Viola Davis, a two-time Tony winner, landed her first major leading film role in The Help and has already won the Critics’ Choice Movie Award and the SAG Award for best actress as well as Oscar and BAFTA nominations in a fiercely competitive year. It’s a season in which he finds herself again vying in the same category with her Doubt co-star Meryl Streep among others (the pair were also Oscar-nominated for that film at the 2009 Academy Awards). But no matter what happens, Davis is proud of her film, which is based on the best–selling book that she originally tried to option herself before learning that director Tate Taylor was already one step ahead of her. Fortunately, things worked out in the end for Davis, Taylor and especially moviegoers. She spoke with Deadline Awards Columnist Pete Hammond about playing maids, awards season and the keepers of history.
Revolutionizing the craft in the wake of her role models
Cicely Tyson [her Help co-star] was an inspiration because before that time the only images of African Americans on screen were in sitcoms. I can name 15 sitcoms and no dramas that were on TV: What’s Happening?, Good Times, That’s My Momma, Baby I’m Back and Sanford and Son. … Then Miss Jane Pittman’s autobiography came along and I saw something different. I saw a craft and I saw magic, and transformation. For me, that’s what I wanted to do. I saw the difference between the gimmick, and the actor who was creating a human being; and I still always seek that in the work. And especially with people who look like me. You know, I found with a lot of the images that were playing out there were the Jimmy J.J. Walker, the Re-run, the George Jefferson, the George Sanford, they were always caricatures, larger-than-life entertainers. And when I set about becoming an actress I didn’t know the lonely path of the black artist. That the black artist is usually reduced, as Isabelle Sanford was, as was the role John Amos played. If you didn’t kind of reduce what you do and take a role opposite a Jimmy J.J. Walker or a Re-run, then you probably wouldn’t work. I often wondered what those actors felt like — being trapped in those sitcoms trying to make that material work for them. But I didn’t want to do that; I wanted to be an actor, not an entertainer, and Cicely Tyson was it for me.
Competing with Doubt co-star Meryl Streep
She sends me personal threats [laughter]. No, I really don’t believe in competition between actors. … Everybody comes to the race with a different set of tools. We all have different narratives; all of our narratives are at different stages of development. I have been a professional actor for 23 years, I have been doing it for over 30 years, and my hard is not the same as Tilda Swinton’s hard or Meryl Streep’s hard. I know actors who can play the fool in King Lear and Malvolio. They can play seemingly difficult characters, but if they were to play kinda someone who was close to who they were, like in a David Rabe play, they couldn’t do it. Now you could find some actors who can do that real easy, but if they were to play a character in a Shakespeare play they couldn’t pull it off. Everybody has their same level. You can’t say she should have won that role because that character was more difficult — by whose standards? There is no best. Everybody checks off that box for different reasons: Someone was overdue, someone turned me on or they didn’t like what someone said in a Q&A in Santa Monica.
Nothing to squander historically
I played several maids in my career. I was tired of the maid after Far From Heaven. I said, no more maids. Until I realized how difficult it was to get a role other than a maid, sometimes, in Hollywood, and sometimes you have to choose your battles for lack of a better term. I made peace with Aibileen. I liked her. I got her. There’s something about her in that book for me that’s so real. And it’s like Uta Hagen said, “Your job as an actor is to create a three-dimensional human being, completely different from yourself, with vulnerabilities, with heart,” and to me, I saw it as an opportunity to do that. And she was a maid. So I said, “I’m just going to focus on the person.” … And I find so much, I really have to find my voice as an actress in the promoting of this movie, but I find so much that we keep silent about, so much of our past. We either revise it or erase it. We very seldom face it as individuals and as a race of people. This is our dirty little secret. Our dirty little secret is race, our dirty little secret is sexism, but our dirty little secret is also that we as African Americans, we never want to show the people who weren’t, who didn’t make it in the history books. [We don’t want to show people] who weren’t pretty, who weren’t the winners; who were wonderfully, terrifically ordinary. August Wilson created a cycle of 10 plays and every character he created was beautifully, richly ordinary. Not one noble person in terms of status amongst them, just people who dreamed big dreams. I think they are the keepers of history.