Exclusive What’s News @ RIC interview: Viola Davis talks about her life and her new film

“Every time I’ve seen Davis, she has created a character so real that,
for a few seconds at least, she stops the movie in its tracks.”
– Charles Taylor, Salon.com

Viola Davis ’88
Viola Davis ’88, has over 50 film, television and stage roles to her credit. Her new film, “The Help,” opens Aug. 10. (See movie preview.)

Based on the #1 New York Times best-selling novel by Kathryn Sockett, “The Help” is set in 1960s Jackson, Miss. It follows a young woman (played by Emma Stone) who decides to write a book from the viewpoint of “the help” – the town’s black maids – causing an uproar in the white community. Told with humor and lightness, the film reveals the ironies and hypocrisies of the time.

Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in ”The Help.”
Davis plays the role of Aibileen Clark, a maid and nanny. She said it was the most fully realized film role she’s had so far.

“By ‘fully realized,’ I mean that Aibileen’s emotional life is fully explored,” Davis said. “The joy of being an actor is that the bigger the puzzle, the greater the satisfaction there is in putting it together. You want your character to be as multifaceted as possible. Aibileen is quiet and reserved, with a rich subconscious life. Living in poverty, she followed a life path that had already been laid out for her. She says, ‘I knew I was going to be a maid because my mother was a maid and my grandmother was a house slave.’”

”The Help” stars Emma Stone (in green curlers).
Davis’s own mother had been a maid in the South. “It’s true of every black woman and grandmother of that time,” Davis said. “That’s what we did. That was the occupation open to us.”

The actress was particularly drawn to this role, she said, because she’s always been interested in people of extraordinary character, people who didn’t have it easy, who had to rely on their own strength, and out of that they were able to see what they were made of.

In preparing for this role, Davis based Aibileen on Fannie Lou Hammer. “Fannie Lou made her living singing at lynchings in the South,” Davis said. “I wanted to know how she went from singing at lynchings and being beaten with a tire iron to an inch of her life, to becoming a Freedom Rider, espousing unity, integration and love and became a delegate of the Democratic National Convention. I wanted to know how she got to that place.”

Davis read everything she could on the Civil Rights Movement, the Freedom Riders, Jim Crow laws, Martin Luther King and she spoke to Southern black maids – all to help her identify with the emotional life of her character.

“I saturated myself with that time. But imagination is more powerful than knowledge,” she said. Davis also had her own personal life experience to draw from.

Her family moved from South Carolina to Central Falls in 1965 when she was two months old. She was the second youngest of six children. The two oldest stayed behind, raised by grandparents for several years.

Sissy Spacek in ”The Help.”
Davis’s father was employed as a horse groomer, working out of the Narragansett and Lincoln Downs race tracks, and they were the first black family, she said, in a city that spanned only 1.29 square miles. Though the 1964 Civil Rights Act had passed and Jim Crow laws were illegal, discrimination remained a reality.

“People wouldn’t drink out of the same water faucet after us,” Davis said. “There was a lot of name-calling and expletives. A lot of being called ugly and nigger. In some respects, I internalized the things that were said about us. I often felt less-than. Not pretty.”

Today a quarter of Central Falls lives below the poverty line and so did the Davis family. One of the tenement buildings they lived in had been
condemned, and often the family went hungry.

Cicely Tyson in ”The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”
Davis’s decision to become an actress arrived by way of Cicely Tyson in the movie The “Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman.” When she saw Tyson on television, she said she saw for the first time an actress who “looked like my mother, who looked like me. She was dark-skinned, full-lipped. I also saw something in her performance that was different from the black comedy shows on television at the time, like 'Sanford and Son.' I saw craft.”

Davis decided acting would be her way out of poverty. In her freshman year in high school, a representative from The Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre in New York visited her classroom. He asked how many of the students wanted to become actors. Every student raised their hand.

He explained how difficult the life of an actor could be, and half the class put their hands down. He continued to describe the hardships of an actor’s life, and more hands went down.

Finally Davis was the only student left with her hand raised. She explained why:

“When you haven’t had enough to eat, when your electricity and heat is cut off, you’re not afraid anymore when someone tells you life is going to be hard. The fear factor was minimized for me. My dreams were bigger than the fear.”

Cicely Tyson in ”The Help.”
Growing up in extreme poverty and racism, she said she had to wear a mask to hide her feelings. “I hid my anger and pain, or I lashed out and got into fights. My sisters and I also became overachievers, even in areas that didn’t interest us.” But when Davis found acting, she found her niche.

The director of the Young People’s School for the Performing Arts in Massachusetts, Bernard Masterson, recognized the 15-year-old’s raw talent and gave her a summer scholarship.

She also enrolled in Upward Bound at RIC, a federally funded program that gives low-income students the skills needed to complete high school and to enter and graduate from college.

Davis often credits Upward Bound for contributing to her success. Today she supports the organization as a speaker and cofounder of an endowment fund.

Davis studied theatre at RIC, and in 2002 she received an honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts from the college. She also attended the The Juilliard School, graduating in 1994.

In her first major theatre role in the 1994–95 production of August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars,” she was nominated for the Tony Award and won the Outer Critics Circle Award.

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in ”Fences.”
For “King Hedley II” (2001) and “Fences” (2010) – she won Tonys. She won a Drama Desk Award for “King Hedley II,” an Obie for “Everybody’s Ruby” (1999), and a Drama Desk and Obie for “Intimate Apparel” (2004).

In 2008, playing opposite Meryl Streep in ”Doubt,” she earned nominations by the Academy Award, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild.

Film critic Jen Yamato of Rotten Tomatoes said, “she achieved what has got to be a near-impossible feat: stealing a scene from Meryl Streep.” And critic Terry Keefe said, “[her performance] has a quiet intensity, wherein she manages to scream at times without raising her voice.”

Since ”Doubt,” Davis has appeared in a string of films: “Madea Goes to Jail” (2009) with Tyler Perry, “State of Play” (2009) with Russell Crowe, “Law Abiding Citizen” (2009) with Jamie Foxx, “Knight and Day” (2010) with Tom Cruise and “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” (2010).

”It’s so fulfilling and healing to transform into all these characters and entertain people and to get paid for what I do. It’s a hungry desperate profession. Only 57 percent of actors are working and 95 percent are unemployed at any given time. Maybe one percent make $50,000 or more in the business. And a really, really small percentage are nominated for a major award,” Davis told Charlie Rose in a 2010 interview.

Black actors, in particular, are grossly underrepresented, said Davis. She and her husband Julius Tennon, who is also an actor, have started a production company to create more work for black actresses.

From the ash of Central Falls, Davis has risen on the ember of a childhood dream. “I had to rely on my imagination, and my dreams, and fail, and get up and persevere,” she said.

Such is the power of dreams.