“Trust, communication, and letting your ego take the back seat are huge parts of the directorial process.”
As told to Ariana Marsh; Photographed by Mario Sorrenti; Styling by Beat Bolliger
Nia DaCosta’s first feature, the 2019 drama Little Woods, was about a young woman, played by Tessa Thompson, on probation after being convicted on drug charges, stuck in a system that seems intent on keeping her down, and torn between dreams, responsibilities, and survival. The film signaled DaCosta’s arrival as a filmmaker with an innate understanding of the social component of storytelling—how what we see reflected back at us can influence our sense of possibility.
It’s an idea that DaCosta, 33, has continued to explore in her rapid ascent through Hollywood—and one she is bringing with her to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with her latest movie, The Marvels, which brings together Captain Marvel’s Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), WandaVision’s Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), and Ms. Marvel’s Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani).
Below, the 2023 Harper’s Bazaar Icon reflects on her career path. To see more from our 2023 Icons issue, including cover stars Kendall Jenner, Doja Cat, and Paul Mescal, click here.
I was always writing and telling stories as a kid. Initially, I was like, “Maybe I want to be an actor.” Then my mom was the one who was like, “No, you don’t. You want to direct. You want to have more control.”
As I came into myself as a young Black woman, I realized there’s a whole type of person and human experience that is just not onscreen. That really pushed me towards what I do now, which is tell stories about people you don’t often see stories about.
I got my master’s degree and then started working as a production assistant. I was writing my debut film, the crime drama Little Woods, on the side. Then I applied for the Sundance Institute’s Directors and Screenwriters labs, and I got in. That was really the pathway for me to get credibility as a filmmaker. In 2018, Little Woods ended up winning the Nora Ephron Award at the Tribeca Film Festival, and it was really that feeling of Wow, I got it right.
After that, I directed Jordan Peele’s remake of the 1992 horror film Candyman. Jordan and his team really wanted to expand what Candyman was. They wanted to contextualize that character as something bigger than just one guy. It became representative of an unfortunate, repetitive cycle in American history where Black men are brutalized and then become some archetype—the martyr, the saint, the sinner. No matter how positive or negative that symbol is, it pulls them away from who they are as a person.
“I realized there’s a whole type of person and human experience that is just not onscreen.”
I always knew I wanted to do genre films. I love horrors and thrillers. But I didn’t think I’d be doing a Marvel movie as my third film. Absolutely not. Still, I’d always wanted to do a Marvel movie because I grew up with Marvel comics. I just wanted it to be a hero that I’m excited about. And I wanted it to be with good people.
Once I found out that it was The Marvels and that Ms. Marvel would be in the movie, I was like, “Oh, I love this.” She is one of my favorite characters in the comics. It also features Captain Marvel and Monica Rambeau, who are awesome too. I interrogated every one of my friends who were inside the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and they were all like, “[Marvel Studios president] Kevin Feige is a really good guy. He’s a big, old nerd.” I was like, “Okay. I can step into this.”
What I learned from working on that film is that trust, communication, and letting your ego take the back seat are huge parts of the directorial process. So is being honest with what you don’t know. The really cool thing about Marvel is, as soon as you get the job, they’re like, “Go call all the other Marvel film directors. Ask them questions.” I got really great guidance. Everyone was so generous.
The best advice I got was from [Black Panther director] Ryan Coogler, but it didn’t make sense until after we wrapped. He said, “Just be yourself.” I was like, “That’s not advice. Get out of here.” Then afterwards I was like, “Oh, he was saying that there’s no point in trying to play politics or trying to be something you’re not. They chose you because of who you are. Bring that to the table.”
This interview and the photo shoot were conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike.
Hair: Luke Hersheson for Hershesons; braiding: Muriel Cole; makeup: Lisa Butler for Chanel Beauty; manicures: Sylvie Macmillan for Chanel Le Vernis; production: Holmes Production; set design: Emma Roach. Special thanks to Hoxton Docks.