even the real-life inspirations for a particular movie. It’s almost always a treat for the audience (and for the interviewer) to hear these directors, actors, writers, et al. enjoying the opportunity to talk beyond sound-bite length about their work.

Usually, it’s a two- or three-person discussion. Once in a while, a panel will include four or five individuals — and on a handful of occasions, the stage is stretched out further, like in 2008 when LeBron James was in town to talk about the documentary “More Than a Game,” and we were joined onstage by four of James’ high school teammates, his former coach and the director of the film.

Richard Roeper (left) leads a “Widows” Q&A session with producer Iain Canning, screenwriter Gillian Flynn, actors Brian Tyree Henry, Cynthia Erivo, Michelle Rodriguez and Viola Davis and writer-director Steve McQueen as part of the Chicago International Film Festival. | Barry Brecheisen

And sometimes you need eight chairs and eight microphones. Such was the case after a Chicago International Film Festival screening Oct. 13 of the highly anticipated, star-studded thriller “Widows” (which will be in theaters on Friday).

Party of eight, please.

Based on a British TV series from the 1980s, “Widows” was filmed in Chicago in 2017. On the surface, it’s a heist film about a group of widows teaming up to finish a robbery after their husbands were killed when the job went horribly wrong. But it’s also a timely and searing drama about race relations, domestic violence, familial bonds and betrayals, and Chicago politics. (My review will be in the Sun-Times in the coming days.)

Let’s meet the full panel:

• Director Steve McQueen (Oscar-winner for “12 Years a Slave.”).

• A number of stars from the film, including the aforementioned Davis and Rodriguez, as well as Brian Tyree Henry (“Atlanta”) and Cynthia Erivo (winner of Tony and Grammy awards for “The Color Purple”).

• Producer Iain Canning, who won the Academy Award for “The King’s Speech.”

• Best-selling author and Chicago resident Gillian Flynn (“Sharp Objects,” “Gone Girl”), who co-wrote the screenplay for “Widows” with McQueen.


• From June: A visit with Robert Duvall on the Chicago set of ‘Widows’

“We shot in something like 60 locations around Chicago,” said Canning. “We wanted to show the tapestry of the city and how it is sometimes divided in terms of language, in terms of socioeconomic status. It was important for us to show the whole canvas of the city.”

A major plot thread of “Widows” focuses on a high-stakes aldermanic race in (a fictional version of) Chicago’s 18th ward.

For decades, Robert Duvall’s ruthless and racist and deeply connected Tom Mulligan has ruled every inch of every square block of that ward. Now that the old lion is finally stepping down, it was supposed to be a slam-dunk for his slick, duplicitous son Jack (Colin Farrell) to take over. But Jack is facing surprisingly strong opposition from the crime kingpin-turned-politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) — who might not be free of that whole crime-kingpin thing.

Brian Tyree Henry (right, with Daniel Kaluuya) plays crime kingpin-turned-politician in "Widows."

Brian Tyree Henry (right, seen here with Daniel Kaluuya) plays crime kingpin-turned-politician in “Widows.” | 20th Century Fox

In one of the most harrowing scenes in the film, Jamal pays an unexpected visit to the Lake Shore Drive penthouse apartment of Davis’ Veronica, threatening her while dangling her beloved little pup by its collar. (There are few better ways to establish a villain’s truly villainous nature than having him be mean to a doggie!)

“There are two things I dread working with in movies as of late, and that’s pets and children,” said Henry, echoing a time-honored bit of performer’s wisdom dating back at least to W.C. Fields.

“This dog, he looks like the dog on the Cesar pet food cam … and also there’s something about people and their pets, it’s like a second skin to them, and oftentimes — and not to make this a whole racial thing — but I’ve recognized that especially amongst white people, sometimes they treat their pets better than they treat people.

“So I was kind of taking out my frustration about that on this dog. It wasn’t really this dog’s fault. But when I read [the script], I was like, ‘YES!’ ”

(Lest anyone accuse Henry of being a horrible, dog-hating person: All of this was said in an exaggerated, comedic tone, not to be taken literally. It brought down the house.)

Viola Davis (left) and Cynthia Erivo star in "Widows."

Viola Davis (left) and Cynthia Erivo star in “Widows.” | 20th Century Fox

I asked Davis — winner of Oscar, Emmy and Tony awards and a three-time Academy Award nominee — why she was drawn to the role of Veronica. Her answer was revealing and sobering.

“I was struck by the fact she had a husband that she loved,” said Davis. “The fact she was motivated by love and grief — I have to say that I simply don’t get those roles. I just don’t, even after the Oscars.

“I would say that 99.9 percent of the roles I get offered are moms … moms that have no vaginas.

“I don’t know [if] it’s [being] 53 … if it’s the dark skin, it’s the black that stops people from having an imagination. … I have to say the fact that this movie opens with me and Liam Neeson in bed, kissing, with my natural hair, and he’s not beating me, he’s not my pimp, THAT’S what sold me, I’m not gonna lie. Because I see myself as a woman, and I see other women who look like me as women, who have love lives.”

As mentioned earlier, Rodriguez laughed good-naturedly when asked to compare working with the women on “Widows” to the male divas (or should we say ALLEGED divas) on some of the “Fast and Furious” movies.

“Come on, don’t get controversial now,” said Rodriguez. “I’m not going to compare the boys to the girls, but I will say it was a very rare and beautiful experience to be surrounded by matriarchs. It was refreshing, and it was the first time in my career.”

Erivo, whose “Bad Times at the El Royale” was playing in the house literally next door to the “Widows” screening, portrays Belle, the one member of the heist squad who ISN’T an actual widow.

“She already knows what it is to be by herself,” Erivo said of Belle. “We talked about it — didn’t we, Steve? — we talked about whether or not she needed a man in [her background story]. Wasn’t it your daughter who said, ‘Why does everything have to be about the man?’ And we [decided] Belle was just used to doing things on her own.”

Let’s go now to the talented wordsmith Flynn for how she got involved:

“Steve could have said, ‘Hey, do you want to do a movie about a wisecracking kitten?’ and I would have said, ‘Yes, I do!’

Gillian Flynn (left) and Cynthia Erivo listen to "Widows" actor Brian Tyree Henry at the Chicago International Film Festival Q&A.

Gillian Flynn (left) and Cynthia Erivo listen to “Widows” actor Brian Tyree Henry at the Chicago International Film Festival Q&A. | Barry Brecheisen

“We started with Lynda LaPlante’s amazing miniseries from [the 1980s], so we had this great back story to work from … And we really researched Chicago. We talked to so many people. … We talked to FBI agents and law professors and people from different part[s] of Chicago to really kind of immerse ourselves. …
 We  could have written a miniseries.”

Explaining why Chicago is a suitable setting for a crime movie, McQueen said a number of characters in “Widows,” in particular the ones who don’t necessarily believe the law applies to them, sometimes don’t even bother to conceal that fact.

“[A] catchphrase in Chicago is, ‘I’ve got a guy,’ as in [a guy who will] bend and break the rules. That’s illegal, but it’s the norm, but also kind of a strange thing.”

Throughout the film, McQueen and his go-to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt showcase some of the most beautiful and some of the bleakest parts of Chicago from fresh perspectives. In one virtuoso sequence, we ride with Jack Mulligan and his status-climbing wife Siobhan (Molly Kunz) as they leave a campaign appearance in one of the poorest sections of the 18th ward and make their way to the Mulligan mansion, which is barely within the boundaries of the ward.

In a thousand other movies, we’d be inside the limo, watching Siobhan berate Jack for being weak and telling him to get it together. In “Widows,” we stay OUTSIDE the car, tracking the limo as is transitions from a gray and depressed neighborhood to the posh, tree-lined street where the Mulligans live.

“For me as a filmmaker, it was all about: How do I have three or four things happening at the same time, all in one shot?” McQueen said. “So, in that scene, [Jack’s] mother is dead, and his father’s trying to push him forward as a politician. All of these things are happening with his family. But, at the same time, we’re seeing the landscape change, from this lot in this black neighborhood to this affluent [neighborhood], all in three minutes.

“It’s kind of crazy — but also that’s Chicago.”