When “The Woman King” star Lashana Lynch began training to play Izogie, a warrior in the Agojie, an all-female fighting force that defended the African kingdom of Dahomey in the 19th century, she was in the middle of filming “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical,” where she stars as Matilda’s kindhearted teacher, Miss Honey.
“It was such a juxtaposition,” Lynch says about embodying both characters simultaneously. “There were little conversations about Miss Honey becoming really muscly.”
The preparation for “The Woman King” was some of the most intense work she’d ever done — she’s had roles in both the latest James Bond movie, “No Time to Die” (in which she played the first female 007), and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (“Captain Marvel”) — but her growing biceps ended up being the least of the “Matilda” production’s concerns.
“My singing voice changed,” she recalls. “My teacher would be like, ‘We need to open your lungs and chest up; your throat needs relaxing.’ I’d say, ‘That’s because I’m toughening up everywhere.’ It was wild.”
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, TriStar’s “The Woman King” premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival before its theatrical release on Sept. 16. Read below for Lynch’s conversation with Variety about the feature.
How did you first learn of this project and the Agojie warriors?
I had a call with the incredible Gina Prince-Bythewood, who I was a fan of [because of] “Love & Basketball.” The script floated my way, and after reading it, I was immediately transfixed. But Gina’s description — her plans, her vision, how she saw me in the character, that she wanted me to just take it and run with it and really collab on this experience — was enough to get me going, and the rest is history. It snowballed from there.
What struck you about this script?
I’d been looking for a very complicated woman to play for a very long time. It’s floated in and out of my life, but things that resonate with you and that strike you in a spiritual way, is very rare. When this came into my inbox, I knew that as a Black woman, I wanted to learn about these women — I want to educate myself through my career. But, at the moment, this woman wasn’t someone I’d naturally go for. After being in Bond and the Marvel franchises, those characters are really strong, powerful, military-esque women that I’ve been very connected to; but I was trying to look for something that was mysterious, complicated — something I could get my teeth into in a different way.
Then I read it and thought, “Oh, my gosh!” The human aspect of these women, the humor that Izogie finds through her trauma — which is a conversation that I’ve been trying to delve into in the Black community for a while — was so palatable on the page that I felt as though I had a responsibility to take this role and to really do the women justice, to represent our ancestors fully, in the way that they deserve.
So little has been recorded to history about these women — what information was particularly helpful to you as you tried to figure out who Izogie is and who they were?
One thing that struck me was that they don’t feel pain: they don’t register pain, they don’t even connect with the word ‘pain.’ I found that really strange at first, but then I connected it to what we know in our immediate history about Black women and pain and slavery and childbirth and the neglect as a whole.
I found that really interesting because, as a warrior, I know they have to do that, but the way that they do it, considering the backgrounds that they come, from means that they have somewhat a motivator that seems like a supernatural power to push through anything. Now here we go discussing Black women not feeling pain in the most powerful sense, outside of being ripped to shreds or abused or what have you. I enjoyed delving into that because then I can understand where their trauma’s coming from and how they’re masking it.
Izogie shows a softer side in her relationship with young warrior Nawi [Thuso Mbedu]. How did the cast develop that sisterhood?
The character Nawi is so energetically the younger Izogie, that Izogie has no choice to fall for her and her boar, brash attitude that Nanisca [Viola Davis] very quickly whipped out of Izogie. It reminds you of our foremothers who instilled this discipline, that love, that guidance, but leaving you to your own devices; throwing you in water and seeing how quickly you can swim. Nawi does so much questioning of the world and Izogie comforts her in such a way that is not coddling. It’s just pure love. I’m glad I got the chance to express it on-screen.
There’s so many ways to dive into what this experience meant to us as people, as humans, as Black women, as creatives. I felt very connected to my ancestors during this shoot. I felt as though I had a hand in really portraying the truth of these women to the world through having the most wonderful, talented, open and giving actors and director that I could probably ever ask for — Viola Davis, Thuso, Sheila Atim, Adrienne Warren, Gina, everyone — we were singing from the same hymn sheet, we were dancing to the same beat, we were literally feeling the energy in the soil whenever we were at work, because we were barefoot on wild ground every day.
In addition to the emotional work that you all had to do on this film, there was a lot of physical work. What part of the training came easiest to you? What was the most challenging?
Every single part was difficult, even the parts that I really enjoyed. I’ve done stunts before. I’ve worked with weapons before, but I haven’t trained every single [muscle]. I was shooting “Matilda” when I started training for this. I haven’t played a soft part and trained with a machete at night. I haven’t done 15-hour days before like that. I haven’t used a machete before. I haven’t trained barefoot before. I haven’t trained outside before. There’s so many firsts in this training that it made me feel like I was literally invincible.
Modern day voices would say, ‘You seem like a superhero,’ with the types of things that were asked of us, but really this has taught me that our bodies can just do this. No matter your age, your shape, your vibe, your weight, you can do this. Because, trust me, most days I came in and I thought, “Oh, no, my shoulder is dislocated, surely, because I’ve never felt this before.” And then our trainer Gabriela Mclain would come in and be like, “Alright, shoulder raises, arms out.” I had something in me somewhere and I was able to access it. The reserves were very deep for this, thank God. And gosh, you’re going to hear a lot during this press tour about the training because it’s quite indescribable. Even when we had days off, there were no days off.
What are you most excited about with ‘Matilda’? People who have seen you on stage probably have seen this side of you, but a lot of big screen watchers haven’t gotten a chance to yet.
I am so grateful for the experience I have had in my career to show how tough I can be, and powerful, and all that stuff. It’s fantastic. I’m also not that person. I don’t enjoy working my body to the ground all week; I enjoy the subtlety of watching cinema and reading a really delicate script that has me emotionally. This film is exactly what I needed at the time that I needed it.
I didn’t realize I had such an emotional connection to Miss Honey, like so many of us do around the world. She was everybody’s teacher, and even though I’m playing her, I felt like I was being guided the feeling that I felt when I was young watching her or reading her in the book. I’m excited for people to see some variation, and see me in the floral dress, and see me deal with children, in the most respectful delightful way. The kids in the film will blow your socks off; they’re incredible. I was more guided by them than anything, and that was special because I haven’t been able to do that before.
You recently reprised the role of Maria Rambeau in Marvel’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” what was it like to step back into that world for a few days?
It was amazing. Kevin Feige told me a long time ago, way before the world knew what was happening with her, which was sad because I really enjoyed “Captain Marvel” and working with Brie and everyone. But that nice to have this moment for us, actually, for the culture; that was a twist and turn that we never expected. And we were watching ‘WandaVision’ really happy that we get to see Monica’s backstory, but then this twist, these twists that Marvel puts on us without warning, my heart was like, “The world’s not gonna know what to do with themselves after this.” It was fantastic.
And there’s the parallel that the Agojie are one of the primary inspirations for the Dora Milaje in “Black Panther.” What do you make of those connections?
I got a couple comments on Instagram [about ‘The Woman King’] being like, ‘Is this about the Dora Milaje? Oh, nevermind.’ It’s going to be apparent when it comes out.
It’s so interesting to come full circle. Going from superhero to real-life hero is mind-blowing. This line of roles has been completely spiritual — they’re all very aligned and meant to be — and it makes me feel grateful for choosing to be an actor.
Things you didn’t know about Lashana Lynch
Battle-ready: Lynch trained for five months for “The Woman King,” learning to fight barefoot and swing a machete.
Honoring her roots: Lynch, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, will portray Rita Marley in Paramount’s upcoming Bob Marley biopic.