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Steve McQueen Returns: “I Never Thought I Was Anything Other Than Brilliant”

Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen takes moviemaking (and everything else) deadly serious, but his new slick, popcorny heist thriller 'Widows' is made for multiplexes, not art houses.

Steve McQueen strolls down London’s Portobello Road, past a diner where he once took breaks from managing a used-clothing store; alongside the Electric Cinema, the venerable art house theater where, long before he dreamed of making movies, he binged on the films of Francois Truffaut, Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien; then down a side street and near a nondescript restaurant that was once the celebrated Mangrove cafe, where a plaque boasts the names of the artists who gathered here — Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix, among others — whom the young McQueen might have fantasized about joining, had he not been a poor black boy with dyslexia and a lazy eye and not a hope in hell.

It’s been decades since McQueen, 49, left these mean streets of London, where he spent the first five years of his life in a neighborhood just a stone’s throw from here, riddled with drug dealers and dropouts, before his family fled to suburban Ealing. That was a few notches higher up the social ladder but hardly more propitious for the son of struggling West Indian immigrants, a nurse and construction worker, originally from Trinidad and Grenada. One can only imagine the Herculean will it took to leapfrog those barriers and reach the pinnacle of the London art scene, let alone become the producer-director of 2013’s best picture Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave.

“If you’re poor, if you’re working class, no one’s going to make an effort,” he says as he leads this reporter on a tour of his childhood haunts. “I was bright, I was intelligent, so that was the thing. But at the same time, if you’re poor, no one’s going to bother figuring stuff out. Just throw it on a pile.”

That sense of injustice he felt viscerally as a child, in an England steeped in racism and classism, fuels the director’s new film, Widows, an ensemble thriller led by Viola Davis about four struggling, bereaved women in Chicago who team up to stage a heist after their criminal husbands are killed in a shootout. Spending months in the U.S. shooting his fifth feature, he was disappointed to find a country altered from the one he grew up loving. “I’m a huge fan of America,” he says. “It’s all about yes rather than no. So to have a guy in the White House who’s all about saying no is odd.”

Speaking of that nexus where racism and poverty intersect, especially in Chicago, he says: “It’s gotten worse, hasn’t it? The economic situation goes hand in hand with racist outbursts. Everything’s political; policing is politicized. Everything is interlocked and it has to be untangled. It’s very similar to how I grew up, but in Chicago it’s amplified.”

After making three movies back to back in five years and an HBO pilot that never went to series, McQueen devoted much of his time prior to Widows to his art, buying a new house and raising children, before collaborating with writer Gillian Flynn on the new film. The Fox movie opens Nov. 16, having drawn a strong response at the London and Toronto film festivals.

It’s a change in genre for a director who’s specialized in art house pictures such as 2008’s Hunger (about an imprisoned Irish hunger striker) and 2011’s Shame (about sexual addiction), and is now swinging for the rafters with this sleek, box-office-friendly drama. But the concerns that moved him in those films move him still.

“These women have been judged by their appearance and the fact that they were deemed as not being capable,” he says. “I was having the same sort of gaze put on me.”

Based on a British miniseries from 1983, which affected McQueen profoundly when he saw it as a teenager, the movie went through a number of permutations (Jennifer Lawrence was meant to star, but scheduling conflicts got in the way) before coming together with Davis at the head of an ensemble that includes Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Liam Neeson and Robert Duvall. The $40 million-plus picture was filmed over three months in Chicago in the spring and summer of 2017, with a relatively trouble-free shoot, except for an incident when a grip was hit by a car and broke his leg. But McQueen challenged his cast to go deeper emotionally than most heist movies require.

“He sees the parts of you that nobody else sees,” says Davis. “I’m more introverted. I’m more closed down and probably shy — for lack of a better term, feminine. [But] probably people see more of the testosterone in me. It’s those things you hide that he notices — not only notices but [coaxes] out of you.” The actress was struck by his refusal to glamorize her. “If you’re here to play a lead character in a movie, there’s got to be a look and you’ve got to be pretty,” she says. “You’ve got to sort of assimilate and have a more crossover appeal — straight hair, a more European look. But Steve said: ‘I want you to wear your [real] hair because that woman exists. She never gets introduced in the American cinema. It’s time we introduced her.'”

Widows may introduce McQueen to a new audience, as well, after a career of largely limited releases; his biggest hit, 12 Years, earned $188 million worldwide, but his other films all made less than $20 million. “I want to engage with a wider, broader public,” he says. “If you want real change, you have to engage with the people you’re making films about. But I’m not lowering my political, intellectual engagement. I’m rising toward something, not lowering.”

He says all this with a conviction that eliminates doubt. Uncertainty, insecurity — these are banished from his vocabulary. One wonders if he’s quite as convinced as he appears. Only his peculiar speech pattern, stopping and starting, painting over the canvas he has just painted in a verbal pentimento, suggests a greater hesitancy than he lets on.

Raised in a multicultural environment, the son of two immigrants, he was held back by his reading troubles. At first he says he felt “stupid,” then strikes that. “What did I honestly think? I — I — was embarrassed. Through no fault of my own, I was seen as someone who was going to be doing manual labor or as a person who was not good academically. You get an idea of where you stand in the world. That’s how it is.” Then he reconsiders. “I never thought I was anything other than brilliant,” he says, as if adding a final brush stroke to his work. “I wish I could say differently. I could always draw. I had imagination. My imagination was never hindered by the fact of my reading being bad. Never, never.”

Thanks to his talent for drawing, he managed to find his way to a local college, but few expected him to emerge as an art-world rock star. “My whole life has been people underestimating me and me transcending those expectations,” he says. “So I’m cool. I’m used to it.” Art school was a liberation. “I was a pig in shit. This is where I was supposed to be. Oh my God, I was home.”

After a stint at the Chelsea College of Arts, McQueen graduated with First Class Honors from Goldsmiths, part of the University of London. He had a brief, desultory time studying film at New York University (“People didn’t know who Cezanne was — I mean, come on”) and returned to London, where he worked as a cashier at Marks & Spencer before receiving his first art commissions.

At age 30 he stunned the establishment by winning the prestigious Turner Prize, a $60,000 award given to a British artist under the age of 50, for works like 1993’s Bear, a 10-minute black-and-white film with two men engaged in what might be a brawl but might alternatively be an expression of affection; and 1997’s Deadpan, a four-minute film that re-creates a famous Buster Keaton short. He has broken barriers fearlessly. “Fear is never going to go away, so you’ve got to make it [something positive],” he says. “It’s almost like walking with a limp. ‘OK, I’m walking with a limp now, but guess what? I’m going to keep on walking.'”

And yet winning the Turner didn’t give McQueen the rush he might have expected. “I wasn’t [happy],” he reflects. “I didn’t enjoy it. I don’t know why.” He ponders. “I could have done better work. You always want to improve. But I’ve learned to enjoy things a little bit more. I’m happier now than I have ever been. I wouldn’t want to be twenty-fucking-one again, that’s for sure.”

In 2007, he was contacted by the U.K.’s Channel 4, which offered to finance a low-budget feature with a grant of £900,000 ($1.3 million). McQueen had one in mind: the story of the Irish Republican Army’s Bobby Sands, variously perceived as a terrorist or freedom fighter, who was incarcerated in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland, where his hunger strike culminated in his death in 1981. A casting director introduced him to Michael Fassbender.

“From our first meeting, I knew that he was a complete original,” says the actor, who has starred in three of McQueen’s films. “He was on another level. But he needed some convincing [to cast Fassbender]. He thought I was kind of cocky. So I went in a second time. He hired me pretty quickly after that and we became sort of family.”

Hunger was followed by Shame, then 12 Years a Slave, the story of the real-life Solomon Northup that won the Oscar for best picture. “[They tell you] movies starring black protagonists don’t make money abroad,” notes McQueen, ferociously competitive. “And then of course it made $56 million in domestic-plus. We made $25 million-plus on [domestic] DVD sales that year — we exceeded our year’s expectation of DVD sales in one week.”

An hour into our stroll, McQueen pauses in front of a 24-story apartment building that rises from rows of brick houses. This is the Grenfell Tower, the infamous apartment building that went up in flames last year, its burned-out core wrapped in a plastic sheath. McQueen is making it the center of a new artwork that will involve filming the structure from a circling helicopter. He wears a green wristband signaling support for one of the nonprofits that raises money for the victims.

There’s no trace of the conflagration that took 72 lives — and more, McQueen believes, because so many of the people who lived here were indigent or undocumented. The only hint of tragedy comes from the victims’ photos that stare at him from a chain-link fence where they’ve been lined up in a makeshift memorial to the dead. McQueen studies the lineup in silence.

“It’s heavy, heavy,” he says.

McQueen isn’t light. Interesting, yes. Provocative, definitely. Often touching. But he smiles infrequently, never cracks a joke, doesn’t bother with small talk. He keeps his emotion folded up inside, behind a carapace that’s accrued layers over the years. People who know him well, like Fassbender, describe the laughs they’ve shared; but his seriousness is more striking.

Just like that first notable artwork of his, Bear, which straddled a troubling line between the violent and the erotic, one senses a tautness within him. “There’s a certain kind of tension there,” he notes of his short film, “because obviously it’s two males, two black males. I wanted to explore that, the whole shebang, the whole love/hate. Trying to basically cover all the emotions with two people of the same sex, a similar weight, so you have this tension.”

There’s a different tension in McQueen. “He’s a combination of the masculine and the feminine peacefully coexisting together,” says Davis. “He’s a very sensitive man. At the same time, he is a man. He is very masculine. He’s very much in control.”

Away from the set, however, he remains an outsider, living in quasi-exile in Amsterdam, far from the international watering holes of the rich and famous. He’s married to Bianca Stigter — a Dutch historian who’s now writing a book on Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation — whom he met at a soccer match when he was 27. They have a 20-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son.

“It was love at first sight,” he says, suddenly allowing emotion to slip through. “She’s the most intelligent person I know: She found the book 12 Years a Slave.”

Is she nurturing? He laughs raucously. “Hell, no!”

Asked if his family objected to his marrying a white woman, he dismisses the thought: “In the West Indies, everyone is mixed. My great-great-grandfather was Scottish. Weird but true.” Through a family member, McQueen has traced some of his ancestors back to Ghana but knows little about specific individuals. “Up to a point, when someone dies, that’s it, their memory is gone,” he says. It both troubles and reassures him. Life may be evanescent, but then: “What’s the worst that can happen to you? You’re going to die anyway, so just go for it.”

Despite his love of art, he neither collects it nor displays it at home. He mentions David Hammons and Felix Gonzalez-Torres as artists he especially admires. But possessing one of their pieces? Not for him. “I don’t like owning,” he says. “I don’t like distractions. I can’t deal with all that shit. The two things I ever wanted to get out of this life were shelter and to be able to afford any book I wanted.”

Books, he says, are everywhere in his Amsterdam home: on shelves, on the ground, in the studio where he spends most of his day, thinking. Other possessions, he avoids.

He shares his wife’s social circle, but has few people he genuinely deems friends. He turns his head away as he reflects on this, then suddenly snaps it back. He has a habit of glancing to one side as if lost in thought, then swooping in, like a hawk or a prizefighter. “I’m not — I’m not very friendly,” he admits. “All my friends, I can count on one hand and take away maybe one or two fingers, and that’s enough.”

Hours later, McQueen arrives in the West End, where he walks up a narrow flight of stairs and into an almost-empty gallery. This is as far removed from Grenfell as Beverly Hills is from Watts. The walls are whitewashed, the floors hardwood and bare.

A prison bed stands alone in the center of the room, a metal frame with no mattress, stained after years of use, draped with a mosquito net made of 24-carat gold. This is McQueen’s latest sculpture, Weight. The work is part of a broader project with multiple artists, inspired by the prison in Reading, England, where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated for sodomy. More than a century later, the crime still horrifies him.

It’s only when he considers it that he truly lets his feelings overpower him. Visiting the prison, he says, he was overwhelmed with emotion and when he left, he couldn’t hold it in.

“It’s almost like you absorb all of that loneliness, all that pain, you absorb all of that energy and the desperation,” he says. “And I was on the train, going home and I just burst into tears. That was heavy. I didn’t even cry at my father’s funeral. But I burst into tears.”

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This story first appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.