The Cast Of ‘The Woman King’ Covers ESSENCE
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The Cast Of 'The Woman King' Covers ESSENCE

"Sometimes you're in a project that's bigger than you," says Viola Davis, who covers the September digital cover of ESSENCE with her co-stars.

On September 16, audiences will witness the story of the Agojie, the all-female warrior unit who protected the African kingdom of Dahomey from its enemies in the 19th century. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and starring Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, Adrienne Warren, and Thuso Mbedu, The Woman King not only uncovers and reframes a significant chapter in West African history. It renews a sense of pride and purpose for Black women of all walks of life across the diaspora.

“Sometimes you’re in a project that’s bigger than you,” says Davis, who covers the September digital cover of ESSENCE alongside her cast mates. “You’re not thinking about box office. You’re not thinking about success. You’re thinking about transcendence.”

The Cast Of ‘The Woman King’ Covers ESSENCE
Sheila wears Sportmax dress, Jennifer Fisher earrings, Vex gloves. Viola wears Hermès top, skirt, and belt, Kallati ring, Manolo Blahnik shoes. Thuso wears Stella McCartney dress, Jennifer Fisher bracelets (left) and rings, Tabayer bracelet (right), Stuart Weitzman shoes. Lashana wears Balenciaga dress and necklace, Tiffany & Co. Earrings, Jennifer Fisher rings (left) and Bulgari rings (right). Adrienne wears Missoni dress, Bottega Veneta earrings, Bulgari necklace.

The film follows General Nanisca, played by Davis, as she trains the next generation of recruits with the blessing of King Ghezo, played by John Boyega. The concept was first presented to Davis in 2015, but the idea that a project like this could actually happen took years for the Academy Award winner to grasp.

“The important part of this story is –I’m saying this now because it’s been almost eight years — I would say at the time it didn’t hit me. Not the story. The story hit me. The possibility of the story seeing light did not hit me,” Davis shares. “I think that’s important to say, because we are sort of thrust into this business. We’re sort of thrust in the world too, but that’s a whole different conversation. But we’re thrust in the business automatically assuming that something is not going to happen if it’s never been done before. There’s not going to be any support, no one’s going to want to do it, no studio’s going to give it the green light vote, and who would want to see me like that? And so I personally dropped it in my mind until Kathy Schulman came with the script by Dana Stevens and I was like, ‘Oh, okay.'”

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Getting greenlit by studios was only one part of the battle in bringing this film to fruition. Portraying the warriors in this historical epic drama required an immense amount of physical training and mental stamina to execute, which the actresses spoke about in great detail during our cover story roundtable discussion. Each of them relaying their ability to hold on to the understanding that what they would accomplish in the end was bigger than any one of them.

The Cast Of ‘The Woman King’ Covers ESSENCE
Gina wears AZ Factory top, Fear of God pants, Jennifer Fisher earrings and rings, Manolo Blahnik shoes.

Gina Prince-Bythewood on the cast committing to do their own stunts.

“It was imperative because for me the best action is personal and it’s character driven and it’s story driven and it’s very hard to do that when you’re dealing with doubles. You all looked me in the eye and said that you would do everything it took, even those who haven’t done it before. It’s one thing to say that, it’s another thing to really do what you guys did. I don’t think anyone can ever really say how hard you guys worked.”

The Cast Of ‘The Woman King’ Covers ESSENCE
Viola wears Alexander McQueen top, belt, pants, and shoes, Versace earrings.

Viola Davis on being seen a Black actress.

“There are no words to describe the journey, the sweat, the blood the war, that is being a Black artist and being a Black female artist. If people understood what goes on in the room, what goes on in the studio, what goes on in a heart, what freaking dies in us at times.

“When they see the carnage of all the Black actors who were out there, even during the Sydney Poitier years, that couldn’t even have an agent, because it was nothing out there for them. If they see the blood, sweat and tears of what it took, not just for this movie, just what our journey is. Then they would be on board. They would be on board because they would understand the absolute importance of it. And whatever little jealousies, which is very human because that’s what it is, it’s jealousy. It’s envy. It’s I want to be there. It’s that basic human instinct to take someone down because I need to be better than you in order to feel some other importance. That is secondary to elevating the ultimate goal, which is us being seen.”

The Cast Of ‘The Woman King’ Covers ESSENCE
Lashana wears Givenchy bodysuit and skirt, Jennifer Fisher earrings, Pasquale Bruni ring, Wolford tights, Versace shoes.

Lashana Lynch on the lasting impact The Woman King will have on her life.

“I feel like I’ll always have a little bit of whatever spirit was conjured up for the shoot within us and I don’t even know what it is. I feel like I’ve met this energy in a way and now I don’t know what to do with it. Because will I get the chance to even exercise it again? What does it mean? How do I talk to it? How do I use it? But genuinely I’m just really grateful that all of my experiences and all of the no’s and all of the complications and all of the “We’re going with a white girl, a lighter girl, a short girl, a more experienced girl–” we’ll go with all of those girls because they, aesthetically, make more sense than the tall, Black, curvy, short-haired, dark skin girl from London who doesn’t dot her i’s and cross her t’s all the time, and who has opinions [got me here]. I cannot comprehend how this is going to reverberate throughout our lives. Let alone throughout the world. The world is one thing, but in our lives there’s something that we can have forever. And I’m so excited to see what that collective experience is going to be.”

The Cast Of ‘The Woman King’ Covers ESSENCE
Thuso wears Erdem suit and shirt, Interior bralette, Âme ear cuff, Kallati rings (right), Le Vian ring (left), Jimmy Choo shoes.

Thuso Mbedu on Gina Prince-Bythewood and Viola Davis believing in her.

“My biggest takeaway is that I really am stronger than I think or believe or allow myself to be. And that there is a greatness that you saw that I have not been allowed to see in myself that I need to take in. I thank you for seeing me. Because even now I don’t think I see myself.”

The Cast Of ‘The Woman King’ Covers ESSENCE
Sheila wears Sergio Hudson dress and coat, Jennifer Fisher earrings and necklace, Brother Vellies shoes

Sheila Atim on working with Black women across the diaspora.

“I personally felt so enriched by being able to work with people who weren’t Black British or even who were Black British but have a different heritage from me, for us to all be in the same place. I learned from everyone and I hope that people learned from me as well. I think that’s a huge part, what we are able to do for people outside of ourselves. And there’s also what we are able to do to each other, first and foremost, before we then present what we created.”

The Cast Of ‘The Woman King’ Covers ESSENCE
Adrienne wears Miu Miu bra, briefs, dress, necklace, and bracelet, her own top earring Bulgari earrings (bottom) and rings, Guiseppe Zanotti shoes.

Adrienne Warren on the sisterhood that was birthed out of this film.

“Our togetherness is resistance. We are so much stronger together. I didn’t know I had sisters in places. That’s how it felt being on this set. My sisters have multiplied. And the beauty in that, and the beauty in what we have learned from each other because of our individual lived experiences, and the beauty that we present when we come together, we present what the world has never seen before. They love, they meaning the system, meaning everything else out there, loves to divide us, because if you divide us, then you can conquer us. Try to penetrate us. You won’t because we have been through so much, and because in each and every way, we’re not superheroes, we’re actually warriors. We’re Black women.”

The ESSENCE x The Woman King Roundtable conversation will air on September 12.

Photographed by: Lelanie Foster, @lelanief 

Styled by: Corey Stokes, @coreytstokes 

Adrienne Hair: Tym Wallace using RED by Kiss Edge Fixer Hair Wax Stick at Mastermind Management Group, @tymwallacehair 

Adrienne Makeup: Rebekah Aladdin at PR Collective, @rebekahaladdin 

Gina Hair: Tiffany Daughtery at Celestine Agency 

Gina Makeup: Leibi Carias at Celestine Agency   

Lashana Hair: Cynthia Alvarez at The Wall Group, @cynthiaglam 

Lashana Makeup: Jessica Smalls at The Wall Group, @jessicasmalls 

Sheila Hair: Coree Moreno using R&Co at A-Frame Agency, @theonlycm123 

Sheila Makeup: Paul Blanch using Danessa Myricks at The Wall Group, @paulyblanch 

Thuso Hair: Sharif Poston using Oribe at The Visionaries Agency,  @sharifposton 

Thuso Makeup: Rebekah Aladdin using SET at PR Collective, @rebekahaladdin 

Adrienne + Thuso Makeup Assistant: Eliven Q  

Viola Hair: Jamika Wilson at Epiphany Agency, @jamikawilson 

Viola Makeup: Sergio Lopez-Rivera at Cloutier Remix, @sergiowastaken 

Nail Technician: Temeka Jackson at A-Frame Agency, @customtnails1 

Nail Technician Assistant: Christa Cole 

Set Designer: Carlos Anthony Lopez at Winston Studios, @winstonstudios 

Set Design Assistants: Julia Choi and Diego Lopez 

Photo Assistants: Jesse Belvin and Alexis Sotomayor  

Digitech: Bo Sierigk  

Styling Assistants: Sam Knoll, Nash Koshiro, Anika Desai  

Production: Perris Cavalier and Taylor Brown at The Morrison Group, @themorrisongroup 

Production Coordinators: Alaura Wong and Jacqueline Dufwa  

Production Assistant: Mariana Garcia 

Shot at: DUST Studios, @duststudiosla