Viola Davis: “You’re not an actor if you create something based on a social message.”

This is a translated version of an article from Vogue Portugal. Viola was interviewed about her work in the film “Widows”.

The American actress is the protagonist of Widows , the latest film by Steve McQueen, which arrives in theaters in Portugal on November 15. Having this debut in sight, we wanted to talk to Viola Davis to get the conversation up to date.

There are few actresses with the talent and charisma of Viola Davis. For Steve McQueen, he is at the level of the great female stars of the 1940s: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Katherine Hepburn. Some may even disagree. After finishing his studies at the famous Julliard School, Davis began to build his name on the stage before venturing into the world of Cinema and Television. Steven Soderbergh was one of the first to notice in his talent, eventually choosing Viola for Out of Sight (1998), Traffic (2000) and Solaris (2002). Denzel Washington also surrendered to the American actress and worked with Davis in Antwone Fisher (2002) and Fences (2016).

His more mainstream mediatism came with his first Oscar nomination, with a small but overwhelming role in Doubt (2008), where he starred opposite Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It has achieved another milestone with The Help (2011), an emotional view of the vital, yet blatant, importance of the inequality and position of African-American maids in the southern US states at the height of the Civil Rights movement. It was with Fences that she finally won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress , an adaptation of Denzel Washington’s August Wilson play, which had previously performed and garnered a Tony Award. To complete the prize pool, Denzel’s feature film brought him a BAFTA and a Golden Globe , while the hit series How To Get Away With Murder earned him an Emmy , naming himself the first African- win a statuette for Best Actress in prime time.

Recently, Viola Davis is protagonist of Widows , the new film of Steve McQueen. In the feature film, she plays Veronica, the wife of the charismatic thief played by Liam Neeson, Harry. In this plot, she is left alone and needs to survive without her husband. In order to do so, he must carry out an assault he had already planned but left him behind and now needs to realize it with the help of the members of his widow gang. Elegant and reserved, Veronica is not the kind of woman who imagines herself to be performing an assault of this caliber, yet Viola Davis convinces her otherwise and shows that there is no other possible way to do so.

This is the type of paper that could result in more trophies to join the collection, but for Viola Davis herself, this work offers you two advantages. One of them the opportunity to work with McQueen, director of Hunger (2008), Shame (2011) and 12 Years A Slave (2013) – winner of an Oscar. The second was to have the power to break some boundaries and challenge some of Hollywood’s insights – something I discuss below.

Do you remember when you met Steve McQueen? Was it with this movie, or had it already been found?

I already knew him. I wanted to say it was about The Help … But it was definitely at the BAFTA party in Los Angeles. One of those conversations where he basically asked me, “Why do not you have better roles?” If they knew Steve, they knew he did not care what words he chose. Your forte is to move on, but I believe that was the theme of the conversation during the party.

McQueen said he sees her as a Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Have you ever told him that?

Yes, you did, and you added Marlon Brando to that equation. I try to wrap my mind around that! I always try to conjugate the way people see me and how I see myself, which may seem strange. Of course, I only see myself as Viola, the woman who does not wear makeup and who lives in a blanket when she is at home. But I like him to see me like this, because I’ve always questioned the way people see me in the past. I like that you look at me as someone so expansive. I like you to see me as a woman, so yes, I accept! (laughs)

What was the first view you had of this movie? Did you see the argument or was it through a phone call?

Steve came to my house to offer me the paper. Until then, I had not read anything. I was convinced by the fact that this was a film about an all-female robbery. But it was also very assertive with the other themes that I wanted to portray with this story. In particular, the questions of the social strata that go beyond the race. With me and Cynthia Erivo, you have two women of color, you have two African-American women, but two different levels, two different classes. Sometimes you bang your head and this is your own narrative, different from the one you see in the movies. I mean, he introduced me to it all. He told me everything and I keep telling people that Steve McQueen could have told me all this over the phone and I would have said yes. Could have spared the trip! I saw that this would be a project and a very interesting adventure with many good people. He has an eye for talent. I get many proposals and not all are good. I saw this project as a unique opportunity and I said yes.

Was there a particular moment that convinced you, or was it the whole context?

I’d like to say it was something different and more specific. But once again, you have to realize that this is all news to me. Even the way the movie begins, Liam Neeson is with me in bed, I have my natural hair and my dark skin. I have been an actress for 30 years and have never been offered a role like this. Even if the movie starts and ends like that, nobody ever offered me anything like that. And right now, no one will see this in any movie this year, or next, or the year to follow. And for more people say ‘this is not a big deal”, or’ that this is normal ‘. So why did not anyone ever do it? That’s my big question: why? He offers me the lead role, which was not written specifically for a woman of color. If I had said no, I would have gone to a Caucasian actress. You convinced me in my living room, I do not need much more.

What is your view of Veronica. How would you sum up her personality?

Veronica is a woman who, when she meets her, when she meets all these women, realizes that they are motivated by sadness and disappointment, the disappointment of their husbands. It’s kind of wake up call to the fact that most of their lives have been a lie. So from there, I started looking at her as a woman who is deciding two things. It’s a woman who wants her life back and who is deciding to live. I do not believe that most women who are mothers can have the death of a son and a husband very close to each other and not be practically devastated. The next step is a very large black hole. I see her as a woman who is leading this assault in a kind of metaphor to take charge of her life. That’s how I see Veronica.

She has that mask of leader and I think that is the case of many women. Often, we use these masks as drivers for our lives, a way to try to overcome our shame, our lack of self-esteem. One must look at Veronica, Linda, and Alice as women who lost their husbands in an assault, but these men were questionable men. The next question is, what did you do to attract them? That is the big question for the women who have clung to this type of men; it was money and status that you feel you can not have without them and when you die you are left without a safety net. It’s about having your own leadership and gaining your own leadership, it’s not an easy process, not an easy one.

Do you think she really did love Harry, or was it all a safety matter?

For me, the movie would not work if you did not believe she really did love that man. If you started with her saying ‘I did not really love him, he was a jerk, it was all for money’ that would not work. There is no purpose or motive if she does not truly love her husband. It’s a strong choice and I think that’s why Steve decided to open the movie with that image.

This moment is a very beautiful storytelling moment . We do not see many scenes of them together, but we see many layers of the relationship.

Yeah, and again, if I was in a relationship in any movie, you’d probably just hear me talk about it. (laughs) Usually, there is not room to play so many people, except in How To Get Away With Murder , but that’s because there is the vision of Shonda Ryhmes (creator of the North American series where Viola Davis is protagonist) and how she sees women of color. But beyond that, I see progress: there are many scenes that have never been done. There are Colin Farrel (as Jack Mulligan) and Molly Kunz (as Siobhan) in the car and they are talking on a real-time trip through different neighborhoods – starting with a poor man and ending up in a big mansion, which is a great life lesson about various classes and the poverty that exists.

I know I said it was liberating for me to play a woman who does not have any level of sexuality because she is in bed with Liam Neeson, who is considered a sex symbol . He is not my owner, I am not his property, he does not hit me. The man is truly in love with me and I’m in love with him. Which makes the public have all those beautiful questions that are rarely asked of people of color in the movies. Usually, these questions hang in the air and what is intended is a social message. Here, these questions are asked: where did they meet, how did they fall in love, and why? Did he do this to her? She likes him? The public spend time with us, there is the opportunity to see us as two human beings. This is revolutionary, in my opinion.

How is the creative process in this type of question? Make a sort of map about your character?

Yes, absolutely. It’s the only way to be an actor. That’s why I’m so active about being a person of color on the screen. When you’re preparing a character, you’re building a human being. I need to be a bit nerdy in the early days and sit down and say ‘ok. Where was my character born? Do I have brothers and sisters? What made me move to Chicago? When did I meet my husband? When is it we fall in love? ‘ Then, calmly but very assertively, you begin to build your human being. But without building it based on a social message. You are not an actor if you create something based on a social message. When you sit down to see a story, people see human beings, not ideas. In life you are someone with memories, traumas and specific achievements. This is a human being.

I’d like to ask you about the other three “Widows.” The Viola was chosen before them, how was their reaction when they knew who they were going to play with?

At first, I was very, very, very curious with Michelle Rodriguez. She’s one of those people whose reputation and energy precedes her, so I was very intrigued by her. I already knew Cynthia Erivo of Broadway times, I met her when I was in New York. As for Elizabeth Debicki, well, I knew absolutely nothing about her, I just knew she was an excellent actress. Sometimes you need to struggle to get that chemistry and sometimes it’s there. For us, the chemistry was there. We were all being persecuted for social stigma, things that people put into us and that, in some way, were debilitating. Elizabeth because of her height. Cynthia Erivo, yes she is a black woman, but she is a black woman of the United Kingdom. A black woman with all kinds of piercings, tattoos and blond hair. And Michelle Rodriguez for all the things we’ve already mentioned. We were all struggling against this image that had haunted us in the past.

The first time we met was in a five-star Michelin restaurant in Chicago, and I’m not exaggerating, even today I’m surprised that we were not expelled. We talk so loud. Same very high. No one was hiding, no one was using his inner voice, and while that was all happening, Steve McQueen was sitting with us worshiping the conversation and encouraging us. It was perfect.

In this film, I like the moment that Veronica assigns tasks to her team, she distributes them the wrong way because she does not really know them. It was very realistic.

The fact that I have taken the leadership position does not mean that I know what I am doing. My husband was the leader when he was alive, so I took his place. But that’s life. It does not interest me if you have a job from 9am to 5pm and you have the same routine day after day. I do not want to know the way you plan your life. You can not predict it. You simply can not. Everyday is a surprise. You do not know if tomorrow you’ll be alive. It is the coincidence of life. The improvisation of life. It’s only in movies that you know exactly where the story takes you, how it should end, how people should appear. If Liam has a wife, she needs to look like that, because that’s the kind of woman he’s drawn to, when in reality we do not know that! There are 324 million people in the United States of America. We do not know who they are attracted to. We do not know your secrets. We can not decipher the secrets of the people we’ve shared day-to-day for several years, and that’s the beauty of what we do as actors. We give him life, and the more honest, the more we can show all these things that I just mentioned.

She is one of the few people who, in the movie, interacts with all men. They represent the ancient forces that controlled the world for these women, is that right?

Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel, were literally intimidating me, which made me feel like a metaphor for my relationship with men and women. Of course, this is the basis of #MeToo and #TimesUp , when you are in the presence of a man, the dynamics are that of predator and prey, a dominant and submissive force, and as a woman you are always the weakest link .

But what she did not want to do in this movie, even Veronica being the leader, was to have the feeling of being inferior, which can often end you. When the robbery is about to happen, you feel you deserved it. It is a more realistic journey. How I feel like a woman. I love a good story about women. Wonder Woman is my favorite. In my life I do not feel like one. I do not feel like I’m in charge. I want women to feel less alone. But I really want to show you that it is possible to gain the leadership of your own lives, even with anxiety and all the chaos. It’s possible.

I do not want to sell you the fantasy about what it means to live in this world as a woman – if that makes sense. In this film I feel this, I was not a superheroine. I actually feel that reality has been intersected in this narrative and I think that’s what made these women more powerful.

Have you heard any feedback from the people who watched the movie? Did the people notice the messages they wanted to pass?

I definitely felt like a lot of people absorbed good things about this movie, things that we’ve already talked about. But I do not hear much because there is a part of me that believes we are in a zeitgeist . Michelle Rodriguez said something very beautiful: as women, we are increasingly insurgent. This is happening to people of color, all these things. There are a number of criticisms that I do not listen to because I see that 95% of the criticism is of men and many of them of Caucasian men and it is through this look that this film is seen and, many times, I do not believe it.

The value of women in Cinema is based on how we dress and our youth. And we can say, and agree, that this is not our value. If they do not see a sexy woman , I think it might affect you. The opening scene may shock some people because, once again, Liam Neeson is not my owner, he is not my owner, he is my husband. That’s where it starts and ends. And this should not stop the filmmakers from putting their truth. We must continue to fight for these truths and have the courage to fight for our voice.

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