American films

Widows stars Viola Davis, Liam Neeson and Colin Farrell – yet it’s a fresh-faced Australian actress that’s stealing the spotlight

  • Australian Elizabeth Debicki has been singled out for her performance as Alice in the new heist thriller
  • She plays alongside big names such as Michelle Rodriguez, Robert Duvall and fellow Aussie Jacki Weaver
PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 December, 2018, 7:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2018, 7:15pm

The heist thriller Widows has arguably the most impressively stacked ensemble cast of the year, including Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Daniel Kaluuya, Michelle Rodriguez, Brian Tyree Henry, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Jacki Weaver, Colin Farrell and Cynthia Erivo.

Which makes it all the more impressive that 28-year-old Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki has been singled out for her performance as Alice. She plays a young woman who gets out from under the repression of her abusive husband and her exploitative mother to discover she has more to offer than anyone, including herself, had previously known.

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“She resonated on many, many levels,” Debicki says. “I’ve been looking and waiting for some time to play somebody like Alice, somebody who was very real and raw and multidimensional. So there was me as the actor looking at it and thinking, ‘I just want to get my hands on that’.”

In the film, Davis plays Veronica, a woman who is suddenly in debt to a dangerous gangster when her husband, a career criminal, dies during a robbery. Desperate, she hatches a plan to commit what her husband had planned as his next job and recruits the other widows from his former crew – played by Debicki, Rodriguez and Erivo – to take on an audacious act of armed larceny.

Widows is directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen ( 12 Years a Slave ), who co-wrote the screenplay with Gone Girl and Sharp Objects author Gillian Flynn. Much of the film is the four women planning how to execute the heist, and Debicki recalls how exciting it was for the four actresses.

“It’s so interesting how charged the energy was around us four. It was really remarkable, and I’ve never experienced anything like that,” Debicki says. “I don’t think anything with Steve is down to chance. He knew the chemistry that he was cooking up when he put the four of us together.

“You had four women who were so different from one another; we could not be further removed from one another in where we come from, who we are, our ages, how we look, our life experiences, our experiences as actresses. Yet when we got together, we didn’t have time to be anything but honest.”

Debicki has been having a breakout year. She was in The Tale, which premiered at Sundance and has gone on to nominations at the Emmys, the Gotham Awards and the Spirit Awards. Breath, directed by Simon Baker, earned Debicki a supporting actress nomination from the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts.

She appeared in The Cloverfield Paradox and as a voice actor in Peter Rabbit . When Widows premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival she was also there with Vita and Virginia, in which she played Virginia Woolf.

Debicki first came to the attention of American audiences with her role as Jordan Baker in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby. She appeared onstage with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in a production of Jean Genet’s The Maids in Sydney and New York. She also appeared as an international villainess in Guy Ritchie’s 2015 The Man From U.N.C.L.E. ” Then she received acclaim for her role in the 2016 miniseries The Night Manager.

It might be easy to draw comparisons between Debicki’s role in Widows, as a woman coming into her own, and her part in The Night Manager, in which she played a kept woman striving for independence.

“I didn’t really think of it like that, but of course we can draw parallels,” Debicki says. “They’re both women who don’t have a source of independent income, which is incredibly disempowering. And when I think of both of those roles for me, they were maybe the most pivotal roles I’ve played as an actress because they challenged me; they are very, very far from what I am personally. And I felt like there was a great amount of truth, and I also felt a great deal of responsibility to bring nuance to it.”

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Director Susanne Bier, who won an Emmy for her work on The Night Manager, recalls what led her to cast Debicki.

“There was a danger with that character that it could have been the classical sort of eye candy,” Bier says. “Not to say Elizabeth is not eye candy, but she’s not a cliché, and I really wanted to avoid the cliché of a gangster’s hot girlfriend. She’s like an amazing, astounding beauty, but she’s not your standard hot blonde, trophy girlfriend. She’s just very different. She adds so much depth to everything she does.”

In The Tale, Debicki played a character drawn from writer-director Jennifer Fox’s own experience of the woman who helped groom her for sexual abuse as a teenager. Although the two had spoken extensively, Fox didn’t actually meet Debicki in person until she arrived on set during production.

“She just got her,” says Fox of Debicki’s performance. “She knew what was right for her character. I remember one moment where I wanted her to smile and she almost refused. And maybe she gives me like a turn of the corner of her mouth. And when I saw it on the screen in the edit, I thought, ‘No, Elizabeth was right,’ every single time.”

McQueen recalls a specific moment during a scene in Widows where the four women are in a warehouse preparing for the heist. Davis’ character has had them place dirt into small plastic containers to replicate the weight of the cash they will be hauling off and how much they can carry in different denominations.

“Elizabeth picks up the Tupperware, looks at it and shakes it and feels the weight of it,” McQueen says. “And it reminds me so much of someone like Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven, when he’s got the scatter gun and he rattles it before he loads the gun. I mean, it’s just gold. I never said to her to do that.

“You can’t buy that. You can’t teach that. You just have to have it.”