Category: Interviews

Viola Davis on What ‘The Help’ Got Wrong and How She Proves Herself

Viola did a recent interview with the New York Times where she answers fan questions. She talks about roles that she regrets and the challenges she has faced in her career.

TORONTO — The Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis is the star of the new crime drama “Widows,” which debuted here last week at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be in theaters Nov. 16.

I sat down with Ms. Davis at the Ritz-Carlton to ask her questions from our readers. They wanted to know about past roles, challenges and regrets, and she spoke about what “The Help” lacked and how “Widows” made her feel vulnerable. Here are edited excerpts from her responses.

Can you share either your top three personal or professional challenges that have greatly influenced your career? — Mohun, Dallas

I’d say, No. 1, finding really great dramatic or great roles that I felt were worthy of my potential and talent.

No. 2, always having to prove my ability. I’ve had to do that in sometimes substandard material, sometimes good material, but very very seldom times great material.

No. 3 would be responsibility. The responsibility of feeling like I am the great black female hope for women of color has been a real professional challenge. Being that role model and picking up that baton when you’re struggling in your own life has been difficult. Looking at the deficit and seeing that once you’re on top, you can either take the role of leadership or you can toss it in the garbage and say, “I’m just out to save myself.” I choose to be the leader.

What was the first day of filming with Meryl Streep [for “Doubt”] like? — SNA, New Jersey

Absolutely terrifying, but not because of anything that she was projecting. She could not be any less intimidating. Everything was coming from me, 100 percent. It was a rehearsal. We rehearsed it first because it’s based on a play. So I showed up an hour early, and I just stared at the door waiting for her to come in. And I think I probably ran up to her when she first came through the door, which I’m sure she’s used to, but when I look at it in hindsight I’m very embarrassed.

Have you ever passed on a role and regretted it? — Toti Plascencia, Chicago

I have passed on a lot of roles. There have been one or two that I regretted for maybe a minute, and then I let it go. As I’m growing older, I pass on roles because of my experience of knowing once the movie’s out, I’m going to have to promote it. And I don’t want to promote anything that I don’t believe in.

Almost a better question is, have I ever done roles that I’ve regretted? I have, and “The Help” is on that list. But not in terms of the experience and the people involved because they were all great. The friendships that I formed are ones that I’m going to have for the rest of my life. I had a great experience with these other actresses, who are extraordinary human beings. And I could not ask for a better collaborator than Tate Taylor.

I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard. I know Aibileen. I know Minny. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom. And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie.

What character has been the toughest to portray? — Lauren McMillen, W.Va.

Rose in “Fences” was difficult because it was difficult translating it to the screen.

Annalise Keating [from the TV series “How to Get Away With Murder”] is tough because I have to go into a realm that is not me. She has a very colorful sexual life. I would not describe myself as being that person.

And Veronica [in “Widows”] was very difficult because she’s got a vulnerability that cost me something as Viola. That has something to do with images onscreen. How many movies have you seen where you see a dark-skinned woman of 53 with her natural hair in bed with Liam Neeson? But I had to get past the fact of what the outside world has not seen, and focus on what the world was.

All of my characters cost me something. I feel like if they don’t cost me anything, then I’m not doing my job.

Viola Davis Knows What’s Wrong With Hollywood… and How to Fix It

Viola is featured on the newest issue of Variety magazine. She talks about her new film Widows that is premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, the Hollywood Pay Gap, and other issues that she has faced in Hollywood.

It was a familiar dilemma for Viola Davis. What to do with her hair?

The star of the upcoming film “Widows” needed to know what kind of wig or extensions she should wear to play Veronica Rawlins, the leader of an unlikely band of robbers scrambling to pull off a dangerous heist. Director Steve McQueen’s answer shocked the Emmy-, Tony- and Oscar-winning actress.

“I said, ‘Your own hair is beautiful — just wear it that way,’” recalls McQueen. “Veronica is a wash-and-go kind of girl.”

For Davis, the decision to appear on-screen in close-cropped, curly hair was liberating and represented an important social statement.

“You’re always taught as a person of color to not like your hair,” she says. “The kinkier it is, the so-called nappier it is, the uglier it is.”

McQueen stressed that he was interested in reflecting reality. More women looked like her, he told the actress, than like the artificial and idealized images of female beauty that Hollywood frequently projects.

“We’re into a zeitgeist where people are fighting for their space to be seen,” says Davis. “People have to know that there are different types of women of color. We’re not all Foxy Brown. We’re not all brown or light-skinned beauties with a big Afro. We have the girl next door. We have the older, dark-skinned, natural-haired woman.”

“Widows,” which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival and debuts in theaters on Nov. 16, represents other important firsts for Davis. It’s a commercial action pic from a major studio (20th Century Fox) that rises or falls on her performance, as well as a chance for the 53-year old actress to solidify her position on the A-list. Julius Tennon, Davis’ husband of 15 years and the co-founder of their production company JuVee, says the impact could be seismic.

“This could change the face of her career up to this point,” he says. “It’s a chance for Viola to be seen as the lead actor in a global movie.”

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American Libraries Newsmaker: Viola Davis

Viola Davis has accrued some serious hardware—an Emmy, a Golden Globe, an Oscar, and two Tonys—for her roles in film, television, and theater. Now the actor is taking on children’s literature. American Libraries caught up with Davis to talk about libraries, storytelling, and her forthcoming book, Corduroy Takes a Bow (Viking Books for Young Readers, September), before her Closing Session appearance at the 2018 Annual Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans on June 26.

What was the inspiration for Corduroy Takes a Bow? Was Corduroy an iconic character for you growing up?

He was an iconic character for me, but more so for my daughter Genesis. I would read to her every single night, and that was the book that stuck. I had to read it over and over and over again. I’m always trying to please my daughter. I always think, “What can I give my daughter?” It’s an homage to her.

What was it like stepping into the role of a children’s book author?

Intimidating. The thing about the world of children’s books is you have to allow the character to be who they are. You have to allow Corduroy to be curious without making him look like he’s mischievous. There’s got to be a lightness to it. Just to be able to tell a fluid story, to have that friendship between Lisa and Corduroy, to keep it fun—it was intimidating.

What role have libraries had in your life?

[Libraries] changed my life. I remember I was in kindergarten at Broad Street School, and school would be out at 2 o’clock, and I would walk to Adams Memorial Library on Central Avenue in Central Falls [Rhode Island]. I would stay there until it got dark.

It was almost like stepping into the Land of Oz. I would just take book after book after book off the shelf. It was a relief from my life—that’s how I saw it.

Then there were the librarians. Denise always saved half of her lunch for me. It was like Pavlov’s dog. As soon as I ran into the library, I would stand by the front desk and wait for Denise. She always had half a tuna-fish sandwich and a little cake [for me], and then I’d go downstairs to the children’s section.

Your production company, JuVee Productions, emphasizes character-driven narratives and mentorship. How do you decide what projects to take on and whose voices to amplify?

I always try to amplify the voices of people who are usually voiceless and on the periphery. The docuseries The 4%—4% of prisoners who are on death row are actually innocent. Two Sides of the Truth—police-involved shootings from both perspectives. Hollywood wouldn’t necessarily push these stories, but they intrigue me. I have to feel like I’m not watering it down to make it palpable.

Manchild in the Promised Land [by Claude Brown] was the first serious book that I read that changed my life. It was straight, no chaser. It was honest and insightful and that’s what I look for in narratives: what’s different, what’s going to wake people up, what’s going to give them a dose of truth.

In interviews you’ve spoken out about the gender pay gap. Librarianship is a profession that’s about 85% women but still deals with similar inequities. Was there a piece of advice someone gave you, or something you learned, to help you combat inequities in your career?

When I first started out, I just had to take the job. I didn’t have any money for my Screen Actors Guild card. But at a certain point, you have to understand your worth. At a certain point, you have to say no. That’s what women have to understand, because men do it. Men do it with even less of a résumé. And I always use [TV producer] Shonda Rhimes’s quote: “I deserve everything that I get, because when I walk in the room I expect to get it.”

Is there any other genre or creative outlet you’d like to take on? Are you going to go for the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony)?

If I were to give you an honest response, I would say no. I’ve gotten increasingly not ambitious. I want to be on the beach in Hawaii somewhere. I want to meditate, even though I’m crappy at meditation.

But every genre imaginable, I would love to take on. I watch Jurassic Park, I’m like, “I’d like to run from some dinosaurs.” I love character-driven anything. I just want to be woken up. I just want to be surprised.

No one knows what works anymore. Sometimes tentpole movies don’t work. They have the tendency to have the same archetypes. If someone says, “When did film start becoming different?,” I want my name to be in there. And the EGOT thing … yeah, maybe [laughs].

America Inside Out – The Revolt : Watch the full episode.

Recently Viola was one of the actresses featured on America Inside Out … here is a clip of the full episode.

From famous actors to tech trailblazers to domestic workers, Katie Couric talks to change makers about why we still haven’t achieved gender equality.

The mighty voice of Viola Davis

Women in the World released this video of Viola’s discussion from yesterday!

Viola Davis talks about a life journey that’s taken her from the depths of privation to the heights of Hollywood, overcoming discrimination against her race, gender and poverty all the way.

Viola Davis: ‘I do see a moment becoming a movement’

The Associated Press released a slightly more complete part of Viola’s discussion at Women in the World Summit yesterday.

At the Women in the World Summit in New York, Viola Davis discusses the visible effect of Time’s Up in Hollywood and how concerned she is about the real-life impact of sexual assault on women.

Strong Statements with Viola Davis

Viola is on the cover of the new Net-A-Porter Magazine.

When an actress is as straight-talking, insightful and impassioned as VIOLA DAVIS, nothing is out of bounds – as she puts it, authenticity is her rebellion. AJESH PATALAY hears from one of TV’s most candid stars about sexual liberation, the value of women of color, and her #MeToo experiences

There is no shortage of women raising their voices against abuse and injustice right now. But what a woman, and what a voice, is Viola Davis. On January 20, the Oscar-winning actress took to the stage at the Women’s March in LA to speak about rape and trafficking, and how no change is great unless it costs us something. She did the equivalent with words of reaching into our chests and tearing at our heartstrings.

And not for the first time, either. On winning an Emmy in 2015 for her role as law professor Annalise Keating in ABC’s hit series How to Get Away with Murder (the first African American ever to win in the Lead Actress category), Davis didn’t squander the moment with thank yous. Instead, she talked about the lack of opportunity for women of color, quoting her heroine Harriet Tubman, and delivered one of the most rousing speeches of the year: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes – people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black.”

One newspaper called it “a masterclass in delivery”. But they might as well have called it a masterclass in one woman knowing exactly how she feels and not being afraid to say it. Which is how I find her, sitting on a sofa in a house in the Hollywood Hills, talking frankly about everything you’d want her to set the record straight about: #MeToo; ‘Time’s Up’; the gender pay gap; #OscarsSoWhite; and, well, the How to Get Away with Murder/Scandal crossover episode, which brings together the characters of Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington) and Keating for the first time ever. “I don’t know how else to describe it,” Davis says, beaming. “It felt like we were creating history. I mean, to have two really strong, well-written, well-rounded characters in the same room together, who are women of color? It’s black-girl magic at its best.”

Davis knows all too well that roles like Annalise Keating don’t come along often, “especially for a woman who looks like me,” she says. “I’m 52 and darker than a paper bag. Women who look like me are relegated to the back of the bus, auditioning for crackheads and mammas and the person with a hand on her hip who is always described as ‘sassy’ or ‘soulful’. I’ve had a 30-year career and I have rarely gotten roles that are fleshed out, even a little bit. I mean, you wouldn’t think [these characters] have a vagina. Annalise Keating has changed the game. I don’t even care if she doesn’t make sense. I love that she’s unrestricted, that every week I actually have to fight [showrunner] Peter Nowalk not to have another love scene. When does that ever happen?”

Has playing voracious Annalise changed the way she sees herself sexually? “Yes, and it’s been a painful journey,” she says, laughing, presumably because these sex scenes often take place across desks and up against walls. “It costs me something,” she continues, more earnestly, “because very rarely in my career – and in my life – have I been allowed to explore that part of myself, to be given permission to know that is an aspect of my humanity, that I desire and am desired. I always felt in playing sexuality you have to look a certain way, to be a certain size, to walk a certain way. Until I realized that what makes people lean in is when they see themselves. There’s no way I am going to believe that all women who are sexualized are size zero or two, all have straight hair, all look like sex kittens every time they go to bed and want sex from their man, all are heterosexual. I am mirroring women. I always say it is not my job to be sexy, it’s my job to be sexual. That’s the difference.”

She breaks off: “That’s my daughter, by the way.” And there, standing behind me, is a pretty girl in a blue dress. “Say hi, Gigi! I’m doing an interview.” Mother and daughter blow kisses to each other across the room, and then the six-year-old, whose name is actually Genesis, scoots off with her nanny. It’s a side to Davis I’d like to see more of, the doting mother. I’d also like to see more of the off-duty side; the Davis who throws barbecues and drinks tequila and likes hot-tubbing with her actor-producer husband, Julius Tennon. “I’m actually fun,” she cries at one point, as if to free herself from all this serious talk. But we both know she has a lot more to say, including about race.

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