Tell me about the training and physical demands of this role?
So it started during the audition process, actually, because part of the audition was going for a fitness and physical test with our stunt coordinator, who was going to determine whether I could be able to do my own stunts or not. After getting the role, I decided to put myself in Muay Thai because I didn’t want to go into pre-production training starting from zero. Id’ go twice a day on days where I could, and Gina had private sessions where she joined me as well. I eventually started weapons training, and that was a lot of fun working with the bow staff, working with the machete, teaching me the basics of punching and kicking and just combat training. And then we started pre-production training now officially, where we were going to go into more choreography. We had strength training. I had running training. We were lifting weights, working on flexibility, agility and speed. Gina determined that for my character, it wouldn’t be realistic for her to take down a six foot man, so we had to build Nawi’s speed so as to make her someone who takes out her opponent with maximum results with minimal effort.
And initially when we got to South Africa, it was two hours a day of training, but being paranoid about my martial arts, I requested an extra hour of training just for myself — not for everyone else, just for myself! — but then they made everyone else get an extra hour! [Laughs]. But it was fun, we were bonding.
Viola is such a force in this industry and an icon, but what surprised you about working with her?
I think what’s most surprising is how funny and how an absolute clown she is. When people meet her, it’s this Viola that they’ve put on a pedestal, which essentially to some degree takes away her humanity. And the first time you meet her, what you meet is her humanity. When we were on set, I remember we were shooting in this scene where there’s a moment of tension between her and Nawi where she even holds her in the face and she pushes her away. And we’re performing and Viola stops herself, and she’s like, “I don’t believe what I’m doing right now.” And she takes a beat and that makes her human, right? Because in our minds she’s gonna be a hundred percent all the time, she’s gonna have it figured out all the time, but she said “I need a moment.” And then she came right back into it, which for us, as those coming up after her, we stop and say, “huh, we don’t always have to have it figured out,” but we do owe the audience our best at all times.
The film has been widely praised, but there was also some criticism on social media about glorifying the Dahomey, who participated in the slave trade. This is explored in the film — but what did you think of that discussion?