She’s flying high after her recent awards’ success,
but Viola Davis hopes her audiences can see past the accolades to the real heart of her profession.
Words by Jake Taylor.
Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons – the list of actors who have won the prestigious Triple Crown of Acting is a veritable Who’s Who of the industry’s greatest talents. The pantheon of artists who have been awarded an Emmy, a Tony and an Oscar has just welcomed its latest inclusion: Viola Davis.
Davis – who has long been considered one of Hollywood’s finest assets – is the first black actress to join this roll call of thespian greats. Having secured nominations in the past for 2008’s Doubt and 2010’s The Help, her recent Academy Award win for Best Supporting Actress holds yet another layer of significance. For it was during the 2010 Broadway revival of August Wilson’s play Fences alongside Denzel Washington that Davis began her march into Hollywood history with a Tony award.
Seven years later, the film adaptation of Fences sees Davis star once again alongside Washington as protagonist Troy, with the latter also in the director’s chair. On her second time around as Rose Maxson, the South Carolina-born star not only achieved that coveted spot in thespian folklore, but finally came to grips with a scene she had battled with unsuccessfully ‘for 113 performances on stage.
“I didn’t have final, complete comprehension of Rose: I didn’t understand her,” admits the 51-year-old. “I didn’t understand that journey, with her final scene. I did it hundreds of times, with rehearsals and stage performances, but I never understood the thought process. I always wanted that scene to be over. I could never make my peace with it”
And then, between the play and the movie, Viola became a mother, and the scene that had caused so much difficulty fell into place. “I finally got it! I got that yearning and desire to teach my own child forgiveness and the release that it provokes. I want my child to know and understand forgiveness, and it was then and only then that I understood Rose needs her son to embrace that love.”
The actress’s journey hasn’t been easy. When Davis was young, her family relocated to Rhode Island and lived in extreme poverty. That time in her life comes flooding back when she is honoured for her work on-screen, she says, and remains by her side even when she takes to the stage at an event as exuberant as the Academy Awards.
“When I have those moments, that’s when I feel the most like that little girl from Central Falls, Rhode Island again,” Davis explains. “She’s always there in my mind, dreaming about a future – a big future that seemed so impossible. I had to dream big to distract myself from my surroundings, the rats in the room and the rats in the walls. I had to dream in order to get out of bed in the morning. Dreaming kept my spirit alive.”
These memories of her tough upbringing still contradict the extravagant glitz and glamour of a professional career spent treading the red carpets of Tinseltown, illuminated in the flashbulbs of the world’s press, no matter how many awards Davis has seen her name inscribed on over the years.
“I feel like I detach myself from things like that,” she says of the awards shows and the various high-profile events that her celebrity status entails. “It’s part of me for an hour and then it disappears. I appreciate it so much, but I can’t hold on to that for too long,” she says, philosophically.
“Selling myself on a red carpet is in a sense equal to the quality of the roles that I get, because my popularity equates to the level of roles that I get. And I hate that because I came from the theatre and I work really well in the theatre, I don’t fit into the Hollywood mould – never have, never will. I remember once I chose a dress for an event that I liked and that fit me and didn’t make me feel big. And then someone said, ‘Viola, for this event you’re going to, you have to wear a major designer’. I just sigh, I really do. It has absolutely nothing to do with being an actor.”
Though the latest Oscars ceremony may have been marred by a high-profile Best Picture blunder, it would be remiss of the industry not to take note of Davis’ impassioned and emotional speech that implored her colleagues to “exhume the stories of those people that dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition, people who fell in love and lost”. It was a plea that cut through the façade of the event and to the heart of the talent that has seen Davis deservedly make history. Though she’s quick to point out that without the company of her partner, actor Julius Tennon, and their daughter Genesis, she couldn’t have made it from that rat-infested Rhode Island apartment to the stuff of acting legend.
“By going home, that’s how I decompress,” she explains. “I hear these actors who carry the load and the burden of the entire shoot or the entire run of the show alone. If that works for them – and it really does for some – that’s fine, but I can’t do that. Going home to my family, to my husband, that’s what clears my mind and brings me back.”
And in a world where social media and the tabloid press have served to heighten the appeal of award ceremonies, the indomitable Davis seeks only to bring people’s attentions back – via electrifying performances – to the art’s origins: the stage and the screen.
“These celebrity events are the ridiculous side of our job, but it’s the side of our job that people have embraced as being a part of our job, or central to our job,” she concludes. “But they’re not. Nobody understands what it is that we do anymore. Because what we do – it’s something divine. It’s a blessing to be able to explore our characters emotionally, to understand what makes us human, and to release it into the world.”