Success hasn’t come easy for the Oscar-winning star. She talks to Benjamin Lee about the limited roles black actors are offered, why The Help was a missed opportunity, and how she learned to take the lead – in life and on screen
In the opening scene of Widows, the new thriller from artist-turned-director Steve McQueen, Viola Davis lies in bed, passionately kissing her on-screen husband, Liam Neeson. A kiss between a married couple might not seem remarkable, but for Davis it is a groundbreaking moment.
“For me, this is something you’ll not see this year, last year, the year before that,” Davis says, sitting in her living room in Toluca Lake, Los Angeles. “That is, a dark-skinned woman of colour, at 53 years old, kissing Liam Neeson. Not just kissing a white man,” she adds, “Liam Neeson, a hunk. And kissing him sexually, romantically.”
We meet after Davis has finished her photoshoot for the Guardian, a simple grey robe now pulled over her shimmering evening gown. She turns up the heating in the sparsely furnished open-plan room that opens out on to the rest of the ground floor; assistants mill around the house, and her eight-year-old daughter, Genesis, who greeted me at the door, pops in and out.
Davis predicts that few people will want to talk about the significance of the Widows’ kiss. “Nobody will pay attention to that. And if you mention it to someone, I think they’ll feel like it’s hip and it’s funky that they didn’t notice it. But will you see it again?” she asks. “If you don’t think that’s a big deal, then tell me, why isn’t it happening more?” She sighs. “There’s a part of me that can answer that.”
After a three-decade career playing more than 75 mostly supporting roles, Widows – an adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s 1983 British miniseries – marks Davis’s first lead role in a major studio movie. She plays the wife of a master criminal (Neeson), forced to continue his work after his death. It’s a film that’s both familiar and fresh; a heist movie, but spearheaded by a group of strong-willed female characters (played by Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo) whose racial diversity is almost incidental, something that Davis says is unusual.
“I always say that one thing missing in cinema is that regular black woman,” she says, maintaining direct eye contact, as she does the whole time I’m with her. “Not anyone didactic, or whose sole purpose in the narrative is to illustrate some social abnormality. There’s no meaning behind it, other than she is just there.” Davis says she wants to play the sort of roles Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep have had. “I would love to have a black female Klute, or Kramer, or Unmarried Woman, or Annie Hall. But who’s gonna write it, who’s gonna produce it, who’s gonna see it, again and again and again?”
In the past 10 years, Davis has become one of the most decorated actors in Hollywood – winning Tonys for roles in August Wilson’s stage plays King Hedley II and Fences, an Oscar for the big-screen take on the latter and an Emmy for her performance in Shonda Rhimes’s pulpy TV series How To Get Away With Murder. She’s a Grammy short of an EGOT, a full sweep, but tells me it’s not going to happen: she can’t sing.
Davis refers to her latest role as a “gift” from McQueen, “because it was just a woman in the middle of a narrative who was facing personal challenges”. Widows is undoubtedly more multiplex-leaning fare than the director’s previous work (Hunger, 12 Years A Slave), though his script, co-written by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, raises issues of political corruption, poverty and police brutality.