VI­OLA DAVIS

VI­OLA DAVIS, TOO SEL­DOM A LEAD­ING AC­TOR ON THE BIG SCREEN, STARS IN STEVE MCQUEEN’S HEIST THRILLER ‘WI­D­OWS,’

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To Vi­ola Davis, be­ing naked on screen or on­stage means more than hav­ing your clothes off. It means rid­ding your­self of self-con­scious­ness and ego. It means ex­pos­ing your­self. “Of­ten­times you do see dy­namic act­ing — there are a lot of re­ally dy­namic ac­tors — but there is a sense of van­ity,” says Davis. “I al­ways say that when peo­ple get naked on stage it al­ways looks like they’ve been to the gym for about ive years. And we all know that’s not the case. When we get naked in life, we may have some rolls of lesh around our stom­ach. You may have some stretch marks. Now that’s in­ti­mate.”

There was, mem­o­rably, no van­ity in Davis’ Rose in “Fences,” a per­for­mance that reached its aching crescendo in her shat­ter­ing, snot-drip­ping “18 years of my life” mono­logue. But in Steve McQueen’s elec­tric Chicago un­der­world thriller “Wi­d­ows,” Davis’ raw in­ti­macy in­cludes a di­men­sion she has rarely, if ever, got­ten to ex­press in ilm — her sex­u­al­ity.

“It’s a part of the strength. It’s a part of the badass-ness. It’s a part of the vul­ner­a­bil­ity,” Davis, fight­ing a cold, said in an in­ter­view the morn­ing af­ter “Wi­d­ows” pre­miered at the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val.

“The irst scene in the movie I’m in bed with Liam Nee­son. That may seem like not a big deal to you but to me that was a big deal.”

In “Wi­d­ows,” McQueen’s fol­low-up to the Os­car-win­ning “12 Years a Slave,” Davis stars as the wife of a vet­eran thief (Nee­son) who dies, along with his crew, in a heist gone wrong.

For their spouses, it’s al­most as if their lives have also been ex­tin­guished. But with Veron­ica Rawl­ins’ lead­er­ship, they (the other women are played by Michelle Ro­driguez, El­iz­a­beth De­bicki and Car­rie Coon) re­solve to take over their late hus­bands’ crim­i­nal plans and pull off what none ex­pect them ca­pa­ble of.

“This was a great ex­per­i­ment in ex­plor­ing how to work out get­ting back your power,” says Davis. “In my life I’m still learn­ing that.”

When a re­porter points out that she — one of the most mov­ingly out­spo­ken ad­vo­cates for on-screen rep­re­sen­ta­tion and in­clu­sion — seems quite in con­trol of her con­sid­er­able power, Davis de­murs. “Like ev­ery­one, I have my good mo­ments and bad mo­ments.”

Davis has won an Os­car (for “Fences”), an Emmy (for “How to Get Away With Mur­der”) and a Tony, twice (for “Fences” and “King Hed­ley II”) — a tri­fecta that no other black ac­tor has ac­com­plished, and few oth­ers, for that mat­ter.

Along the way, her im­pas­sioned ac­cep­tance speeches have been some of the most po­tent thun­der­bolts of in­spi­ra­tion in the wider ight for di­ver­sity, beamed out to the un­rep­re­sented and the over­looked ev­ery­where.

But it’s been al­most a decade since her “Doubt” co-star Meryl Streep pleaded “My God, some­body give her a movie!” at the Screen Ac­tors Guild Awards (and later called her “pos­sessed to the blaz­ing, in­can­des­cent power”).

Since then, Davis has been a main­stay on screens big and small, but she has sel­dom - ex­cept in the Shonda Rhimes ABC se­ries and now “Wi­d­ows” — been front and cen­tre. She has even ex­pressed some re­gret over 2011’s “The Help,” not­ing “it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were

heard.” The same year, Davis formed a pro­duc­tion com­pany with her hus­band, the ac­tor Julius Ten­non, with whom she has an eight-year-old daugh­ter.

For McQueen, Davis’ lack of lead­ing per­for­mances is one of the most glar­ing in­jus­tices in Hol­ly­wood.

“She can only be judged by the ilms she gets to do. Don’t for­get: she could not re­ally make a liv­ing in ilm be­cause no one was giv­ing her any roles,” McQueen said by phone. “She was not given an op­por­tu­nity to ful­fill her craft. So she had to go on tele­vi­sion. Vi­ola’s 53 years old. She should have a vast body of work by now.” Does Davis feel the same way? “I mean, yeah,” she sighs. “I sort of feel that some­times. But I’m hon­ored that I’ve got­ten to this point. This is a very priv­i­leged life. I feel like if I sit here and I say, ‘I should have had more lead roles,’ some dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the mo­ment — I can’t do that. I re­ally can’t.”

Davis, the fifth of their six chil­dren, grew up im­pov­er­ished, in dilapidated homes in Rhode Is­land, the daugh­ter of an al­co­holic fa­ther who was abu­sive to Davis’ mother.

“I be­came an ac­tor be­cause I was an ob­server. It’s said that ac­tors are ob­servers and they’re thieves. You ob­serve life and then you steal from it,” says Davis. “The beauty of how I grew up is I saw so many hor­riic but glo­ri­ous things hap­pen in pub­lic. When you grow up poor, noth­ing is un­der­cover. You hear ev­ery­thing played out be­cause peo­ple are liv­ing in close prox­im­ity to each other. You know who the al­co­holic is. You know who’s get­ting beaten by their hus­band.”

Davis has said be­fore that she’s mo­ti­vated to hon­our the dreams of her “eight-year-old self.” ‘’She’s al­ways sit­ting there,” says Davis. “And, re­ally, it’s easy to make her happy, whereas it’s sort of hard to make me happy now.” And she lets out a belly laugh.

That up­bring­ing has in­formed how Davis has re­sponded to the #MeToo move­ment: ap­plaud­ing it, en­cour­ag­ing it, but also fear­ing that its fo­cus on Hol­ly­wood ac­tresses and ex­ec­u­tives is lim­ited. She cites her long-run­ning in­volve­ment with Gail Abar­banel’s Rape Treat­ment Cen­ter at the Stu­art House as the kind of place that needs sup­port.

“It’s much big­ger than a hash­tag,” she says.

“Wi­d­ows,” penned by McQueen and Gil­lian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) is based on Lynda La Plante’s 1980s Bri­tish se­ries, but its tale of fe­male em­pow­er­ment has ob­vi­ous con­nec­tions to to­day. In re­hearsals, McQueen would sit with Davis and the other ac­tresses and talk through their own ex­pe­ri­ences. “All the things in our lives that we felt peo­ple didn’t see,” says Davis. “Like my fem­i­nin­ity.”

McQueen wanted to bring all of those sto­ries to the ta­ble. Davis would have pre­ferred to wear a wig but McQueen dis­agreed. He wanted Davis to look just how she is. “I know this woman,” McQueen told her. “She just hasn’t been in the Amer­i­can cinema. So it’s about time we in­tro­duced her.”

Davis has made such in­tro­duc­tions a reg­u­lar­ity, bring­ing one African-Amer­i­can woman af­ter an­other to a screen where they didn’t be­fore ex­ist.

“My big thing — this is my ego — I al­ways want peo­ple to look back at this time and I want my name to be in it. I al­ways want to be in the con­ver­sa­tion,” she says. “Not just in movies, just in terms of peo­ple see­ing them­selves dif­fer­ently.”

Vi­ola Davis in a scene from ‘Wi­d­ows.’

Steve McQueen

Daniel Kalu­uya (left) and Brian Tyree Henry in a scene from ‘Wi­d­ows.’

Michelle Ro­driguez (left), and El­iz­a­beth De­bicki in a scene from ‘Wi­d­ows.’

Robert Du­vall in a scene from ‘Wi­d­ows.’

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