All Hail Lashana Lynch

The Woman King actor has made a career playing fighters and warriors. Next up? Showing her softer side.

The actor Lashana Lynch has a calling to nurture, mentor, and inspire. She’s not sure when it started, but it’s something she feels in her blood. “I have a deep need to take care of young girls,” she tells me over a late breakfast at the Toronto International Film Festival. “I feel like if my hands and my arms were big enough, I’d just want to scoop them all up and put them in one place and have a big sisterly chat. Because I’m not able to do that, I try to inject as much care and attention and love in my work.”

So she played fighter pilot Maria Rambeau, a single mother who can take to the skies, in Captain Marvel. In the latest Bond film, No Time to Die, she was Nomi, the new 007 who replaces Daniel Craig’s superspy and refuses to let him walk all over her when he returns from retirement.

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And now, in The Woman King, she’s Izogie, a member of the Agojie, a fearsome group of African warriors. Viewers first meet Izogie midbattle, sticking her clawlike nails into an enemy’s eyes. Beyond her prowess in combat, she’s also a blistering wisecracker who trains a group of new recruits with equal toughness and empathy. It’s the perfect role for Lynch. “I cannot relate to having a dagger in my chest. I cannot relate to wielding a machete,” she says. “However, I can relate to turning my trauma into beauty, and channeling it into physical work, and throwing yourself into really taking care of young people, especially young Black girls who aspire to be something great.”

Directed by Love & Basketball’s Gina Prince-Bythewood and starring Viola Davis, who also produces, The Woman King is a period action epic with Black women at its center. Set in 1823 in the West African kingdom of Dahomey, The Woman King finds Davis as the Agojie general Nanisca, protecting her realm and challenging its leader (John Boyega) for his participation in the slave trade. Lynch’s Izogie, Nanisca’s loyal lieutenant, is a richly textured character: As a girl, her mother tried to sell her virginity, and she channels that hurt into terrifying her enemies and nurturing her pupils. Even if she hadn’t been cast in the film, Lynch tells me, she would have been glad the role just exists.

“Every time you play a role, it’s like a little part of you is given over, and I don’t want to know that that’s done in vain.”

But Lynch’s presence is the reason Izogie is a standout. Prince-Bythewood kept building the role to celebrate the spirit Lynch brought to set. “I wanted to write more for her,” the director tells me. “I wanted to give her more. I wanted to keep building Izogie to honor how dope Lashana is.”

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That dopeness is obvious when I sit down with Lynch the day before The Woman King premieres at TIFF in a sterile, windowless, room at the Ritz-Carlton. Lynch enters with exuberance, dressed in Prada for a day of press — a yellow blouse and black skirt — with terry cloth slippers on her feet. She unnecessarily apologizes for eating during our talk and offers me a potato off her plate. (She’s been raving about the potatoes.)

I ask her how long she’s been in Toronto, and she in turn asks me what day it is. “I’m so serious,” she says. She’s basically nomadic, going wherever her work takes her. “I might as well live in Toronto now,” she says. “I’m everywhere. I’ve been everywhere for a good few years.”

“I’m so glad I don’t have to prove my physical strength to the industry. However, I’m delicate. I don’t want to be strong all the time. I shouldn’t need to.”

Lynch was raised in London, the child of Jamaican immigrants with “very strong Jamaican family values,” which she says means “that we’re outspoken and we have good attitude, and we have a different level of strength that I still don’t quite understand.” She fell in love with performing in primary school, where the head teacher, a Black woman, cast her as the titular role in Pinocchio. “And I was like, ‘Of course, I am. That makes complete sense,’” she says. “Then I got older and realized that that wasn’t normal.”

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After attending drama school at Arts Educational Schools in London, Lynch worked in theater and British television but struggled to find her place. She felt she was languishing at the bottom of call sheets and was desperate to be seen as lead material. “I’d see people every so often be like, ‘I saw you in that BBC show; I really wish you’d come back,’” she recalls. “And I’m like, ‘I really wish that the industry would see me as how my family see me, and that’s not happening right now.’” Show business did not always have the imagination her teacher did. “This industry is not set up for women who look like me, and that’s why I take the responsibility of making the right choices really seriously,” she continues. “Because I care about my family, I care about my culture, and I’m giving parts of myself to my work. Every time you play a role, it’s like a little part of you is given over, and I don’t want to know that that’s done in vain.”

So she did what she has always done: She manifested a change. The practice started when she was young. “One set of grandparents had a three-story townhouse in London at a time when Black people didn’t own anything like that,” she says. “They had their own business. They were pillars of the community. And I thought in order to get this — this is my child brain — there has to be a certain level of manifestation or else how does it just come about? It’s not just hard work. It can’t be. There must be something else that, again, in my child brain, magics it up.” She started out small, like, one day she was running late for school and wished for a bus to appear and it did. But it’s something she’s kept up, even as she’s entered the world of Marvel and Bond: envisioning the place she wants to occupy in her profession and making that happen.

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No Time to Die marked a turning point. “You’re not going to turn down a Bond role,” she says. “You’re just not going to look it in the face and question it.” But the further she got in her career, she learned that pursuing strong female characters could be its own kind of box. “When I got to Marvel onwards, I saw that the industry viewed me as this really strong, powerful, commanding person who can take on these roles any day. And that’s really, really nice. I’m so glad I don’t have to prove my physical strength to the industry,” she says. “However, I’m delicate. I don’t want to be strong all the time. I shouldn’t need to. And I want to show the world a side that I’ve been yearning for, which is delicacy and rawness and heart-on-sleeve — being a woman in all facets.”

That’s why she jumped at the opportunity to be the meek school teacher Miss Honey in the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, coming out later this year. Lynch calls the character an “emotional wreck,” but Miss Honey is familiar in other ways: She, of course, encourages Matilda to embrace her love of reading when others around her deny her that curiosity. Like so many of the women Lynch plays, she is another kind of nurturer.

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Prince-Bythewood knew she wanted to work with Lynch after hearing her speak as an honoree at the 2020 Essence Black Women in Hollywood Awards. In her funny, emotional speech, Lynch described how her upbringing set her up for her future, and how she wants her legacy to resonate. “It was not just who she was and how she presented herself, but what kind of work she wanted to do,” Prince-Bythewood says. “What kind of work she wanted to put into the world.” To land the role of Izogie, Lynch didn’t even have to audition. She just met with Prince-Bythewood, and they found a quick connection. The part was hers.

“This industry is not set up for women who look like me, and that’s why I take the responsibility of making the right choices really seriously.”

Since the director wanted her actors to perform their own stunts, Lynch worked closely with trainer Gabriela Mclain and stunt coordinator Daniel Hernandez. “To get up and go to the gym every single day can be really traumatizing,” she says, laughing. For two weeks, while she was still shooting Matilda, she would go to the gym after wrapping at 6 p.m. and work for another three to four hours. She continued her routine while in Los Angeles shooting her cameo in Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and then tried to keep it all up while she went on the No Time to Die press tour. It wasn’t exactly fun, but it was crucial to unlocking Izogie. “It was truly the physical training that got me in the space where I was even able to figure out how I train the recruits,” she says. “What would the morning routine be like? How does she put herself aside in order to inject life into these young girls?”

Izogie had a couple of lines in Dana Stevens’ script that were amusing, but Lynch brought a sardonic sparkle to the character that surprised Prince-Bythewood. “I didn’t want the young girls to be afraid of Izogie, but I wanted them to fear her just enough that they flinch somewhat when she passes them by,” Lynch says. “I found that humor was the best way to go with that, because they’re children and she sees a little bit of herself in them.” That combo of intensity and playfulness particularly impressed her co-star Davis. “I felt that she was a great combination of strong exterior, but sensitive heart,” Davis says. “She was a grounding force for me and my five months in South Africa.” She calls Lynch a “true sister and partner.”

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For Lynch, while The Woman King shoot was incredibly demanding — and at times waylaid by COVID — she describes it as one of the most comfortable working environments she’s ever been in simply because she was surrounded by Black women like Davis and Prince-Bythewood as well as department heads like costume designer Gersha Phillips. “It just meant that I didn’t have to explain myself,” she says. “I didn’t have to explain why this thing in the script doesn’t make sense to a Black woman. Or as a dark-skinned woman, if the scene is set in a corner, how are we going to light it? Will you see me? There’s all these conversations that I didn’t have to have that made me so relaxed.”

It also clarified where she wants to go in the future. She lights up, smiling down at her plate of eggs, when talking about her next project: Playing Rita Marley in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Bob Marley biopic, a role that hits close to home to her as a Jamaican. “Literally the queen of Jamaica,” she jokes. Her mother screamed on the phone when she told her she’d booked the gig. Some of her family, she says, can’t even quite comprehend just how this came to be. “For my career to take me full circle back to my culture, I think it’s a little bit mad for my family,” she says.

And a little bit mad for Lynch, who in all her years of manifesting never quite imagined a role that could mean this much to her. “The Woman King is one for us, us, us. The Black diaspora,” she says. “This is specifically one for me.”

Top Image Credits: Balenciaga clothing and boots, Dinosaur Designs jewelry

Photographer: Christian Cody

Stylist: Tiffany Reid

Set Designer: Griffin Stoddard

Hair: Cynthia Alvarez

Makeup: Christine Cherbonnier

Manicure: Lolly Koon

Production: Kiara Brown

Talent Bookings: Special Projects

Video: Marshall Stief

Associate Creative Director, Video: Samuel Schultz