How Viola Davis and Lashana Lynch became warriors for 'The Woman King'
When it comes to female-led action ensembles, few films look as impactful as the The Woman King, which charts the battles of real-life warriors in West Africa in the 1820s.
The impressive all-female Agojie unit, which also served as inspiration for the Black Panther's Dora Milaje, protected the kingdom of Dahomey during the 17th and 19th centuries. Taking the lead in The Woman King as their general is Viola Davis, while Lashana Lynch is a fierce lieutenant.
To accurately portray some of the toughest warriors in history, Viola (who also served as a producer on the film) roped in LA-based PT Gabriela Mclain. Here, the training expert talks us through building bodies fit to protect a kingdom.
Mclain's relationship with Davis goes back years; she knows the actress' strengths, weaknesses, and injuries. So it made sense they’d work together on The Woman King, with training beginning almost four months before pre-production. When the producers also asked the PT to train Thuso Mbedu, who plays a younger member of the Agojie, Mclain readily agreed. By the time director Gina [Price-Bythewood] approached her to train Lynch, too, Gabi was all in. “I’ll never say no to training anybody,” she says. “Plus I could sometimes put them into groups and train them together.”
Due to Lynch's commitments elsewhere, she and Mclain were only able to work together a few times before filming began and production moved to Africa. With limited time, the focus became on adjusting Lashana’s diet to get her muscles looking defined. “She is a lieutenant in the movie so she needed to be in shape and look badass,” Mclain explains. “I needed to get her ripped really quickly. She was super dedicated. You can see as the movie progresses her muscles just pop out. I wish I'd had three months with her, but we did it anyway.”
Davis, who is now 57, was a different prospect. “It’s a physical role and Gina [Prince-Bythewood, the director] wanted most of the actors to do all of their own stunts, so that put a lot of pressure on keeping Viola safe and strong enough,” says Mclain. With doctors giving the all-clear on an old ACL injury, the PT focused on building the actress' arms to give the appearance of a life-long warrior. “We wanted her arms to look thicker. More fierce,” she says. “We wanted her to look like a beat-up older warrior with many scars. But she also needed agility to duck down to avoid swords, or flip 250lb men.”
Alongside building bulk, a focus for both Lynch and Davis was making sure they moved like warriors. “The Agojie would be travelling from battlefield to battlefield and they would have to run, sometimes for days,” says Mclain. Making her clients look as comfortable as possible while running involved maximising technique to protect the muscles and avoid injury. “Viola was always a good runner but her form wasn’t necessarily always good,” she adds. “You don’t have to look like an Olympic runner but it has to look athletic. I was trying to make it look more relaxed but dramatic on screen.”
To build muscle, you have to eat more calories, so diet was a big part of Mclain's plan. Refreshingly for the actors, though, the diet wasn’t about slimming down, but looking capable. “I was trying to create real warriors, not Ms Olympias,” she explains. “I didn’t care for them to be extremely lean with a low body fat percentage. I wanted them to look how these warriors would really look. They would eat a lot so they could power through all these battles. My goal was to make them more bulky and strong than lean and cut.”
Both Davis and Lynch were eating five protein-rich meals a day, with Mclain making sure they finished every mouthful. They were also required to drink one gallon of water daily to keep the muscles lubricated, aiding recovery.
All in all, it was a gruelling regimen, but Mclain says she’d rather have her actors complain than think the process is too easy – and that she kept a watchful eye throughout filming. “I want to hear them say it was painful because it’s The Woman King! [It was supposed to be] difficult to go through... I would be with them every day doing warm-ups and pump-ups before every scene.”
Ever the professionals, both women were completely dedicated to the routine. “There were times when they were struggling – Lashana’s feet would be swollen or Viola’s knee would be swollen – but somehow they always pushed through, even if they were limping. Gina would say action and you wouldn’t see it.”
A competitive streak in both actors also made training easy. “They’re very tough,” Mclain says. “They both have the same quality of always giving me 100 per cent; they show up on time, and execute workouts with perfection. They’re both very competitive, so it’s easy to push them. Viola particularly doesn’t like step-ups but she pushed through it all with ease.”
“This was a team effort with Danny Hernandez working on stunts and fights and Heinrich Schmidt working with me on physical therapy,” Mclain says.
And, while being a warrior on screen looks great, you personally might not be looking to bulk up to quite the same degree. To help you build more strength, however, the PT suggests you add the move below to the end of your usual workout, channelling the Agojie as you push through it.
Kettlebell Halo with split squat
Three sets of 35 seconds work and 12 seconds rest
1/ Get into a squat position in order to pick up the kettlebell, then raise it to chest level. Hold the kettlebell like a ball and lock your thumbs on the handle.
2/ Move the kettlebell around your head in a clockwise motion. Extended the rotation all the way to the side to split squat with kettlebells front of your chest.
3/ Repeat counter-clockwise
'The Woman King' is out in UK cinemas now. For more from the expert personal trainer, head to gabrielamclain.com.
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