Producer Paul Schiff "had been preparing Proud Mary for a number of years.
characters are rich and nuanced-this is not a cookie-cutter action movie," he
says. "We first
meet Mary as she prepares for an assignment-she's dressed to kill. The moment
she fulfills her
mission, she assumes that she's done for the day, but Mary suddenly realizes
that a 12-year old
boy is also in the apartment. Because he is sitting in his room with headphones
on oblivious to
her presence and the killing, she sneaks out of the apartment, but she is deeply
affected by seeing
that young boy. It's an act that changes her completely. We next meet Mary a
year later at the
moment she intervenes in this young boy's now terribly troubled life and she
literally picks him
up off the street unconscious. We soon realize that she's been keeping the boy,
surveillance that whole year-and the relationship that shapes our story begins."
Boiled down to its core, its star, Taraji P. Henson believes that "the basic
story is about
what do humans do when we're forced to make a change in life and to make the
better our lives?"
"Proud Mary started out as an English crime drama set in London," notes
I'm really happy with how it's evolved and developed and am thrilled that we got
Taraji as Mary.
I have always been fascinated by movies like Gloria and The Professional that
present how a
hard-bitten woman's new relationship with a young child changes her life. In
Mary's case, her
new life with Danny triggers a war with another crime family and leads to her
attempt to leave
her own family-which seemed like a really fascinating situation."
"Saving him is a great act of restitutionâ€“and through this act of
selflessness she's found a
way to save her own self," notes Producer Tai Duncan. "But after Mary takes
Danny off the
streets she finds herself in some serious trouble with two very dangerous crime
families [her own
(the Spencers) and their competition (the Kozlovs)]. And it's not going to be
easy for her!"
"The song 'Proud Mary' is about a paddle wheeler that keeps on rolling down
Mississippi," observes Danny Glover, who plays mob boss Benny Spencer, "but it's
the strength of women. In the movie, Proud Mary, this very strong woman is an
integral part of
a family and the film is about the conditioning that goes on within the family
and the roles that
each of its members play in making the family function. Now this is a mob
family, have no
doubt about that; the family demands respect and the cohesiveness of the family
is paramount to
its success-you don't leave the family, you don't get out of the family. There's
a code of
honor even if their greatest weapon is violence and death."
The Mary we first meet is a cold, brilliant professional. "With her enormous
bring about destruction and death almost without conscience, she could be James
observes Danny Glover, whose character Benny brought Mary into the Spencer
(professionally and personally) and trained her as a child. "And she could have
been an agent.
She has all the equipment, the technique and mental acumen to do that work."
"Mary is a complicated, hardened criminal," adds producer Tai Duncan. "Smart
efficient, she's found a way to survive in a very male world. Her ability comes
intelligence, preparation and being able to adjust on the fly (in many ways
she's more dangerous
than the men she works with). But I think she's come to believe that there can
be more to
having a life away from the family-it's not something that she has acted on
yet-and it's only
through finding Danny and embracing unrecognized emotions that she comes to
that her time to leave is now."
"Like Danny, Mary was forced by circumstances to take on this life," adds
Schiff. "As a child she'd been picked up off the street and trained to kill. The
only love that she
has ever really known is from this dark, criminal family that cared for her in
return for her
services as an assassin-and as she gets older that perverse relationship
"This is a person absolutely numb to life, to love, who is finally awakened,"
P. Henson. "We're so quick as humans to write people off: 'Oh, that person's
bad,' after they did
one thing-well, with Mary, you can't say one thing," she laughs. "But there was
this part of life
to which she was blind. It's rough out here and sometimes we don't make right
of our circumstances, the cards we were dealt. Here we have a human just trying
to make the best
of a bad situation and you've got to give her credit for that. You see a killer
become a human.
Blood starts to pump through her veins-that's what you see in Mary. You're
transformation, which is what really what intrigued me, because it's not, simply
'Hey, I'm out
here just killing people looking badass.' I don't ever want to glorify killing
people. Babak, our
director, was very clear about being careful with the images that we are
whenever you play a character that picks up a gun, you're playing God, right?
And I take that
very seriously. So we took great care in how we portrayed these characters."
A NEW TARAJI
Known for portraying characters as diverse as the brilliant, stalwart
Katherine Johnson in
Hidden Figures and the brilliantly tenacious Cookie Lyon on Empire, Taraji P.
how she "grabbed the chance to play Mary. I don't want to repeat characters,"
she says. "I
played a sniper and cops and detectives, but I never played a hit woman-and
different. Mary is a close-range, hired killer-she's not ex-military or a street
thug. In an
elevator she might be all 'Hi, how are you? Those are nice shoes. Have a great
day,' and five
steps out the building it's pop, pop," she laughs. "It's fun and it's very
different because people
always see me as nurturing and natural. This woman knows nothing about
she ends up with this kid.
"Taraji is fantastic in the role," lauds producer Paul Schiif. "She's so
feisty, funny and
powerful and she's just a really fine actress. Even though I've been working on
this script and
thinking about this character for a long time, during production I had the
pleasure of being
surprised every day by her interpretation of Mary-fresh, entertaining and
surprising and always
with a real beat on her humanity. I hope her fans see a version of Taraji that
they didn't expect,
especially if they come in thinking they knew everything they could know. Part
of the balance of
the movie comes from believing that this character really walks in the
world-that it's not
complete fantasy, and Taraji plays Mary in a way that you believe that this
isn't an action figure
kind of role, some paramilitary fantasy. She's a real person picked up off the
street and trained
to kill, but she doesn't have super powers. She's not flying on a wire and doing
things that defy
"This role is so different from anything she's ever done," notes Jahi Di'Allo
who plays Danny, "but if you look at her career from Baby Boy to Empire-all of
the roles that
she's chosen to play are so completely different. Her career is just very smart.
bringing everything to the table with Mary's strength and vulnerability and
what's so interesting
about Taraji is that she could be crying and bawling in a scene and the next
running around the set, doing something crazy. She's just really fun to watch,
but she always
tells me to never study her (because she's so rambunctious). We have a unique
won't say, 'you're so good, so talented,' but she will tell me 'you did really
yesterday' only after we wrap-because she's afraid I'll get too much of a big
"Taraji has this terrific energy," says Margaret Avery, "I like the fact that
We see that in Empire-everybody's in love with Cookie. But her characterization
of Mary is
different, because she gets pretty cold in this. I like seeing a woman play a
different role, the
way men do, and Taraji makes this nice transition-revealing the vulnerable,
sensitive part of the
character. I don't think we've seen that tough gun-packing woman since Pam
Grier. From my
era, I can compare Mary to Pam Grier-tough, sexy and lethal.
MARY'S ACCOUTREMENTS (HER CLOSET, DISGUISES, CAR AND WEAPONS)
Key elements of Mary's profession and character are defined by where she
she drives and how she displays and deploys the clothes, wigs and weapons
secured in her closet.
"Mary has lots of designer gear, bags, shoes, wigs. She drives a Maserati and
lives in a huge
loft. I mean that can't be cheap, right? She's very swaggy," laughs Henson. "And
works she puts on different things for different jobs-she has to become like
Doctor Jekyll and
"She's a chameleon who needs to be different people at different times in her
life in order
to survive," observes producer Tai Duncan. "So the wardrobe represents different
armor needed for her to go out and protect herself from the world and do what
she does. But she
also has great flair for individuality."
"Her closet has seven big full-length cabinets designed for handbags, dresses
gowns, hats and wigs with a center pane," says production designer Carl Sprague,
mysteriously opens revealing her armory-a lethal arsenal behind the bobby pins,
"Mary's arsenal are the tools of her trade," notes producer Tai Duncan. "Like
has a scalpel, this is no different-she picks the tool that she needs at any
given time to achieve
the results that she's looking for."
Not only does Mary possess these weapons, her profession requires that she
precisely how to use them. "When we were preparing the movie I asked Taraji
about her gun
experience," remembers producer Paul Schiff. "'We'll have a trainer,' I said,
'and we'll have
time for you to go to the range and get familiar with the weapons.' And she said
'Oh, I got this."
I thought, okay, I hope so," he laughs, "but it turned out that she really does
know her stuff-
which made the gun play impressive but also very real."
"I'm well-versed in guns," confirms Henson. "I shoot a lot. I go to this gun
played cops, detectives, a lot of characters that shoot guns-and now a hit
woman. What Woody
[Wdowin, the film's armourer] really respected about me is that I'm very much
'safety first.' I
would never point even a rubber gun at the crew. And when Woody gave me the real
and it's cold-meaning there are no bullets in it-I would not point it even in
when it's time to play. So Woody loved that. And whenever they yelled, 'Cut,' my
down, because even though we're playing make believe, that thing is very real."
"Mary had weapons in her hand at a much earlier age than most people who use
says armourer Woody Wdowin. "She is a trained assassin brought up by this crime
she knows what she's doing, and her agility and relatively small frame [compared
to other people
involved in shootouts] help explain why these guys are missing her with their
and she's accurately hitting them (she's fast and can hide behind small
objects). The amount of
knowledge that Taraji brought to this movie was exceptional. As we worked
together her ability
to learn was amazing and we felt very comfortable right from the beginning
having her handle
the weapons. She didn't need much training with the handguns, but we did set
aside a day to
prepare with the blank fully automatic weapons used in the big shootout scene."
"There's a lot of great action in Proud Mary and it's all about how Mary's
enables her to go about her business-how she's able to get in and out of
situations with stealth
and precision," notes Schiff. "She can be incredibly potent and incredibly
lethal without flying
through the air, twisting and firing in 360 degrees. Seeing Taraji in that mode,
intense, allows audiences to believe that the action is really happening and not
popcorn action. It makes for a very exciting film. "
"She takes on everybody-the Koslovs, the Spencers-her own mob family-to save
herself and this boy. It's either them or her-you see a human at her limit,"
"The big action finale reflects the culmination of Mary's experience with this
says Duncan. "Every instinct that she's inherited, every skill that she's honed
comes to play in
this moment where she comes back to the nest and confronts the people who have
for so many years."
"When I first got the script, Mary drove a beat-up Jaguar. I remember getting
while I was doing Empire, and I was like, my Maserati?" laughs Henson. "And
there were also
more action scenes. Running? You saw Hidden Figures, huh? At least I don't have
on heels this
"In many ways Mary's car [a 2017 Maserati Quattroporte] is connected to her
notes Duncan. "It's kind of an outward version of her and her persona, so it's
vast, it's sexy, it's
powerful and it's dangerous."
"Usually when actors are behind the wheel we get them out of that situation
as fast as we
can," says Schiff, cautiously. "Between takes we back up the car for them and
reset it in
position. But Taraji just did not want to get out of that Maserati. She's
resetting herself and
driving into position very happily at the wheel. And she's a great driver."
"If you're driving a Maserati, you better look like you know what you're
Henson. "I learned how to drive on pickup trucks, so cars are nothing to me. I
took my driver's
test in a 1970-something lime-green Bonneville. You know how big those are? It's
like an 18-
wheeler. I backed that baby up in parallel park. I aced that test."
Danny is the boy Mary unintentionally orphans at the beginning of the film
and we soon
learn that his young life has spiraled out of control. "When we meet Danny, he's
jeopardy," says Schiff. "He's a street kid, surviving by his wits and street
smarts, but he's really
Jahi Di'Allo Winston points out that "the audience is really introduced to
The first time he is in his room playing video games unaware of what just took
place in the
apartment. The next time we meet him, he's toughened up-he's had to withstand a
one of those kids that experience what some adults don't even go through at 45
or 50 years old.
So when Mary, this woman, suddenly shows up he doesn't know whether to say thank
take his stuff and just run. I think that the reason he stays is because he
doesn't have anywhere to
go. He thinks, 'she's overprotective. She lies to me. But she's my only way
"When Mary finds Danny he has a busted head, blood on the back of his shirt,"
Henson. "He takes his shirt off and she sees all of these scars-cigarette burns,
scratches, scars, bruises. And that sets her off! She's been secretly following
guardian angel waiting for the right time to help-and that's what she prayed
would not happen."
"I think saving Danny is a redemption, for both him and herself," says Duncan,
she sees so much of herself in this young boy and she realizes that this an
opportunity to give
him something that she never had."
When Mary goes to rescue Danny from Uncle, tensions escalate quickly. "Then
big turf war erupts-and no one knows that the whole thing is over a kid," notes
Henson worked very closely with then thirteen-year-old Mr. Winston, and speaks
with nothing but superlatives. "Jahi is an amazing little actor. I saw him in
The New Edition
Story-he sings! His little eyes draw you in and melt your heart. He is my little
pea, my little
booboo. And he's such a well-spoken young man-he speaks the King's English
but now he has to play a street kid and the dialect coach has to remind him to
take the 'TH' off of
'the,'' she laughs. "'You're a street kid-it's "de.' And he's like, 'My mother
would kill me if I
spoke like this for real.' As an actor Jahi's hungry and wants to do better;
he's always asking me
questions, following me around like my little shadow, which is great for the
Mary and Danny."
"One of the pleasures of producing movies is that moment when an actor comes
room, delivers an audition, and you realize not only have you found exactly the
actor that you
were hoping to discover, but that no one else can play the role," remembers
Schiff. "And that
happened when Jahi came in. He has an uncanny level of technical skill that many
don't have. Most actors that young disappear until their next lines come, but
he's the exact
opposite-he's so present. He listens. He's in the scene and in the moment,
connected to the character and to his fellow actor. It's a really tough role and
he's been thrown in
with Danny Glover and Taraji Henson, great actors, but he's a great partner in
"Jahi, this wonderful 13-year-old boy," smiles Margaret Avery, "has got the
I've ever known. He brings quite a lot to the movie. People are gonna love him."
Danny Glover, who plays the Benny Spencer, recognizes his character as "the
godfather of this family! It's clear he's the guy, but he's getting older. He's
trying to hold on
while at the same time knowing that he needs to relegate his power, so he's
himself. It's not clear what does the future will look like, but meanwhile
fine. Business is good. Then something unexpected happens that triggers a chasm
framework, some sort of eruption, that begins to snowball into something larger
and larger that
threatens to culminate in the demise of the family itself."
"Benny is a really complicated guy," adds Schiff. "He's this charismatic,
seemingly loving man who is happy to order a kill if it helps maintain or expand
his business and
enjoys torturing an enemy on occasion. He's a pretty bad guy, but somehow you
help but like him because he's just so charismatic and charming and full of
"He met Mary when she was a young girl on the streets," notes Duncan, "and
he's like her father, but he actually feels more of a sense of ownership over
her-that he saved
her and in essence created her. I think Mary feels that their relationship is
two sided, but it's not
because he feels that she's a possession of his. I think that Benny feels that
everyone in his life is
a possession of his-including his wife and son, and Mary is no different than
that. In many
ways he may be her father or the closest thing that she has to a father figure,
but at the same time
he is the person who turned her into probably the darkest version of herself."
While Benny is ruthless, the actor who plays him is a true gentleman. "Danny
spectacular actor, a master. It was a real honor for us all to have a chance to
work with him,"
says Schiff. "Danny is a very instinctive actor. He knows when he feels it; when
it comes alive
it just feels right. I think what attracted him to the role is that it's really
fun for an actor to get to
play a bad guy who is also really likeable-to play the full human being, not
just the clichĂ©
villain. It doesn't matter to him that Benny's a killer, he's playing his
humanity. He's playing a
guy who has a family that he loves and wants to protect. He's brought him to
life and made him
really complicated, interesting and unique."
Henson agrees: "Okay, so Danny is brilliant. With just one look he can go
dad-grandfather to icy cold killer-it's haunting. And you need that kind of
flavor for this man,
someone who the audience can feel, 'Oh, I can see how she fell into that trap.'
He's a really bad
guy that you wanna love-after all, it's Danny Glover!"
"He's got that sly thing-you don't know when he's telling the truth," says
Avery, who as Shug Avery in Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple (1985), worked
to create one of the great screen couples. "It was just so exciting to know that
I would be
reuniting with Danny more than 35 years after The Color Purple. We hadn't really
other, so it was a wonderful thing to say 'Oh, hi!' And I said, 'You know Danny?
years ago, they aged us to look the way we do now. You look like Mister to me.'"
"Tom is Benny's only son," says Schiff, "and he has a complicated
relationship with his
father. He admires him, models his life after him, but also resents the fact
that his father is
getting a little older, slower and is less prone to jump, to attack, preferring
to find diplomatic
rather than violent resolutions to a conflict. Tom is the new blood-he wants to
"Tom and Benny have a great relationship with a lot of mutual respect,"
Brown who plays the younger Spencer, "but as with many relationships where
family is working
together they have come to a point where Tom see things that needs to move
more tip of the spear. Because Benny proceeds with prudence, he has to check Tom
a couple of
times. And there is conflict because Tom is also Mary's former love interest. He
is trying to
hold onto with Mary but realizes that his father senses that this may be a
catalyst that could drive
"Tom and Mary have been lovers, friends and, literally, partners in crime,"
Schiff. "They have been in this strange kind of bubble because Mary can't seek
outside of the family for whom she works as an assassin. She can't have an
She's trapped and in that bubble there is Tom-this attractive, charismatic,
powerful guy-and in
that relationship she has found some relief and romance, some joy even. But she
ultimately he's not the answer and that she can't stay with Tom or with the
family without being
consumed by the dark side of this family."
"There was a love between Mary and Tom," Henson agrees, "but I think killers
of incapable of real love. I also think he wanted it more than she did and that
it got too close for
comfort for her. So their current relationship is estranged. It's weird and
awkward and Tom is
jealous of anything that doesn't include him in Mary's life."
"Tom is a powerful man being pulled in many different directions," says
"Incredibly loyal to his father and to his family, he is in many ways the
embodiment of how
Benny thinks this family should operate. But during the course of the movie
Tom's belief is
tested as he feels both his father and Mary pulling away from him. I don't think
that Tom ever
had a question about his father's respect, but once the [war with the] Kozlovs
is triggered, I think
he comes to realize that Benny may not respect him as much as he thought. And he
comes to see
Mary as a rival. They grew up with each other almost as siblings, they shared
young people and they were in love, but considering the circumstances in which
relationship came to be there's no way that it could have ever been a true
love-because in this
family the only person you can really love is Benny."
"That Tom feels that Benny favors Mary is a very difficult source of
and resentment bubbling up in all kinds of complicated ways," says Schiff. "I
think Tom has
competed for Benny's favor for years. It just comes more easily for Mary."
"Billy Brown brings charm to Tom," says Henson, "which is great because
you're playing a bad guy you don't want the audience to hate you. The audience
has to feel for
you. They have to want you to win. Billy is very charming and good-looking and
but he's also scary. Charming and scary-that quality about a killer that you
gotta have, you
know? That ability to be able to turn it on and off, and he has it."
THE TONES AND LOOK OF PROUD MARY
Director Babak Najafi and his team created a "tone and look that may be
intimate-as in moments between the family-but can turn fast, sweeping, chaotic
dangerous," observes producer Tai Duncan. "They have found a way to seamlessly
blend all that
together for this movie that at all times looks beautiful."
"Dan Laustsen, our accomplished and gifted cinematographer, brings a depth
kind of weight to the movie," notes producer Paul Schiff. "Dan made John Wick 2
Guillermo del Toro's director of photographer on a number of his films. He and
joined forces to create a look that gives the movie a real identity. Dan's not
afraid to go a little
dark, employing a rich and satisfying palette that provides the movie with
gravity and power.
He's not afraid to push the limits-to let things to go to silhouette or, when
motivated, to let
things get impressionistic. And we're approaching the action with fluidity and
grace, so that it's
not all quick cuts and a disorienting sense of 'Where we are? I don't know. But
exploding so I guess I should be enjoying this.' It's more like a dance as
opposed to quick cuts
and explosions. We are letting moments breathe and I think we've come upon a
that's right for this film and makes it stand out, gives it its own
As with the cinematography, the production design of Proud Mary is also "both
and gritty," relates Duncan. "The world in which these families do business is a
one yet the world of the homes in which they live has much more beauty-and
designer Carl Sprague has found a way to create a balance between those two
"Carl's done a fantastic job creating the look and physical spaces of the
Schiff. "We shot in and around Boston and built some sets within old warehouses
MA. Carl has an incredible eye, an incredible touch that incorporates the
features of these building into his designs for Mary's industrial-chic apartment
classic wood-paneled office."
"It's a beautiful film; it's beautiful and ugly at the same time. That's
art," says Henson.
"We built sets in an old dilapidated mill factory, literally turning it into a
Hollywood studio. The
flavor and the texture, the way it's going to look is amazing. How Mary's
apartment appears in
real life is like 'ugh-I would never put those fabrics together'--but on film it
looks so rich, so
royal. It's just gonna blow your mind."
Production designer Carl Sprague points out that "Mary is a free agent
operating on her
own terms in this evil empire and living in this 5,000 square foot apartment
that we built in the
raw space of an old factory that is so over scale you could go roller-skating in
there. But I think
the freedom of this huge space full of details that are not crazy opulent
reveals what an
extraordinarily successful and pulled together woman she is."
Mary's controlled look is particularly evident in what she wears. "Mary is
she's experienced and hardened and always ready at any moment to pull out a gun
and that calls
for clothes with very clean, crisp graphic lines," describes costume designer
Deb Newhall. "The
palette is primarily black, but with a lot of texture. Black clothing can be
hard to light, but I was
conscious of having graphic lines in the cut of a garment that allowed more skin
to show or of
using fabric that has some shimmer (as in the texture of leather or ribbing in a
sweater), so that
there's always a shine to what she's wearing. In contrast, the lines are less
harsh and the textures
are softer during some of the in-between times with Danny, her look is softer."
"Deb Newhall and Taraji-who has a really great sense of design and
great collaborators, great partners in crime," notes Schiff. "Sometimes working
with an actor
who has a great eye can be a burden for a costume designer who wants to operate
on her own,
but the opposite was true here. Deb and Taraji established immediate
communication about who
Mary is and how to find in the clothing the essence the character presents to
the world. How she
expresses herself in the confines of a life as an assassin and who is she when
she's home or when
she's with Danny-when she's really herself and can be vulnerable and unconcerned
that she has to do for the family. And Deb's done a fantastic job."
"This is an entirely new look for Taraji," says Newhall, "that is
from her great outfits in Hidden Figures and beyond all the fur and fluffy
fabulous stuff that's
going on in Empire. Early in the process I found a great dress with some zippers
metallic features that would have been a really cool option for the dinner
scene. Taraji looked at
it and," she laughs, 'responded immediately, 'Cookie's got that dress. I can't
wear that dress.'
And I said, 'I got it.' It was the only time that came up."
"Mary always looks good-very chic and classic is what I like. It's not
Henson. "She's not a girl who spends a lot of time at the mirror. She probably
did before, but
when we meet her now she's a very different Mary-at this point in her life she's
a way out, not about clothes. "
And I think all black is metaphoric for where she's heading. She's in a
tunnel right now
and everything's dark-but she's gotta come out of it."
Proud Mary was shot in Boston, Lawrence, Lowell, Waltham, Dedham, MA during
and May, 2017.
Its camera team, lead by director of photography Dan Laustsen, shot the film
consumer-grade Sony A7sii (which was used in 2016 to shoot the upcoming Screen
feature Cadaver in its entirety) and the Sony F55 (including all steadicam
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