There’s a moment in The Woman King (released today) that, no spoilers, is one of the best running scenes this film-lover and running enthusiast has ever seen on screen. It involves the titular character and protagonist, Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis, dressed in the attire of the warrior army she leads. She sets off defiantly, on foot with machete in hand. As she takes her first few steps, bold and unwavering, we see not far behind her, the other Agojie women running in single file after her. It’s a rousing action that captures the heart and soul of the mighty Hollywood epic—and the running looks masterful.
It’s thanks to director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s own love of and dedication to running that the scene works as well as it does. A former triple jumper at UCLA, Prince-Bythewood tells Runner’s World that it drives her nuts “when you watch an action film or sports film and the actors can’t run.”
Known for her character-driven films, from Love & Basketball to The Secret Life of Bees, the director flexed her action film muscle in The Woman King. Set in 1820s West Africa, it’s about the all-women military squad of the Kingdom of Dahomey, called the Agojie.
More From Runner’s World
Bringing The Woman King to the big screen was a years-long Herculean feat in itself—with Davis, Prince-Bythewood and the producers having to navigate a host of behind-the-scenes challenges Black women face in the entertainment industry before they even started filming, from convincing executives to bankroll their movie to being allowed to do hair and make-up the way they wanted it. To handle the on-set demands of shooting in South Africa, Prince-Bythewood wanted to make sure her cast was prepared.
Why Prince-Bythewood Prepped the ‘The Woman King’ Cast for Running With the Help of a Coach
Along with months of grueling martial arts and weapons training plus weight lifting, Prince-Bythewood enlisted the help of running coach and former 400-meter champ Jerome Davis. “Jerome is an incredible coach,” she tells Runner’s World. “There’s a difference between just learning to run and learning to run well. Also, there’s a difference between sprinting and long-distance running. I needed everyone to look good doing both.”
Having worked with Jerome Davis before, on both The Old Guard, with Kiki Layne, and the TV series, Shots Fired, with Sanaa Lathan, Prince-Bythewood was confident Davis could work his magic on The Woman King. She gave him the direction to make the women look athletic and believable.
“That was the key word, ‘athletic,’ especially in the heat of an action scene. I wanted it to feel second nature; these women grew up running. Running was an important part of their training, and I wanted the audience to feel the natural gait of these women,” says Prince-Bythewood.
Davis, who competed at the World U20 Championships and the World University Games in the late 90s, believes he’s always been a coach at heart. “I think it started in high school, I would always try and encourage my teammates, and it was kind of natural. I just always love to see people achieve and do their best,” he tells Runner’s World. Having been a coach for more than 20 years, these days he works a lot with elementary and high school runners.
The key to a good running scene, Davis says, is that you want to get as close to what you would see in a race or a good high school meet. “You want the form to be great,” he says. Running on film is like any other skill an actor might have to pick up for a role. “It’s like being a musician or a barber, you think, ‘Oh, they just do it. They just show up and the work comes out beautifully and it’s just easy.’ But the reality is, it’s an art form to it.”
Getting actors to perform the art of running requires flexibility and patience, considering they’re obviously not professional runners. So Davis asked them for an hour a day, three to four days a week, “and I’ll make you look like you have run your whole life.”
What Run Workouts Looked Like for the Cast of The Woman King
A large part of the hour-long run sessions, which took place over six weeks, focused on the warmup, which Davis sees as essential, both in achieving a solid foundation for good running form and preventing injuries that could impact the production schedule. In Davis’ workouts, that warmup would include drills.
“I’m a very big believer in plyometric drills to be able to activate the muscles that you want to use, and not only activate the muscles you want to use, but help get you in the mind frame of good running technique,” Davis says. Working on a small track at Cold Canyon Park in Beverly Hills, the actors would start with A-skips and butt kicks, and he’d have them run backwards to activate the hamstrings.
Because the actors would only have to run short distances for their scenes, he kept the track work short and honed in on repetition. “I would have them do build-ups of about 70 meters,” he says. “So every 10 meters they would get faster and faster and faster. And then they would walk back, and then they would get faster and faster and faster. I’m trying to get them at about 90% of their maximum speed.”
But Davis’ main focus during workouts: how the actors hit their stride, which he gave pointers on every chance he got. “I’m really focusing on their form; I’m looking at their arms, I’m looking at their hands, I’m looking at their facial expression,” he says. “There’s a cadence that comes with running and there’s also a controlled force. I want you to be fierce but I also want you to be relaxed.”
Davis also made sure the actors had a solid knee drive, activating the hip flexor, and pulling that knee up toward the chest—something he considers a telltale sign of whether someone is a runner if they can hit that point of the stride.
Another one of Davis’ mantras he’d impart to the actors? “Arms dictate your legs.” If you want to go faster, he’d tell them, you have to move your arms faster. “Your arms swing from your shoulder. There’s a ball inside of your shoulder for a reason. Your arms need to stay at 90 degrees so that you’re using the ball,” he says.
Davis worked closely with the women who make up the Agojie, including Adrienne Warren and Thuso Mbedu, who play the newest recruits to the army in The Woman King. Mbedu, a 31-year-old South African actress known for The Underground Railroad, has been vocal about her dislike of running on her social media. “Thuso hated running when we started,” says Prince-Bythewood. “I won’t say she loves it now, but she respects it.”
Davis commends Mbedu for her commitment to the training. “She would get so nervous to come see me,” he says. “But her last couple of sessions, I was like, ‘Alright, you’re getting it, I can tell it’s all starting to click.’”
While the Agojie women worked with Jerome Davis on their running, their general, Viola Davis worked with her long-time trainer Gabriela Mclain. At one stage, Davis was running a 6:23 mile on the treadmill, which Prince-Bythewood says made everyone feel proud: “That’s a full out [effort], and props to Viola for putting in the work.”
On set, Jerome Davis also chimed in with running tips for the actors, making them warmup for about 15 minutes ahead of filming run scenes. “You might be 19 years old or you might be 45 years old, but please, make sure you warm your body up. The directors, the associate producers, none of those people understand warming your body up. They just think you can go out there and just perform and run,” he says. “They’re just gonna say, ‘Action!’ That’s all they’re gonna say, and then you’re going to blast these reps of running, and next thing you know you come up with an injury and you’re out for weeks and weeks.”
Overall, Prince-Bythewood was happy with the results. “People don’t pay enough attention to running when they’re doing action films, but for me, as a former track star, it’s all I pay attention to.”
How Running Has Shaped Prince-Bythewood’s Life Off Screen
Growing up loving to race her sisters, running has been a constant in the director’s life, from playing soccer to basketball, and then cross-country and track at school.
After college, as her film career took off, Prince-Bythewood’s running slowed down for a moment, but she got back into it after the birth of her sons and the C-sections she had. “It’s hard to come back from that: your mind tells you can do stuff and your body is not aiming and listening,” she says. “But it was through running that I was able to get those two in sync again.”
While making movies may keep her often too busy for the kind of runs she likes to take, Prince-Bythewood will always take any opportunity she has to bring it into her work—especially when presented with a scene like the one led by Viola Davis that has the potential to stay with audiences once the credits have rolled and the lights go up.
“I remember reading that scene in the script and feeling lifted. It was one of those scenes where, as a director, you feel the importance of it because you’ve reacted to it as an audience first.” Hiring a running coach is testimony to the devotion Prince-Bythewood had in making that scene—and the film as a whole —work as powerfully as it does.
Nadia Neophytou is a freelance journalist from South Africa, based in New York City, who writes for a variety of publications, from The Hollywood Reporter to Deadline, Quartz, CNN, and more. When she’s not interviewing movie stars and musicians, she’s running—or talking about running in a video series she created called The Rundown, where she interviews people she admires on the run.
This content is imported from OpenWeb. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.