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).

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