“The Woman King” stars the inimitable Viola Davis as Naniska, but the studios being what they are, wanted another big name to play her spiritual leader Amenza.
But then director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s editor Terrilyn Shropshire told her about Sheila Atim, who was in another film, Halle Berry’s “Bruised.”
“Terrylyn said, ‘I found your Amenza,'” Prince-Bythewood recalled. He saw a first cut and was so impressed that he arranged a meeting with Atim. Personally, he was impressed by the Ugandan British actor’s “essence”.
“He was so different from his character – it showed me his chops,” says Prince-Bythewood. “He’s funny and has warmth and depth.”
After an audition, Prince-Bythewood knew Shropshire was right and Berry allowed her to use some scenes from her as-yet-unreleased movie to convince executives.
Then, once filming began, Amenza’s role continued to grow. “It became ‘How much more can I give to Sheila because she makes everything better,’ ” Prince-Bythewood says. “Sheila’s reaction can change a scene. We often cut him even though he had no dialogue.
Prince-Bythewood also highlights Atim’s work ethic, a trait that becomes quickly 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 used to drill wherever I was,” Atim says, about preparing to do all his own stunts. “We all trained in our off-hours, going to the gym. It was an immersive experience. I would take my practice spear home and even use it in the kitchen, cracking glasses.”
Atim said preparation was key because every time he felt comfortable, the fight coordinator would take on the challenge “and learning in the gym is one thing but then you have to go into the sand barefoot with floor angles and spears. Not heavy and smooth.”
Each character’s fighting style was tailored to their body type and personality, but Amenza was unique in that he was also a spiritual leader, so Atim Dove understood that aspect of his character.
“I wanted to understand the spiritual practice and marry the two sides,” she says. “This duality attracted me to the role.”
He learned from talking to a Vodun expert in Benin that “Vodoun is not a pacifist religion—it embraces death and the afterlife and self-sacrifice,” which enabled him to reconcile his two sides and influence his war in a “righteous cause” style. A Shaolin monk. (At the end, however, when Izogi — a more traditional warrior played by Lashana Lynch — is killed, Amenza takes on some of his 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 the practical questions about the pervasive existential threat of the slave trade and what it means to go against the king to find “the layers below to fill in a character’s backstory so I can give each a different shade” that often comes up. From a conversation with Prince-Bythewood how Amenza came to Naniska’s side and became both a warrior and a spiritual leader. “But I still try to be guided by the script so I don’t get overwhelmed by too much information.”
A secret weapon for her in “Woman King” was that she had many scenes with Davis. “He’s very giving and generous and thinks of it as a collaboration,” Atim said “You see him working on the scene alongside you, which demystifies things but he’s incredibly thorough and forensic. It was very inspiring to see him and so I partook of that, which helped me dig deeper into Amenga.”