“The Woman King” stars the inimitable Viola Davis as Nanisca, but studios being what they are, there was a desire for another big name in the role of her spiritual leader, Amenza.
But then director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s editor Terilyn Shropshire told her about Sheila Atim, who was in another film she was working on, Halle Berry’s “Bruised.”
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“Terilyn said, ‘I found your Amenza,’” Prince-Bythewood recalls. She got to see an early cut and was so impressed she arranged a meeting with Atim. In person, she was struck by the Ugandan British actor’s “essence.”
“She was so different from her character — it showed me the chops she has,” Prince-Bythewood says. “She’s funny and has warmth and depth.”
After an audition, Prince-Bythewood knew Shropshire had been right and Berry allowed her to use some scenes from her as-yet-unreleased movie to persuade executives.
Then, once filming started, Amenza’s role just kept growing. “It became ‘How much more can I give to Sheila because she makes everything better,’ ” Prince-Bythewood says. “A reaction from Sheila can change a scene. We’d often cut to her even when she had no dialogue.”
Prince-Bythewood also singled out Atim’s work ethic, a characteristic that quickly becomes apparent when talking to Atim, who has won two Olivier Awards for her stage work in London and who appeared in Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of “The Underground Railroad.”
“I’d do my drills wherever I was,” Atim says, of her preparation for doing all her own stunts. “We all trained in our off-hours, going to the gym. It was an immersive experience. I’d take my practice spear home and even use it in the kitchen, knocking over glasses.”
Atim says preparation was key because every time she got comfortable, the fight coordinator would up the challenge “and it’s one thing to learn in the gym but then you have to go on set barefoot in the sand, with the floor being angled and the spear is heavier and not smooth.”
Each character’s fighting style was tailored to their body types and personalities, but Amenza was unique in that she was also a spiritual leader, so Atim dove into understanding that side of her character.
“I wanted to understand the spiritual practice and marry the two sides,” she says. “That duality drew me to the role.”
She learned from talking to a Vodun expert in Benin that “Vodun is not a pacifist religion — it embraces death and the afterlife and sacrifice,” which enabled her to reconcile her two sides and to imbue her fighting with the “righteous cause” style of a Shaolin monk. (At the end, however, when Izogie — a more traditional warrior played by Lashana Lynch — is killed, Amenza takes on some of her weapons and aggression; Prince-Bythewood says the real-life friendship between Atim and Lynch enhanced their scenes and raised the emotional stakes.)
Atim’s research goes beyond practical questions about the wider existential threat of the slave trade and what it meant to go up against the king to find “the layers underneath to fill in a character’s backstory so I can give each one different shades,” which often came from conversations with Prince-Bythewood how Amenza came to be by Nanisca’s side, and to be both warrior and spiritual leader. “But I still try to be led by the script so I don’t get overwhelmed by too much information.”
One secret weapon for her in “Woman King” was that so many of her scenes were with Davis. “She’s so giving and generous and makes it feel like a collaboration,” Atim says. “You see her working out the scene alongside you, which demystifies things but she’s incredibly thorough and forensic. Watching her was so inspiring and so I took some of that on, which got me to dig deeper into Amenza.”
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