SHE’S BATTLED HER WAY FROM POVERTY TO THE HOLLYWOOD A-LIST. FENCES STAR VIOLA DAVIS EXPLAINS WHY QUITTING WAS NEVER AN OPTION
The mighty star of The Help, Prisoners, Suicide Squad and now Fences gets the Empire grilling. If she wrote an autobiography, it’d be called ‘A History Of Viola’.
VIOLA DAVIS IS, no doubt about it, a big deal. Since her breakthrough in 2008, she has quickly established herself as one of the most consistently excellent actors currently working. In any film she turns up in, be it an awards heavyweight like The Help or silly summer movie like Suicide Squad, you know that, regardless of what’s around her or what kind of script she’s given, she will be great. Her characters tend to be tough, commanding and memorable. She has been nominated for an Oscar twice. She has won an Emmy.
But what she’s experienced is the opposite of overnight success. As a child growing up in Central Falls, Rhode Island, she never knew where her next meal was coming from, sometimes jumping into maggot-infested trash cans to find something to eat. She began acting at the age of eight, using performance as a way to take her mind off her family’s troubles. Slowly perfecting her craft, she spent decades doing stage work, garnering a reputation as an in-demand actress with vast range. Finally, at the age of 43, her acclaimed screen performance in Doubt put her on the path to fame and fortune.
Her latest project, Fences, brings the two parts of Davis’ career together. An adaptation of an August Wilson play, directed by and co-starring Denzel Washington, it sees her play Rose, the submissive wife of Troy, a man who never realised his potential and has let his resentments sour his relationships with the rest of his family. Both Davis and Washington played the same roles on stage in New York in 2010, winning Tonys. A woman who keeps her own grievances quiet until she can hold them in no longer, Rose is a part that stretches all Davis’ acting muscles. Unsurprisingly, it’s made her the favourite for this year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar. If she wins it, she’ll have a set of the biggest awards in stage, film and TV (she won an Emmy for her show How To Get Away With Murder).
When we meet Davis at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles, there’s a sense she still hasn’t adjusted to her massive upswing of fortune. She’s initially rather shy — she is “very much an introvert” — and says the peculiarities of celebrity still confuse her. Over the course of our hour together, though, she becomes more relaxed and animated, her gesticulations getting larger and her laugh louder with every anecdote. She loves to entertain. After four decades of practice, she’s very, very good at it. You performed the role of Rose for 13 weeks on stage. What made you want to play her again on screen? The characters in this are endlessly fascinating. They’re vast. There isn’t any amount of re-examining of it that could be enough… I always tell people I never got the final scene [right] in 13 weeks in New York. Never hit it, until we did [the film]. Rose is marginalised in her own marriage. Everything is according to Troy’s desires. What interested you about their relationship? I first saw Fences in a production years ago in Providence. A great actress played Rose, but I felt like when she first came out on stage she was mad. Every time she gave Troy a line it was harsh and hard, so by the time the marriage fell apart, I never felt the loss. I just thought it was fractured from the very beginning. I was adamant not to do that. I wanted it to look like something that may not be perfect, but was working. Listen, man, they’re having sex after 18 years. That’s something. They’re always
having sex. I wanted to pack a wallop with Rose. I wanted people to feel like they could envelop her. With films like Fences, Loving, Moonlight and Hidden Figures, it’s been said this is one of the best years ever for films focused on people of colour. What’s your perspective on that? That’s absolutely true. And it’s not only films with African Americans in them and about African American life — it’s actors finally getting their due. That’s what I really want people to know, that we’re out there. Look at Stephen Mckinley Henderson [Bono in Fences]. He’s been out there for 40 years. He was in the first class at Juilliard. This guy has done hundreds of plays… Taraji P. Henson. Octavia Spencer. Naomie Harris. These are actors. These are not just black actors who are getting attention because of the colour of their skin. They’re getting attention because the opportunity has met the preparation. That’s what’s exhilarating to watch. And it’s deserving. Why do you think it’s happening now? A lot of people would say it’s partly a response to ‘Oscars So White’. It’s the Obama effect. Who knows? I think America is changing. Or America is just being revealed for what it’s always been: a melting pot of different cultures, of people who are interracial, people who want to see their own images on the screen, who are desperate for it. People need the volume of different narratives. The audience is changing. How do you square that progress with what’s happening in America more generally? Trump represents the opposite of multiculturalism. To almost shy away from the political answer, but not to shy away from it, I’m going to answer it like an artist. During Doubt, [the writer] John Patrick Shanley said a lot of the nuns who were his teachers in Catholic school came to see the play. They loved it, but they said, “We weren’t that mean.” I thought that was hysterical because it’s a known fact that it’s brutal in Catholic school. People have an inability to see themselves for who they are. I think America is very much a country that embraces redefinition of oneself. That’s what happened when people came through Ellis Island. We traded in our names, giving up ones that reflected our culture in order to become a part of the American dream. And you’re embraced because of that. In America, you can be anyone you want to be. But then who are you? That’s always the conflict with our political structure. People vote against their own interests because we don’t know who we are. You’re a very good illustration of the American dream. You grew up very poor and now you’re extremely successful. As a child, what made you believe being an actor was something you could do? Unless you grew up poor, you don’t know how hard it is. It is brutal on your psyche. It’s traumatic. When you’re poor you don’t have a choice; you have to either dream big or not at all. There’s no middle ground. You can’t be passive about your future. You’ve got to be passionate and very clear. A therapist once told me, “Viola, you’ve always had drive. Drive has never been your
problem.” That’s true. Dreaming was something to do, as opposed to having nothing to do. When did you start to feel it might really happen? When I was 14, Mr Yates, my English and drama teacher, told me, “Viola, this could be a possibility for you. You need more technique, but if you get it, this could be something you could do. You’re that good.” I was like, “Wow, really?” Or it could have been when I was 18. I was in my freshman year of college and I had no money. I had to get a job so I could get an apartment and a car. I didn’t have parents who even had the money to send me a care package. I didn’t have a way into acting that was practical, so I gave it up. For my first semester I became an English major. I dropped into a huge depression. It felt like a death. I had to act in order to be happy, so I decided I had to do it no matter what. For many years your success was on stage. Did you ever have an eye on film? That’s like someone saying, “Did you ever think about climbing mountains or going to Antarctica?” When you’re from Central Falls, Rhode Island? No. I didn’t see myself in movies. I never won any beauty contests. I was never a cheerleader. One of the very first people to put you in his films was Steven Soderbergh, who gave you small roles in Out Of Sight, Traffic and Solaris. How did that relationship originally come about? I don’t know. I would audition a lot for TV and film and never get anything. The audition for Out Of Sight... I remember they put me on tape at my agency. That’s when I would do my own hair, because I couldn’t afford to pay for anyone to do it. I would buy hair from a shop in California, His ’N’ Hers Beauty Supply, that would mail me the hair and I would braid it all in myself. I didn’t know what I was doing, I just knew my hair couldn’t be big enough. Remember Chaka Khan back in the day? She didn’t even have as much hair as I had. You could not tell me I did not look cute. My agent said I had to audition for Out Of Sight and I said, “I’m not going to get that. I never get these auditions. And it’s two lines? Okay, I’m just gonna memorise them and say them, that’s it.” That’s what I did. And I got it! That was my first big break. I was shocked. “I’m playing someone’s girlfriend? I’m playing Don Cheadle’s girlfriend?” Any time a role said “girlfriend” I knew I wouldn’t get it. “Attractive”, I knew I wouldn’t get it. So me playing someone’s girlfriend… Then I went to do it and said, “Steven, so what was it?” He said, “It was two things. It was your stillness, and it was that hair. I couldn’t get past the hair.” Okay! Him and me just click. You call Out Of Sight your big break, but most people would say it was Doubt. You had a single scene in that film but it brought you an Oscar nomination and a film career. How did you react to that? I felt like I won the lottery. At that point I was a journeyman actor. Someone who’s been out there in the field, doing character roles. Then something pops you out that makes people start saying your name. I couldn’t believe it. Of all the films you’ve made since then, one stands out as unusual: Suicide Squad. Why did that appeal? Are you serious? Why not?! It’s an action movie. I got to play Amanda Waller. Are you serious? Sometimes I just want to have fun. I’m getting a little long in the tooth now, but there are times I wish I was 20 years younger because I want to kick somebody’s ass on film. I just want to kick somebody’s ass. Amanda Waller was a chance to do a little bit of that. I loved being a badass. And I’m wondering where people thought I was in my career that I had the kind of power to not do something like Suicide Squad. I don’t get seven-figure salaries. I’ve always been the journeyman actor. On Prisoners I did eight days. Ender’s Game I did five. Beautiful
Creatures I did eight days. Doubt I did two weeks. I could go on. Most of my jobs have been three days here, one day there, and that’s it. It wouldn’t be like you asking Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock. I’m not on that level in terms of money or exposure. In fact, How To Get Away
With Murder is the job that changed my life. That and The Help. How did The Help change your life? I was nominated for Best Actress and it made money. It’s like Denzel says, the business part of show business is so important that it might as well be called ‘business show’. It’s a business. I was in a big money-making, crowd-pleasing film. How To Get Away With Murder was the highest-rated pilot in history. Now it’s in its third season and it’s in 158 territories. It’s as simple as that. And then I won the Emmy... I have more opportunities now. By virtue of being African American and achieving what you have, you are put in a position of being a figurehead. How do you feel about that? It’s twofold. I feel okay about the responsibility of being the first African American woman to win [an Emmy for] Best Lead Actress in a Drama. I feel okay about being a role model, a dark-skinned woman who’s 51, who’s given other women of colour who are a different size, a different hue, almost permission to do what they do. The part I have difficulty with is the unspoken responsibility. For instance, I’m on Facebook and I have people write to me about anything from money to reading their scripts to coming to their house and giving their children advice. That’s when I have issues, because I didn’t know that was part of the whole game. I didn’t know that was my responsibility. That’s too much for me. I try to the best of my ability to give people comfort. I think I have enough heart to want to do that, but people will be like, “Can you talk to my dying mom, or someone who’s going through something traumatic? Can you just say your lines from
The Help? That would help them a lot.” That’s hard for me. And I’m not criticising, at all. At all.
I get it. But it’s difficult. I try to give them what they want, to the best of my ability. I’ve done a lot of videos of, “You are smart. You are kind. You are important.” But always it makes me feel uncomfortable, because I’m not God. I’m just an actor.
“When you’re poor you don’t have a choice; you have to dream big or not at all. There’s no middle ground. You can’t be passive about your future. You’ve got to be passionate and very clear.”
As you say, you’re 51 and you’ve worked incredibly hard to get where you are. What is there still to do? There’s a lot of things I haven’t done. I’ll tell you one thing coming up that’s scaring the crap out of me: Steve Mcqueen’s Widows [an adaptation of the Lynda La Plante drama about a group of women who take over from their criminal husbands after they’re killed]. Why does it scare you? I can’t tell you. If I even say it I’m going to be hitting the vodka, seriously. But I would say it’s a role that is going to force me to do things a little outside my comfort zone. Will you get to kick some ass? Oh, I most definitely will kick somebody’s ass. And I’m going to kick ass as a 51-year-old woman. How is that? That is beautiful. FENCES IS IN CINEMAS FROM 17 FEBRUARY
Clockwise from main: Davis with Denzel Washington in Fences; In Suicide Squad (2016); Alongside Sullivan Walker in Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ (2005); In Prisoners (2013).