Viola Davis: “It wasn’t until I started really justifying my choices with ‘The Help’ that I really started to find my voice”
You could say Viola Davis isn’t letting all the praise and awards from her acclaimed role in The Help get to her. After all, she has a 19-month old daughter. “You know, when you’re changing a diaper at three o’clock in the morning with one eye open, that pretty much brings you back to earth.”
In revealing interview with USA Today, Davis goes into her reaction to her recent success, criticism of her character in the award-winning film, and where she sees her career going next.
The praise for Davis, however, has come at a time when she’s a new face to many even though she’s been in movies and television for years. “Most people feel like I just arrived in Doubt,” she says, one of her rare leading roles before The Help.
But a significant majority of her previous appearances were supporting or bit parts, something that Davis grew accustomed to in her career. She explains, “I’ve had to channel my talents in narratives that were incomplete, and those two or three scenes in a movie, I’ve had to try and make them work, flesh them out as real human beings. I haven’t had the benefit of a full journey, a character that’s been in every frame of the movie. That’s been my thing, up until The Help.”
As a result, audiences and critics aren’t the only ones who see The Help as a breakthrough for Davis, as the actress recognizes it herself. “It wasn’t really until I started really justifying my choices with The Help that I really started to find my voice. When you’re standing up for yourself you really are alone, no matter how many people have your back. And you really have to soul-search to find your own justifications for why you do what you do.”
In fact, despite her ambition for the role Davis admits that she found the subdued nature of the part intimidating, revealing, “I probably would not have been as afraid if I were Minny,” she says, referring to the much more impulsive character played by Ocatvia Spencer who wears her heart on her sleeve. “I was more afraid of Aibileen. I felt like she was such a fantastic character in the book, but 98% of who she was, was internal dialogue.”
Davis also concedes that she is aware of the criticism of the role from African-Americans who see African-American actresses portraying maids in movies as degrading rather than uplifting. Davis understands the criticism, but disagrees with it based on the quality of the film, pointing out, “If what the African-American community wants, which is what I want, is a vast array of story lines on screen, then I think that they have a point. I think that we want to see different people on screen other than the maids, other than the urban mother, other than the gang-banger. OK? So it’s valid in that sense. But this movie still, regardless of all of that criticism, is a great story.”
In fact, Davis reveals that she has a very personal connection with playing a maid on screen, revealing, “My mom was a maid, my grandmother was a maid. I considered it to be an honor to be able to step into their shoes and to be able to tell their stories. I find that their stories are valid. Especially women who gave up their dreams so that I could have mine. Are you kidding me? I think that’s fabulous.”
With her recent success, Davis realizes that the days of bit and supporting roles might be behind her. She confesses, “The stakes are higher. There is a certain amount of comfort that rests in anonymity,” she says. “My car is seven years old, I sit in my house with my scarf over my head. I cook. I like leading the ordinary life.”
But with her new-found acclaim, what kind of roles will Davis pursue? You might be surprised by her choices. She says, “I’ve always wanted to be the black girl with an Afro in a John Ford movie, with the only backdrop being the land. I’ve always wanted to do sci-fi. I’ve always wanted to play some grand sweeping figure in history. And I’ve always wanted to create work for other actors of color. For me, it’s about passing on the baton.”
After all, based on her performance in The Help, Davis could play just about anything — and audiences are looking forward to her doing so!