On the Chicago set of ‘Widows’ with Robert Duvall
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From the outside, this beautiful, muscular brick mansion on a quiet, tree-lined street in Hyde Park exudes success and tranquility and family and security, from the wrought iron fence protecting the property to the manicured foliage covering much of the front exterior, Wrigley Field style.
Inside, however, fireworks are exploding.
Inside, an aging lion and his son are at each other’s throats, at odds about strategies and loyalties and chess moves that could have a direct and lasting effect on the future of the city.
The father bellows a racial expletive as he lashes out at his son. They jaw back and forth.
And then the son tells the father, “I live for the day you won’t be here.” He tells his father he cannot wait for his father to be dead.
Cut. A brief moment to reset. Makeup and lighting and wardrobe and director do their thing, quiet is requested, and they’re at it again.
It is the summer of 2017, and we are on the set of “Widows,” a contemporary thriller directed by Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) and written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl).” It’s scheduled to open Nov. 16, and the first trailer will debut online Monday.
Based on a British television series from the 1980s, “Widows” is about four women whose husbands are gone, leaving them with a serious debt to pay. It’s a story of families torn apart, mothers willing to risk everything to protect their children’s future, corruption, crime, Chicago politics and blood-red passion.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a deeper cast in any film this year. The roster includes Viola Davis, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Carrie Coon, Cynthia Erivo, Jon Bernthal, Jacki Weaver — and the two actors on call today: Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell, as the beloved and respected and feared Chicago power broker Jack Mulligan and his shall-we-say difficult son Tom.
Over the course of the afternoon, Duvall, who was 86 at the time (he turned 87 in January) and Farrell will execute multiple takes of two scenes, including that confrontational explosion. During the brief breaks, the dozens of crew members go about their duties quickly and efficiently. The vibe is upbeat but very quiet, as the nature of the scene hardly lends itself to jokes and loud talk between takes. (Although Farrell does elicit chuckles when he approaches this reporter and welcomes me to the set, drops the Chicago accent for his natural Irish brogue and says, “Hope you don’t give me the old f—ing thumbs-down right on the spot here!”)
Neither actor forgets a line, not once. There’s a little bit of ad-libbing, mostly from Duvall, but the real variance is in the volume of delivery, the tone, the intensity.
In one take, Duvall states his case and rips into his son with a growl barely above a whisper. In the next, he erupts in a roar that practically rattles the windows. We are watching a master class in film acting from the man who played Boo Radley in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), Tom Hagen in the first two “Godfather” movies and Col. Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” and who won the Oscar for “Tender Mercies.” What a thing to behold.
After the day is done, I sit down for a conversation with Duvall.
“[My character] is a politician in a pretty corrupt city,” he says. “That scene we just did — I get after my son for being disloyal to a family member. You gotta be loyal to the family.
“There’s this love/hate thing, it’s quite intense, between the father and the son. We insult each other right and left. But he drives the nail home when he says, ‘I live for the day you won’t be here.’ Ooh, that cuts.”
Duvall says he took the role because of his admiration for director McQueen and the quality of Flynn and McQueen’s script. (“It’s a nice script. I like the part. It’s pretty neat.”)
“This is a great crew. Colin is a wonderful actor. [When you begin filming a role], you start with zero, it’s all zero, and see where it goes.”
I ask Duvall about the different approaches he took from take to take — even when the camera was on Farrell.
“Even when you’re off-camera, you find things to do to help the guy with his performance. That one time, I called him a ‘mother-effer,’ just to get a reaction. That’s not going to be on the soundtrack, but it might help him. [Note: Duvall actually said “mother-effer.”]
“Now, Method Acting, staying in character, I don’t know what that MEANS. I just try to stay focused. You draw on a well of emotions that exist within your own temperament.”
In addition to the “Mulligan mansion,” the Chicago locations for “Widows” include some five churches and a penthouse apartment in a Mies van der Rohe building on Lake Shore Drive, where Davis’ character lives.
“It’s glass all around,” says location manager Nick Rafferty. “You look east and you see the lake, nothing but blue. West is the city with the dense urban hustle and bustle. It’s perfect for her character and the conflicts she’s feeling — the peace and serenity of the lake, so mind-clearing, and then the chaos of the city on the other side.”
In an email exchange, director McQueen told me about why he was attracted to this project.
“I remember seeing Lynda La Plante’s TV show ‘Widows’ at 13 years old. The idea that these women achieved something no one thought they had the capability of doing left a big impression on me, especially at a time in my life when I was being judged in the same way.
“Many years later, when I first came to Hollywood, I was struck by how many talented actresses weren’t working. I decided then that after I made a movie about slavery that I wanted to make a female-driven film.”
As for transplanting a UK-set TV drama here: “Chicago has so many levels of interest to me. Political, racial, religion, policing, criminality and how all of those networks at some point cross over and have a relationship to each other.
“[In terms of specific locations], it was about showing things in the location they would take place in the first place, rather than aesthetics. I believe environments create their own style. … I hope we have achieved something very unique and fresh and at the same time recognizable [as Chicago]. I don’t like the idea of bringing a stencil onto things. I believe very much in embracing what’s already there.”
Leaving the Hyde Park mansion, we take note of a political sign on the front lawn, a “UNION PRIDE” on the front gate.
This is Chicago. Those signs look as much a part of the landscape as the neatly trimmed lawn and the trees stretching higher than the houses.