|‘Why can’t we say: you know what, I’m confident, I’m really happy about the work I did. I gave it my best’: Viola Davis. Photograph: Patrick Fraser for the Observer|
Viola Davis: ‘That's how I feel about my life now. I’m pretty fabulous’
By Alex Clark
Sunday 15 January 2017
Her extraordinary performance in the upcoming Fences has seen Viola Davis tipped for an Oscar. But her success has taken a huge amount of self-belief. She tells Alex Clark why it is only through demanding respect that you get the parts you are due
t’s the run-up to Christmas and everybody in Los Angeles, which to a Brit feels unseasonably sun-drenched, is bemoaning the chilly weather; as we settle down in the Beverly Hills hotel, Viola Davis draws a warm jacket around her shoulders. Not that she’s complaining: throughout our conversation, she is determinedly upbeat, celebratory, optimistic. She radiates a sense of excitement and satisfaction that, at 51, all the hard work is really beginning to pay off.
Five years ago, when Davis was playing the role of the maid Aibileen in The Help, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award, she told me that, as a “dark-skinned actress in Hollywood”, she had done “what it was at my hand to do”, even if that didn’t give her as much scope for her talents and energies as she would have liked. “I’ve had to sink my teeth into a role that was probably a fried-chicken dinner and make it into a filet mignon.”
Now, with film roles coming out of her ears, the lead in the TV drama How To Get Away with Murder and her own production company, she is opposite Denzel Washington in the film adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer prize-winning play Fences. (After our meeting, she begins 2017 by winning a Golden Globe for her performance, saying in her acceptance speech that the film “Doesn’t scream moneymaker, but it does scream art and it does scream heart.”) Surely the role of Rose Maxson is a filet mignon.
She bursts out laughing. “This is absolutely a filet mignon – a medium-well filet mignon.” And Davis clearly relishes every bite: her performance as a wife and mother in 1950s Pittsburgh, struggling at every turn to hold her family together, to absorb the rage and disappointment of her husband Troy and to protect her son’s innocence and ambition, is electrifying – so involving that it invokes an almost physical response. We watch as Rose is beguiled and charmed by the charismatic, storytelling Troy, unable to chide him for his excesses without dissolving into mirth, and as she seeks to intercede on others’ behalves to limit the damage his temper and pride cause. It takes almost the whole film, however, for Rose to voice her own feelings and desires.
“That was the role of womanhood in the 50s,” says Davis. “You were an instrument for everyone else’s joy except for your own. The 50s in America had the highest rate of alcoholism and depression. There were whole manuals out there that were being passed out about how to make your husband happy – put on make-up when he walks through the door, after a long day of work, don’t weigh him down with any of your problems, ask him about his problems, greet him with a smile, make sure the children are fed and they’re clean, his favourite meal is on the table, and nowhere in that manual is anything about her joy, and the centre of her happiness.”
She has been here before, and with Washington; they are reprising the roles they played in the 2010 Broadway revival of the play, for which they both won Tony awards; and they are rejoined by Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s son and brother respectively. Part of Wilson’s 10-play Century Cycle, in which the playwright chronicled the experiences of African Americans decade by decade, Fences’ transition on to the big screen has taken so long because its author, who died in 2005, insisted that its director be black – a simple demand revealingly hard to accomplish in Hollywood.
Now, Washington himself directs, and his key artistic choice is apparent the moment the film begins: he has preserved the work’s theatrical origins, with nearly all the action taking place in a confined domestic space, and dialogue ranging from quick-fire ensemble scenes to extended soliloquies. The effect is disconcerting – we rarely see such unfiltered staginess on film – but always riveting; there is not an inch of slack, a word wasted.
Davis herself has two show-stopping speeches, in which she first rails at life and at last attempts to make her peace with it. What was different about playing Rose this time around? She replies that she “had been sitting with this narrative for so long and never quite got the ending until I did the movie. And I keep saying to myself that the reason I didn’t get the end is because she is at a place that probably most of us as human beings never get to, and that is a place of forgiveness and grace. I think that most of us spend a lifetime holding on to the past, even when we feel like we’re letting go a bit.”
She holds close to the advice of psychiatrist Irvin D Yalom that one must “give up all hope of a better past”. Davis herself grew up in extreme poverty; she has spoken powerfully about the series of makeshift dwellings she, her parents and five siblings occupied in Rhode Island, about hunger and lack of sanitation, about her father’s violent abuse of her mother. The “letting go” seems to take two distinct but related forms: allowing herself to feel good about what she has achieved, and building platforms that will help broaden the possibilities for a new generation of actors, writers and directors of colour.
She cites her delight at seeing Shonda Rhimes, the producer behind Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How To Get Away with Murder, accepting a Norman Lear achievement award in Television last year. “She said: ‘I happily accept this award because I deserve it.’ I LOVE IT. Absolutely love it. It’s the waking up and understanding that OK, you may not be the best person out there, but you’ve put in enough work to understand that you deserve what you’ve got, that that is what is at the end of hard work. The happily ever after comes after you’ve done the work. And to literally understand, especially as a woman, that a closed mouth doesn’t get fed, you’ve got to ask for what you want and expect to get it.”
I remark that it’s noticeable how often women play down their successes; how they will even deflect minor compliments on appearance. Why does she think that happens? “I think tapping into one’s power and one’s potential is a very frightening thing,” she replies. “And for women it’s a very new thing. It is. I always used to feel that self-deprecation was an answer to humility – that people would see me as a humble person the more I put myself down. And people do say that: ‘Oh! I ran into so-and-so and they kept saying, “Oh, my work in this really sucked,” and they were great! I just thought it was so refreshing that they said that!’ And I often think to myself, what if someone says, ‘You know what, I’m confident, I’m really happy about the work I did. I really felt like I gave it my best and it came out great,’ the same way men do. Why is that not seen as humble?”
‘Motherhood has given me a different telescope to look at life’: with husband Julius Tennon. Photograph: Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images
Her increasing ability to feel comfortable with her achievements is linked to an awareness of her emerging position as a figure of influence. “The more I’m pushed in a position of leadership and I know I have to be the mouthpiece for so many other people who can’t speak for themselves, the more confidence I’m gaining.” And that extends to the way she views her own past and the more she shares her story. She explains: “I can hear myself say, ‘Oh yeah, I took the bus five hours just to get to the theatre, then took it five hours back,’ and I’m listening to that, I’m being an objective observer, and thinking to myself – ‘I did that?’ It’s like looking at an old picture of yourself when you felt like you looked bad, and you go, ‘Wow, I was fabulous!’ That’s how I feel about my life now – that I’m looking back at it, and I’m like, ‘I’m pretty fabulous. I really am. I’m pretty fabulous.’”
Back in 2011, when we talked about Davis’s commitment – largely via JuVee, the production company she founded with her husband, Julius Tennon – to addressing the limited opportunities afforded people of colour by the entertainment industry, she expressed her hope we wouldn’t be having the same conversation in five years’ time. Naturally, because challenging entrenched privilege takes time, we are, but it has shifted ground. Davis herself is scheduled to play the part of Harriet Tubman, who liberated slaves in the Civil War era, and to star in Steve McQueen’s Widows, a revisiting of Lynda LaPlante’s TV series co-scripted by Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn. “It’s not even a role that would be necessarily written for an African American, but not according to him. He’s like: ‘Why not?’”
Davis brings up The Help, and says that although she loved making the film, she understands the criticisms levelled at it – that women of colour were once again placed in the role of maids, and “not portrayed as tapping into their anger as much as they could have. Tapping into all the things they could have been other than the maid.” Partly, she thinks, that relates to the image of the black maid as a nurturer, a second mother, so that “even within the movie, there are certain things that are not going to be explored, if it somehow messes up the memory of what the audience had, that perfect mother. She couldn’t be angry. She couldn’t be sexualised. She’s gotta stay that image that brings us comfort and joy knowing that we were loved and nothing more than that.”
Davis loves the riposte to that one-dimensional figure provided by the character of Annalise Keating, the firecracker law professor, ambitious, potent and flawed, that she plays in How To Get Away with Murder. “It’s blowing the lid off everything that people say we should be, especially as a dark-skinned woman, that you can’t be sexual, you can’t be unlikable, you can be angry but with no vulnerability, you can’t be damaged, you can’t be smart. It blows the lid off all of it. And even if it’s not executed all the time in ways that people like, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that she’s out there. That’s it. She’s out there, she’s on screen, she’s making an impact.”
|‘In the 1950s women were an instrument for everyone else’s joy except their own’: Viola Davis with Denzel Washington in a scene from Fences. Photograph: David Lee/AP|
Another fundamental has changed in the past five years; in 2011, she and Tennon adopted a baby, Genesis, who is even as we speak frolicking in a nearby hotel room. When Davis and I are done, her babysitters release the six-year-old to bound along the corridor and leap into her mother’s arms, asking whether she can go and buy a swimming costume in the hotel boutique and head for the pool. Her mother observes that in such a luxurious joint, it’s a purchase that could easily come to a couple of hundred dollars, but concedes that they’ll work something out (you imagine somebody might be despatched to Gap).
Davis combines motherhood – which she says has changed her utterly, and given her “a different telescope” through which to see life – with work by clever stratagems and good planning; often taking Genesis with her, only making one film a year, having a TV shooting schedule that allows her days off and free weekends. She claims to live by two mantras – “I’m tired, and I’m doing the best I can” – but she doesn’t look remotely weary. And things might be about to get a whole lot busier. She was the first African American to win the outstanding lead actress in a drama series Emmy award for her role as Annalise Keating; alongside numerous other awards, she has hitherto been nominated for two Oscars for The Help and Doubt. But now her role as Rose Maxson is being spoken about as a cert for nomination and a very strong contender to win her an Academy Award come February. Has she allowed herself to think about it? She pauses, laughs, parries.
“You know what I know about that? Because I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not. But what I will say about this is, and this is how I keep my perspective, whatever happens, I’ve gotta go back to work. The carpets are going to be rolled up, the people are going to stop calling like that, and I’ve gotta go back to work. And you can’t bring that Oscar on a set, and that Oscar can’t do the work for you. You gotta do it. That’s what I’ll say.”