|Dress, by Alexander McQueen, from the Outnet. Earrings, by Effy. |
Photograph: Dylan Coulter for the Guardian
Viola Davis: 'I stifled who I was to be seen as pretty. I lost years'
Success hasn’t come easy for the Oscar-winning star. She talks to Benjamin Lee about the limited roles black actors are offered, why The Help was a missed opportunity, and how she learned to take the lead – in life and on screen
Saturday 20 October 2018
In the opening scene of Widows, the new thriller from artist-turned-director Steve McQueen, Viola Davis lies in bed, passionately kissing her on-screen husband, Liam Neeson. A kiss between a married couple might not seem remarkable, but for Davis it is a groundbreaking moment.
“For me, this is something you’ll not see this year, last year, the year before that,” Davis says, sitting in her living room in Toluca Lake, Los Angeles. “That is, a dark-skinned woman of colour, at 53 years old, kissing Liam Neeson. Not just kissing a white man,” she adds, “Liam Neeson, a hunk. And kissing him sexually, romantically.”
|Viola Davis: ‘The black women that I know have taken it into their own hands.’ Photograph: Dylan Coulter for The Guardian. Styling: Elizabeth Stewart|
We meet after Davis has finished her photoshoot for the Guardian, a simple grey robe now pulled over her shimmering evening gown. She turns up the heating in the sparsely furnished open-plan room that opens out on to the rest of the ground floor; assistants mill around the house, and her eight-year-old daughter, Genesis, who greeted me at the door, pops in and out.
Davis predicts that few people will want to talk about the significance of the Widows’ kiss. “Nobody will pay attention to that. And if you mention it to someone, I think they’ll feel like it’s hip and it’s funky that they didn’t notice it. But will you see it again?” she asks. “If you don’t think that’s a big deal, then tell me, why isn’t it happening more?” She sighs. “There’s a part of me that can answer that.”After a three-decade career playing more than 75 mostly supporting roles, Widows – an adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s 1983 British miniseries – marks Davis’s first lead role in a major studio movie. She plays the wife of a master criminal (Neeson), forced to continue his work after his death. It’s a film that’s both familiar and fresh; a heist movie, but spearheaded by a group of strong-willed female characters (played by Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo) whose racial diversity is almost incidental, something that Davis says is unusual.
“I always say that one thing missing in cinema is that regular black woman,” she says, maintaining direct eye contact, as she does the whole time I’m with her. “Not anyone didactic, or whose sole purpose in the narrative is to illustrate some social abnormality. There’s no meaning behind it, other than she is just there.” Davis says she wants to play the sort of roles Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep have had. “I would love to have a black female Klute, or Kramer, or Unmarried Woman, or Annie Hall. But who’s gonna write it, who’s gonna produce it, who’s gonna see it, again and again and again?”
|With Octavia Spencer in The Help|
In the past 10 years, Davis has become one of the most decorated actors in Hollywood – winning Tonys for roles in August Wilson’s stage plays King Hedley II and Fences, an Oscar for the big-screen take on the latter and an Emmy for her performance in Shonda Rhimes’s pulpy TV series How To Get Away With Murder. She’s a Grammy short of an EGOT, a full sweep, but tells me it’s not going to happen: she can’t sing.
Davis refers to her latest role as a “gift” from McQueen, “because it was just a woman in the middle of a narrative who was facing personal challenges”. Widows is undoubtedly more multiplex-leaning fare than the director’s previous work (Hunger, 12 Years A Slave), though his script, co-written by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, raises issues of political corruption, poverty and police brutality.
The decision to switch the setting from London to Chicago, a city struggling with a rise in violent crime, turns the city into a character in itself. “There was a shooting every single day, every single night,” Davis says of her time in Chicago. “It has a history that is palpable and, in the present, it’s obviously a city that’s in crisis. But at the same time, there’s this beautiful mix of cultures and art. It made the movie bigger than it could have been.”
Davis says she enjoyed working with McQueen. She has played many roles written by white men and says that, when she has tried to offer insight on the black female experience, she hasn’t felt listened to. “I get a gag order placed on me. They don’t want to see your liberation, they don’t want to see your mess – they don’t want to see you.”
For years, she says, this had a damaging effect. “I was trying to fit in, stifling my voice, stifling who I was, in order to be seen as pretty, in order for people to like me. And then going home, not being able to sleep and having anxiety. I have found that the labelling of me, and having to fit into that box, has cost me a great deal. I’ve had a lot of lost years.”
What did she do in the lost years? “A lot of things I didn’t believe in, in order to further my career. All the things I thought had great value haven’t served me. It’s been the whole hair thing,” she says, gesturing to her close-cropped natural hair – a look that she rarely wore in her early career, but kept for her role in Widows. (“Your own hair is beautiful – just wear it that way,” McQueen told her.) “Even the weight thing, how I look in a dress, how I look on the red carpet. I’ve never been the beauty queen. Listen, when I was six years old, I lost the Miss Central Falls Recreation Contest – that was a beauty contest and I was in a bathing suit that I bought in the Salvation Army. Still, you hold on to the feeling of ‘Do people think I’m pretty?’ But pretty doesn’t have a value. Pretty didn’t serve me when I was grieving for my father when he passed away.”
Davis has a rallying tone that recalls the acceptance speeches she gave at last year’s Oscars and the 2015 Emmys, performances that in themselves received wide acclaim. When she won her Emmy, she quoted Harriet Tubman, founder of the Underground Railroad – a network set up to help African American slaves escape to free states – and spoke about opportunity (“You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”) At the Oscars, she praised Wilson, “who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people”. And in January this year, she gave an emotional speech to the Women’s March in Los Angeles. “I am speaking today,” she said, “not just for the #MeToos, because I was a #MeToo, but when I raise my hand, I am aware of all the women who are still in silence.”
Recently, Davis caused waves when she told the New York Times that she had some regrets about one of her most commercially successful roles to date, maid Aibileen Clark in The Help. The drama about racial tensions in the 60s was told mostly from the viewpoint of a white woman, played by Emma Stone. It was a box-office hit and led to a best actress Oscar nomination for Davis, but was seen by many critics as a whitewash of a shameful time in US history. Davis told the New York Times that, “I just felt at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard.”
|Dress, by David Koma, from Bloomingdales New York. Earrings, Jamie Wolf. Styling: Elizabeth Stewart. Hair: Jamika Wilson. Makeup: Autumn Moultrie. Photograph: Dylan Coulter for the Guardian|
She says now that the film was both a blessing and a curse. “Listen, The Help changed my life in a lot of different ways. First of all, the friendships that I got – that experience is something I know I’ll never have again. And Tate [Taylor, the director] is a great collaborator. I don’t want them to feel that I am blasting them in any way. It has nothing to do with the players. It has something to do with the culture – that I don’t feel that people want to see, want to hear that voice in that time period. Because what it will become is an indictment, and it shouldn’t be. I look back at that movie as a missed opportunity.”
In what way? “For me, it was just too filtered down,” Davis says. “I know Jim Crow, I understand that time period. It’s a 100-year time period that was rife with lots of violence and anger, and people with lost dreams and hopes. I wanted the frustration and that anger to be more palpable.”
On a more personal level, Davis expected that her most widely seen role would change her career. It didn’t. “I went right back to playing the same roles I did before The Help, only getting paid a little bit more money. It’s like you have to sift through sewage in order to get what you feel like you deserve. I was not a box-office draw. So I just went back to having my five or six days on a film.”
White actors, she says, are afforded a vast range of roles in comparison. “The Forbes list of the top 10 highest-paid actresses are all Caucasian,” she says. “Some of them haven’t even done a film in the past year, and they’re still up there.”
She praises her peers, women from Octavia Spencer to Taraji P Henson to Lupita Nyong’o, for producing and seeking out their own projects. (Spencer is set to produce and star in a new Netflix series about the first black, female self-made millionaire; Henson is executive producer on her upcoming remake of What Men Want; and Nyong’o is adapting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah). If there has been any improvement, Davis says, it is “only because the black women that I know have taken it into their own hands”. Without them, “I would say no, it has not changed. I still find that we only exist within certain genres.”
|With her Oscar, awarded in 2017 for best supporting actress in Fences. |
Photograph: Ullstein Bild
She points out that even her new role wasn’t specifically written for a black woman. “If I had turned down the role in Widows, it would have gone to a white actor. The same thing with a lot of Denzel Washington’s roles.”
Davis fell in love with acting at the age of six, when she saw Cicely Tyson in a TV adaptation of The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pitman (“That magic, how she transformed, the beauty of that artistry,” she recalls). She grew up desperately poor, born in what she has described as a “one-room shack” in South Carolina, before moving to Rhode Island with two of her four siblings, while the others stayed to live with her grandmother. Her father was a horse trainer; her mother a maid and factory worker, as well as a civil rights campaigner fighting for welfare reform. Aged two, Davis was with her mother at a protest outside Brown University, when she was arrested; they spent hours in a holding cell. At times Davis relied on school lunches as her only meal of the day.
But she enrolled in the theatre programme at high school and, after graduating from college, auditioned for the drama course at the Juilliard School, New York’s performing arts conservatory. She was 26 and won one of only 14 funded places; her audition was a monologue from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.
|Davis as Veronica in her new film Widows|
Looking back, she thinks she learned a lot from those gruelling early years. “I feel like my past has been the perfect foundation to teach me everything about this business and about life,” she says. “I know what it’s like not to have food. I know what it means to even have half of my refrigerator full, or not to have electricity and hot water, to have a job and a pay cheque. It was ripe ground to study human behaviour. Everyone knew who the town drunk was, who was beating their wife, everyone knew everyone’s mess. So that’s helped me greatly, informing my work.”She knew from an early age that she would have to work twice as hard as anyone else because she didn’t have any connections. “When I say connections, I don’t mean that I didn’t know Steven Spielberg, blah blah blah,” she says. “I mean a connection with someone who knows how to fill out a college application. Someone who knows how to get a job, so you can make at least minimum wage, so you can afford bus fare. I’m talking that. I’m talking low level.”
Davis struggled with her confidence in the early days. “I’m not an extroverted person,” she says, wrapping her robe tighter. “I used to have crippling social anxiety. When I first started acting, I would get bad stage fright and when I say bad, I mean heart palpitations. I would stop cold in rehearsal. I’d have people screaming at me just to open my mouth and say a word.” But she persevered. “This is socialisation on steroids, this business. I’m so much better than I used to be.”
She has been married for 15 years, to fellow actor Julius Tennon (“Me and my husband are really fun, we have some great parties”) and she talks with pride of their adopted daughter. Family are key; fame and fortune don’t automatically lead to happiness, she notes. “No one ever talks about significance. They talk about success.” It’s an important distinction for Davis. “When I was young, I said I wanted to be rich and famous. I’m really embarrassed by that. I wanted to be a great actress of the stage, I wanted people to throw flowers at me. People have thrown flowers at me, I’ve got my awards, all of that, and still, bam, disillusionment. Especially when you’re working so hard and you’re away from your family – you’re exhausted. There’s no measuring significance and living a life of purpose. Significance is something way deeper. It’s about legacy.”
|With her husband, actor Julius Tennon, and daughter. |
hotograph: Albert L Ortega
A legacy is something she takes seriously, and to this end she has set up her own production company, JuVee, with Tennon. This year they released two documentary series, Two Sides and The Last Defence, focusing on racial discrimination within the criminal justice system. “It will shift the pendulum because it’s changing the narrative for people of colour,” she says.
When she talks about the things most important to her, it’s easy to hear echoes of Davis’s rousing public speeches. “Sanford Meisner,” she continues, “who’s a great acting teacher, one of the things he says – and it’s my motto for life – is that the most important question an actor can ask is, ‘Why?’ So that’s been my big thing. Why don’t I have a say in whatever character I choose to play? Why can’t I speak up in a room? Why do I have to feel scared because I spoke up and I pissed someone off? Why can’t I call my agents and tell them how much I want to get paid? When I answer that question for myself and I see ‘nothing’ as the answer, it gives me the impetus to speak up. And I’ll tell you what else gives me the impetus to speak up: my daughter, that whole generation, who need to find their way.”
Davis recently published a book for children, an updated version of a 1968 classic, Corduroy, which she used to read to Genesis. She takes seriously her role as an inspiration for young girls of colour, many of whom even come to the house to seek advice. “I feel it’s my responsibility – just as a person who’s taking up space, and also because I have a production company – to be honest with them.” She encourages them to reject any imagined ceiling on their ambitions: “Just because we represent 20% of the population, doesn’t mean we just want 20% of the pie,” she tells me. “Or even 30% of the pie. We want the whole pie. We know we’re not going to get it, but I’m not going to tell my daughter, at eight years old, ‘Genesis, when you go out into the world, just be satisfied with that 20% because that’s all you’re allotted – that’s all you represent.’”
She remains hopeful, praising Streep, a friend, and Reese Witherspoon, for campaigning for change; and the #MeToo and TimesUp movements for their effect on the industry. “The silence is just not acceptable any more,” Davis says. “The old days of the 50s, of hiding your feelings and your desires and your dreams behind vacuum cleaners and perfectly applied lipstick and wax floors – hell, no! I think #MeToo/Time’s Up has a lot to do with it. People may see flaws in it, but one beauty is that women are stepping into who they are.”
She’s keen to find more roles that reflect real-life experiences. “I’ve gone through the heartache of losing a parent, the joys of being married, the joys of getting a job. I’ve lived a life, so when I read a script and it strikes me as being disingenuous – a person who’s not fully explored – that’s what stops me.”
Her next project might be her biggest part to date, playing Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, and the first woman to run for president, against Nixon, McGovern and George Wallace. Chisholm’s campaign slogan, “Unbossed and unbought”, might be Davis’s own mantra.
But her most pressing concern as I prepare to leave is whether she can bear to sit through a YouTube series that Genesis wants to watch (Genesis says it involves a hacker and someone called Rebecca Zamolo; Davis describes it as “mindless”.)
In a few weeks’ time, Widows will be released, something Davis is mildly anxious about, saying, “If it doesn’t do well, then I would take it personally. It’s the first movie that I can really say I was a lead in. So it’s more of a statement about me.” Still, she has a sort of fatalistic confidence: “I know that whatever the results are going to be, there’s a famous saying, ‘God willing and the creek don’t rise’. Meaning, if I’m still alive, whatever it takes, I’m going to continue.”