SAG Awards nominee profile: Viola Davis (‘The Woman King’) would set record with win

In the 28-year history of the Screen Actors Guild Awards, only one performer has nabbed three lead statuettes for film: Daniel Day-Lewis, who prevailed for “Gangs of New York” (2002), “There Will Be Blood” (2007) and “Lincoln” (2012). But he might soon have to share that title with none other than the queen of the SAG Awards herself, Viola Davis, who previously won for “The Help” (2011) and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020), and is now looking to, uh, get away with that record-tying third victory with “The Woman King.”

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and inspired by real events, “The Woman King” is about an elite military unit of all-female warriors called the Agojie that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey in the 18th and 19th centuries. Set in 1823, the historical epic stars Davis as Nanisca, a feared but revered seasoned warrior and the Agojie’s commander-in-chief who has quietly risen in the ranks to a level of power. In addition to being a trusted advisor to King Ghezo (John Boyega), she is responsible for training the next generation of warriors — a task she carries out with intense earnestness, showing no leniency to those who misbehave.

SEE Will Viola Davis (‘The Woman King’) maintain her SAG Awards record?

Just like Nanisca reigns over her coterie of soldiers, Davis reigns over the SAG Awards. The now 11-time nominee has famously converted five of her six individual nominations into victories, winning also in supporting for “Fences” (2016) and twice on the TV side for “How to Get Away with Murder” (2015-16). The only time she didn’t come away victorious was on her inaugural bid, which she earned for her 10-minute performance in “Doubt” (2008) in supporting. She also has an ensemble win for “The Help” and noms for “Doubt,” “Fences” and “Ma Rainey.”

A victory for “The Woman King” would certainly go a long way in further cementing Davis as the ultimate queen of the SAG Awards. But in order to attain it, she’ll have to put up a fight. In the competitive Best Film Actress category, she is up against another guild fave, 18-time nominee Cate Blanchett (“TÁR”), who has three wins under her belt: one as a member of the ensemble of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003) and two solo statuettes for “The Aviator” (2004) and “Blue Jasmine” (2013). Also nominated are Michelle Yeoh (“Everything Everywhere All At Once”), who is celebrating her maiden individual bid but is a previous nominee as a member of the “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018) ensemble, and complete first-timers Ana de Armas (“Blonde”) and Danielle Deadwyler (“Till”). Of this group, Davis and Yeoh are the only two contenders whose films received nominations in at least one other category — “The Woman King” in stunt ensemble and “Everything Everywhere” in film ensemble, supporting actress (Jamie Lee Curtis and Stephanie Hsu) and supporting actor (Ke Huy Quan).

While a corresponding ensemble nomination for her movie would have given Davis an extra boost, she can definitely pull off a victory without it. An old-school crowd-pleaser bolstered by great box office returns, stellar audience reception and glowing reviews, “The Woman King” is probably one of few contending movies that many, if not most, of SAG-AFTRA’s 160,000-plus members have actually seen, and boasts a one-of-a-kind turn from Davis. In order to look like a battle-scarred warrior and perform her own stunts, the 57-year-old actor had to follow an intense workout routine and a strict nutritional plan in the months leading up to and during production. This commitment combined with Davis’ layered character work in the film makes for an impressive accomplishment that her peers in the guild might want to acknowledge.

SEE Viola Davis (‘The Woman King’) extends record as most nominated Black actress at BAFTA Film Awards

Her biggest hurdle is that she is one of two nominees in the category, the other being Deadwyler, who did not land an Academy Award nomination for her film. Or is it? While it hasn’t happened in Best Actress yet, this wouldn’t be the first instance in which sympathy for an Oscar snubbee translated into a victory at the SAG Awards (see: Emily Blunt winning Best Supporting Actress for 2018’s “A Quiet Place” after being overlooked for both that and “Mary Poppins Returns” in Best Actress at the Oscars). “The Woman King’s” complete shutout from this year’s Oscar noms has made headline after headline after headline and could very well spur voters to go to bat for the film at upcoming awards. Since there are only few occasions at which Davis, who has already lost the Critics Choice and Golden Globe Awards to Blanchett, can still reign triumphant, don’t be surprised if SAG-AFTRA members bow down to the woman king herself to ensure her crowning achievement doesn’t go unrecognized.

This article is a part of Gold Derby’s “SAG Awards nominee profile” series spotlighting the 2023 contenders in film and TV.

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