Viola Davis (“The Help,” “Doubt”) was honored at the 28th Chicago Film Festival on Monday, October 22, 2012, with a Career Achievement Award during the Black Perspectives evening. She was introduced by television reporter Robin Roberts and interviewed by fellow actress Regina Taylor.
Here were some of her remarks:
Q: Tell us about your background.
A: I was born in St. Matthews, South Carolina (on the former Singleton Plantation), delivered by my grandmother, but we moved to Central Falls, Rhode Island when I was 2 months old, in 1965. I have 4 sisters and a brother and I am the second from the youngest.
Q: Did any of your siblings want to act?
A: Oh, yes. My younger sister Diane went to Howard to study acting, but she eventually decided, “I need to have a steady job with insurance and that sort of thing, and gave it up.”
Q: By what route did you come to acting?
A: Well, when you grow up in abject poverty, the only black family in town, it allows you to express yourself.
Q: Who was influential in your becoming an actress?
A: Cicely Tyson, when I saw her in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” Watching her entertain and create a fully rounded human being. At age 6 I said, “That’s what I want to do. Plus, there was my sister’s storytelling of living in the segregated South.
A: I went to college at Central Falls College in Rhode Island and graduated in 1988, but then I gave myself a year off to “find myself” before I went to Julliard Drama School for 4 years.
Q: Did you have certain mentors?
A: Yeah. Sure. Sometimes, though, you find it in moments, not in people. I always looked for the ropes. Me trying to fit into the classical very white training that Julliard has (Chekhov, Ibsen, etc.) was difficult. Sometimes, they try to pretend that you’re not black or that you’re not yourself. You go out onstage to audition and you try not to have a broad nose. You try to be the cute one. It takes imagination.
Q: You did find your voice?
A: It took me some time and it behooves me to be an observer. We don’t recognize the truth any more, sometimes. I need the truth. I need the moment when Troy (Denzel Washington in the play “Fences”) tells Rose (Viola’s part opposite Denzel as his wife) that he’s been seeing another woman and is going to have a baby with her.”
Q: Let’s go back to the beginning.
A: I was in “City of Angels” and I kept saying of a TV part, “I’m Nurse Lynette Peeler”…”OR1! OR!” Sometimes, as the old saying goes, you have to kiss some frogs to find your prince. (Viola shared that she met her husband, Julius Tennon,whom she has been married to since 2003, onset during her “OR1” days). Then, I did “Antwone Fisher” in 2002.
Q: Do you think silence is an important thing in your acting?
A: Silence is just as much a part of what we do (as actors). What is happening in silence is a part of the dialogue. Silence is interior dialogue, versus exterior dialogue.
Q: But you made the mother in “Antwone Fisher” very human.
A: Yes, absolutely.
Q: You play complex roles. Was there ever a time when you thought, “I can’t do this!”
A: Every time I say, ” I can’t do it. I just can’t do it.” I said that with “The Help.” I’m anal and neurotic about the narrative. I know that sometimes the political message is what comes through rather than the execution. For instance, me being caught in the role of being a black maid with a broken dialect in the 60s…I knew it would be controversial. Anthony Hopkins can play Hannibal Lector (in “Silence of the Lambs”) and just walk into a great narrative and humanize someone. So many of the roles where you have to create it internally (not externally) don’t get the glory. They just don’t. Without you saying a word, it is a dialogue when you’re acting. You have to problem solve. It’s not always on the page.
Q: But you did (problem solve the role of Aibileen) and brilliantly. How has that role changed things for you?
A: My whole life changed because “The Help” made money. What changed after that is that I have more power to walk into a room and possibly push some buttons to get a part. But everything is in the narrative. It’s gotta’ be on the page. If it’s not on the page, I can’t create it. It’s like having a great body but only $10 to go to the store to buy clothes. You cannot show who you are without a great narrative. That’s why I’m founding a production company (with her husband). We have optioned some material on Harriet Tubman and Sam Rockwell is attached. And we have an option on something dealing with Barbara Jordan.
[At this point, a clip from the film “Solaris” with George Clooney was shown. The 2002 film, directed by Steven Soderbergh, was thematically similar to Ray Bradbury’s “Mars Is Heaven.” It was written, says Viola, by a Polish science fiction writer. I saw the film, and it was confusing, at best, with Natascha McElhone playing Clooney’s wife who is dead, but the bizarre planet the research station is orbiting makes him think she is still alive. The film was not a commercial or critical success.
Following the clip, Viola said:
“That role definitely fits under the category of not knowing what-the-hell I was doing! My character in the book was an old white Polish guy. The only thing it was about was this planet, which was a metaphor for science. We don’t know what-the-hell we’re talking about (in that scene).”
Q: How is Steven Soderbergh as a director?
A: I love him. He gets me. He is very calm. That’s why people become your friends and walk into your life. He (Soderbergh) explains things in a very simple way. I think he’s a great director.
Q: We met when you were appearing in “7 Guitars” here in town, and I came backstage to meet you.
A: Yes…people said to me: “You look like Regina Taylor.” I remember I was freezing to death, but I’m at the Goodman doing this play, and I was so happy.
Q: What is the biggest difference between working on the stage and working on film?
A: I was such a purist that I would never look in the mirror (when doing plays). I’m so aware of what I’m projecting onscreen. Onscreen, you have to be smaller (in your gestures and facial expressions.) I’m watching myself more (for film). I find myself more aware of containment. You have to be really honest. Every once in a while, if it’s there, I can explode.
A clip of Viola’s Oscar-nominated role opposite Meryl Streep (and Philip Seymour Hoffman) in “Doubt” is shown, and she responds to the question, “What were you doing in that scene with Meryl Streep?”
A: I was watching Meryl Streep! I had seen the play. It was a really hard audition. We went from Los Angeles to New York City and I thought I was one of only a couple actresses who were being put in costume and make-up for the audition, but, when I got to New York City, there were 4 or 5 others, all of us dressed as Mrs. Miller in hair and make-up. How nerve-racking to be on a stage with 5 other Mrs. Millers and to hear them audition and to listen while people applauded and said things like, “She really knocked it out of the park! The play (“Doubt”) is not just about the Catholic Church. It’s a litmus test about how we judge others. That is the Number One issue I have. I want to play a person—not political roles or symbols. I thought it was more interesting if I played Mrs. Miller as a person with a Sophie’s choice—the lesser of two evils. She is feeling, “I really believe my son is gay.” Some suggested I should play her as colder, but I know women who will literally give their kids money for heroin rather than watch them go through the hell of withdrawal.
Q: Where were you when you learned you had been Oscar nominated as Best Supporting Actress for your 11 minutes onscreen in “Doubt?
A: I was at the Four Seasons with a bottle of champagne.
Q: What happens when you become an Oscar nominee?
A: Well, it starts with Broadcast Film Critics’ awards. It starts about the end of October and ends at the Academy Awards. By the time you get to the Oscars, you’ve probably already won a SAG award and then you do 12 hours of interviews.
(A clip is shown of Aibileen Clark in “The Help” facing down Hilly and being fired.)
“I tried to buy the rights to ‘The Help’ when I heard about the book. I thought I could throw $500 at the writer/director, but I went from trying to buy the rights to begging to be in the movie.
Q: What was the press circuit like?
A: The press circuit taught me to find my voice. I knew it was going to happen that this would be controversial. I was smart enough to figure that out ahead of time. I had never experienced having to defend any of my role choices. It’s like wigs. I like wigs, and I have a lot of them and will probably wear them again, but every time I put one on, I felt like I was doing “Jay Leno” again. I was forcing people to see me differently. There comes a time in your life when you can’t force people to see you. You have to be yourself and like yourself, and that’s when people like you.
Q: People don’t understand the fights that we have to have during the creative process.
A: True. It gave me power in knowing that. There are a lot of actors I admired in the past who had the narratives and made them work. I’m not gonna’ throw the baby out with the bathwater. I can’t do that. I’m here to humanize it, not to judge it. I had to constantly reiterate that throughout my journey with “The Help.”
Q: What was it like to be nominated alongside Meryl Streep?
A: Listen, I’ve been doing this for 25 years. I am humble, but at some time I have to step into the experienced artist that I am. I think that confidence and humility can exist alongside each other. But, after the Oscar nomination, the thing that came to my mind was, “Now what?” Is this a destination or is it a key to opening the door to great roles for women who look like me. I think it was Kathy Bates who called it “the Oscar curse.” She said that after she won for “Misery” her phone didn’t ring for 2 years. Does this mean more work? All of these things are up in the air. I want what Meryl Streep and Diane Lane and other actresses want. There’s room for all types of narratives. I stand in solidarity with them. I want expansive storylines for you, for me, for Gabourey Sidibe, for Monique.
Viola shared with Chicago “Tribune” critic Michael Phillips in an interview (October 19, 2012) that she and her husband are forming their own production company, as Tom Cruise and others have done.
(To Michael Phillips): “Onscreen, I have had so many great experiences, but, like a lot of people, I feel I haven’t yet had the role that reflects all I can do. I look at that young actress from ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ (Quvenzhasne Wallis) and I think to myself: Okay, let’s fantasize. Let’s say she gets an Academy Award nomination. Let’s imagine then that she wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. What’s next? What’s out there for her? What’s going to carry her throughout her career-through her teens and her 40’s and 60s?”
This is why Viola Davis and husband Julius Tennon have established their own production company. But it substantially represents a bigger Hollywood and national issue.
Viola was articulating the age-old quest and lament that there are no roles for mature female actresses in Hollywood. (Viola Davis is 47).The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be as wide an audience for mature potrayals of adults by adults as once existed. It’s primarily a market aimed at the youth market, or so it seems lately.
With the price of movie tickets skyrocketing and home theaters becoming more popular with video-on-demand and Netflix and streaming movies and the competition from HBO and Showtime and other diversions, only the young who are going out on a date flock to theaters. And even the young often have to be lured there by promises of 3D or some other gimmick.
This is apt to get worse, not better, as audiences age and stay at home more for their movie viewing experience(s). No longer is the shared audience experience desired, especially if the person next to you is texting or talking on his cell phone throughout the film.
At a recent commercial film I attended in a small town setting (the most recent of the Bourne films), all 4 of the previews that preceded the showing were for horror films aimed at a young audience. Almost none of my friends in the older demographic are film buffs. The film that lures the middle-aged (or older) consumer who is not in the big city is rare.
And city film buffs face other obstacles to enjoying a Viola Davis role. Add to the cost of a ticket (upwards of $10) the parking fee(s) incurred at places like the AMC parking lot ($36 if you go over 4 hours is the norm, although the festival has managed to negotiate a discount down to $18) and you have a ticket price (forget the overpriced snacks) that is high, a parking fee (in Chicago) that is astronomical, and a very expensive evening at a time when the economy—(in case the politicians haven’t mentioned this in the past 30 seconds)—is not doing that well.
Normally, I attend films in the Illinois/Iowa Quad Cities, where we park for free and have $3 Wednesday matinees, but the best films that Viola Davis may make in the future would possibly never play such outposts of civilization. (Population 350,000 – 500,000). So cities like Chicago are where Viola’s movies will need to be seen, and, (although the Icon on Roosevelt road in Chicago hasn’t started charging for parking—yet) I wonder if audiences that genuinely want to see quality film performances will patronize the films that Viola Davis’ production company will make, overcoming all the obstacles in their way to do so?
I hope so, because Viola Davis is a genuine artist. Her performance onstage in “Fences” on Broadway opposite Denzel Washington as Rose (which I saw from the front row) was a true revelation. And her remarks this night were entertaining, insightful and genuine.