Home Interviews Interview With Oscar Nominee Actress: Viola Davis
Interview With Oscar Nominee Actress: Viola Davis PDF Print E-mail
Written by Kam Williams   
Saturday, 17 September 2011 15:44

Davis majored in theatre at Rhode Island College, graduating in 1988.  In 2002, she received an honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts from the college.  She was involved in the federal TRIO Upward Bound and TRIO Student Support Services programs.  While Davis was a teenager, her talent was recognized by Bernard Masterson when, as director of Young People's School for the Performing Arts in Rhode Island, he awarded Davis a scholarship into that program.

Davis is also a graduate of the prestigious Juilliard School, Viola Davis built an exceptional background in theater productions and has continued to perform on the stage throughout her television and film career. Making her feature-film debut in 1996 as a nurse in The Substance of Fire, she followed that up with several TV movies and guest-star appearances on dramatic series like Law & Order and NYPD Blue.

She went on to play another nurse in City of Angels, a hospital drama with a predominately African-American cast that didn't last long on CBS. She began collaborating with Steven Soderbergh for Out of Sight, and went on to star in two of the director's subsequent films, Traffic and Solaris.  In 2001, she appeared in Kate and Leopold as well as in Oprah Winfrey's television presentation of Amy & Isabelle. The following year, she landed parts in both Far From Heaven and in Denzel Washington's directorial debut, Antwone Fisher.  However, in 2008 she made the most of a modest but critical role as the mother in John Patrick Shanley's screen adaptation of his award-winning play, Doubt. Although her screen time was minimal, her indelible performance garnered Viola an Academy Award nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category.
 It is important to note that Davis won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play and a Drama Desk Award for her role in King Hedley II (2001). She won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for her role in the 2010 production of Fences. In 2010, Davis became the second African-American actress in U.S. history who won at least twice a Tony Award (the first female was Audra McDonald in 1998 for Ragtime).  She also was granted a second Drama Desk Award for Intimate Apparel (2004).
Here, she talks about her latest outing as Aibileen in The Help, a compelling tale of survival, set in Mississippi during the waning days of Jim Crow segregation, which explores the unspoken tensions simmering just below the surface between well-to-do white women and their African-American maids.  
Kam Williams: Hi Viola [Davis], thanks for the interview. I’ve admired your work for a long time, so I’m very honored to have this opportunity to speak with you finally.

Viola Davis: Thank you, Kam [Williams].
KW: I have a lot of questions sent in by fans, so let me get right to them. Legist/Editor Patricia Turnier [of www.megadiversities.com] asks: What message do you want people to take away from The Help?
VD: That anything can be achieved with a good, healthy dose of courage. These ordinary people who are just kind of just going about their lives are transformed into heroes because they have the courage to put their voices out there. I think that’s a powerful message in this time of political strife.
KW: Patricia [Turnier] also asks: Are there any unwritten rules which are part of the movie industry?
VD: Yes, there are a lot of unwritten rules in the industry.
KW: Film director Kevin Williams says: Congratulations on another great performance! How did you approach your role and the material in such a way that it manages to stand out from other Civil Rights era films?

VD: Well, I made a choice to humanize this woman beyond her uniform is what I did. I made a choice to explore Aibileen fully: her joys, her grief at losing her son, her journey in finding a purpose in life, because when you meet her, she has basically died to herself after losing her child. So, that’s what I did. I created a human being. That’s not what you usually see in a maid. You see the woman cooking in the kitchen or taking care of a child, and she comes up, says her one line, and then she goes back into the kitchen. So, I made a choice to use my craft to create a character.

KW: Rene Harris says: I read an article in which you were quoted as saying it is a painful certainty that you will never see a contemporary black woman on screen as layered and complex as you. Do you expect someday to be in a position to greenlight just such a story someday?
VD: Oh, absolutely! My husband [Julius Tennon] and I started a production company. We’ve already optioned a book and some scripts to do exactly that, to create more complicated, multi-faceted roles for African-Americans, especially African-American females. I think it’s important. Cicely Tyson was my inspiration to become an actor. And one of the people I’ve always wanted to emulate in pursuing that dream was Meryl Streep, in terms of the different types of roles she’s been able to play and the number of different stories she’s been able to tell. I know very few black actors who’ve been given the opportunity to do that. I want to do what she does. I want to span different genres. I want to be able to transform. I want to be able to be sexy, and funny, and quirky, and all the other things that I am. And I feel that the best way that I can achieve that is by producing. I am not a writer, but I feel that when our production company is successful, we’ll be able to give some young writers with fresh voices an opportunity to put their work out there.

KW: Rene [Harris] was also wondering whether there are any books that present complex women of African descent that you might consider getting the rights to?
VD: Oh, there are 50 million of them! I already optioned a book called The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B004J8HXSG/ref%3dnosim/thslfofire-20.  I also like The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B004VOZLHI/ref%3dnosim/thslfofire-20.  And I love all of Octavia Butler’s books. She’s created some very complicated black heroines with a variety of belief systems. There are many great books out there, but those are a few of the ones that stand out.
KW: Speaking of writers, children’s book author Irene Smalls says: You are one of my favorites. I read an article saying that even though you are dark-skinned you have succeeded as an actress in Hollywood. How do you feel about a comment like that?

VD: I really appreciate that comment. I’ve always seen myself for who I am, which is a lot of things. So, I guess that when I walk into a room, I bring all those things to a role, and I’ve always just simply seen myself as an actor. And I believe that it serves me well to just think in terms of my craft. If hypothetically, I saw myself only as a sex symbol, or as some other limited stereotype, I think I would feel like a complete failure. I’ve been to acting school and I think that at the end of the day, when you just focus on the work and you’re comfortable with who you are, that at some point someone’s going to recognize your talent and give you an opportunity. And after that, there’s a domino effect. I’ve always believed that, and never wanted to be anything other than who I am.  
KW: Attorney Bernadette Beekman says: I love your work, and have enjoyed seeing you on Broadway. I’d like to know whether the actresses bonded along racial lines during the filming. I’m asking because I saw some cast members on a TV talk show, and there seemed to be different reactions to the cover photos of you on Essence and Vogue.
VD: The absolute truth is that the bond between all of the actresses on the set was beyond compare. It was the most loving and most supportive environment you can imagine. First of all, we had a great cast which was all about the work. No egos. Secondly, I think we all understood that we needed each other. We needed a relief from the world that we were creating. Each of us was as uncomfortable as the next. In terms of the magazines, I’m not exactly sure what Bernadette is referring to. I suppose that the covers are open to interpretation, but I want to assure you that if you were in a room with the cast, you would see absolutely no division.

KW:  Harriet Pakula Teweles asks: How do you encourage someone to see the film who might say, “I read the book and already discussed it in my book group, so I don't think I need to see the movie.“

VD: First of all, film is a different medium. These characters actually come to life in the movie, and you get to feel them in a completely different way which is palpable. Plus, with a movie, you’re able to share the experience with an audience. And [director] Tate Taylor did a great adaptation of the book. Because he’s friends with [the book’s author] Kathryn Stockett, he felt a great responsibility to stay true to the story, so he fought hard for everything that you see on the screen. Therefore, I’m urging people who might have read the novel to see the movie for the unique experience the film has to offer.   
KW: My wife, Susan Doran, would like to hear your reaction to this quote from the postscript to the book: “There’s no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism.”

VD: I think that is precisely what the movie is about. And I think that the reason why the book has been so successful is their unlikely friendship, because they’re coming from two different worlds. They’re coming from a place where they cannot trust each other, because of what each represents in terms of what the culture has dictated that we should believe about each other. Then, all of a sudden, this idea of a book is put in the midst of all of that mistrust, and the requirement of our having to work together to finish the book literally forces us to have some sort of relationship with each other. I think that’s why it works.

KW: Susan would also like to hear your reaction to Kathryn Stockett’s recently saying she’s proud of the South.
VD: I can’t speak for the author, but I would guess that she feels proud of the progress the South has made because, growing up, she experienced a very different Mississippi than the one that exists today.

KW: Director/Professor Hisani Dubose says: I fell in love with your acting abilities ever since I saw you in Antwone Fisaher. What type of roles are you currently looking for?

VD: Complicated women who are filled with contradictions.

KW: Larry Greenberg says: You are one of the few actresses to enjoy success in theater, film, and television. Do you view these as a continuum or as three distinct forms?

VD: Probably as a continuum.
KW: Rudy Lewis asks: What was it like working opposite Denzel Washington in the staging of August Wilson's Fences?.

VD: It was a wonderful, beautiful experience working with the consummate professional.

KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
VD: No, I think people ask me just about everything.  
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
VD: Meeting my 9 year-old sister for the first time when she came to live with us when I was 5.

KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?

VD: In one sentence? Gosh! I see a wise, confident yet insecure and ultimately proud, African-American woman.
KW: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?
VD: Oh my God! I would love to be remembered as a person who used her life to inspire others in any way, shape or form.

KW: Thanks again for the time, Viola [Davis], and best of luck with all your endeavors.

VD: Thank you very much, Kam [Williams].

To see a trailer for The Help, visit: http://thehelpmovie.com/us/#s=videos&v=1


1996:  The Substance of Fire
1998:  Out of Sight
2000:  Traffic
2001:  The Shrink Is In
2001:  Kate & Leopold
2002:  Far from Heaven
2002:  Antwone Fisher
For this movie, Davis was nominated  for Independent Spirit Award as Best Supporting Female
2002:  Solaris
For this movie, Davis was nominated  for Black Reel Awards as Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture
2005:  Get Rich or Die Tryin
2005:  Syriana
2006:  The Architect
2006:  World Trade Center
2007:  Disturbia
2008:  Nights in Rodanthe
2008:  Doubt
For this movie, Davis received several nominations such as the African American Film Critics Association Award as Best Supporting Actress.
the Black Reel Award for Best Supporting Actress, the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress,
the Vancouver Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress,etc
2009: Madea Goes to Jail
2009: State of Play
2009: Law Abiding Citizen
2010: Knight & Day
2010: Eat Pray Love
For this movie, Davis was nominated  for Black Reel Award as Best Supporting Actress
2010: It's Kind of a Funny Story
2010: Trust
2011: The Help
2011: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

1996:  NYPD Blue
1996:  New York Undercover
1998:  The Pentagon Wars
1998:  Grace & Glorie
2000:  Judging Amy
2000:  City of Angels
2001:  Amy & Isabelle
2001:  Providence
2001:  The Guardian
2001:  Third Watch
2002:  Father Lefty
2002:  Law & Order: Criminal Intent
2002:  The Division
2002:  CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
2003:  Hack
2003:  The Practice
2004:  Century City
2005:  Jesse Stone: Stone Cold
2005:  Threshold
2006:  Jesse Stone: Night Passage
2006: Jesse Stone: Death in Paradise
2006:  Without a Trace
2006:  Life Is Not a Fairytale: The Fantasia Barrino Story
2007:  Fort Pit
2007:  Jesse Stone: Sea Change
2007:  Traveler
2008:  Brothers & Sisters
2008:  The Andromeda Strain
2003–08:  Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
2009:  United States of Tara
For this TV show, Davis was nominated - for NAACP Image Award as Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
Theatre Credits:          
1996:  Seven Guitars.  Honors for this broadway show: Theatre World Award
Nomination for - Drama Desk Award as Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play
Nomination for a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Play
1997:  God's Heart
1998:  Pericles
1999: Everybody's Ruby
Nomination for a Drama Desk Award as Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play
1999: The Vagina Monologues
2001:  King Hedley II
May 1, 2001 - Jul 1, 2001
Honors:  Davis won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play
and a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play
2004:  Intimate Apparel
Honor:  Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Play
2010:  Fences
Broadway Revival
Apr 26, 2010 - Jul 11, 2010
Honors:  Davis won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play
and a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play

About the author of this article: Kam Williams is a syndicated film and book critic who writes for 100+ publications around the U.S., Europe, Asia, Africa, Canada, and the Caribbean. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online, the NAACP Image Awards Nominating Committee, and Rotten Tomatoes. He is a contributor to TheLoop21.com. He is also a columnist for  www.megadiversities.com. In 2008, he was Voted Most Outstanding Journalist of the Decade by the Disilgold Soul Literary Review. Williams is an erudite Attorney who holds a  J.D from Boston University and other degrees:   an MA in English, a BA in Black Studies in Ivy Leagues (Brown University and Cornell University respectively) and  an M.B.A. from the Wharton School.  Kam Williams can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .