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.