'Beautiful Creatures' Star Viola Davis on Why Her Character Isn't a Maid in the Adaptation (Q&A)
"I think that when black people are woven into the lives of characters in 2013, then I think they play other roles than maids," says the actress, who stars as a woman with supernatural powers in the romance drama.
Viola Davis won critical acclaim and became an awards-season staple last year after starring as Aibileen Clark in the SAG Award-winning film The Help. But Davis has no plans to jump into another role playing a Southern domestic worker.
So when she heard about a role in Beautiful Creatures, Davis was glad that one change had been made for the movie adaptation of the popular young-adult novel. Davis’ character, Amma, is a hybrid of two of the characters in Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s book -- a maid named Amma and a local librarian.
Davis, also Oscar-nominated for her supporting role as an anxious mother in 2008’s Doubt, says she was glad that the maid aspect of Amma was dropped from the film adaption. Instead, Amma is a librarian who has connections to the magic world as a seer.
The film, directed by Richard LaGravenese, follows a young man (Alden Ehrenreich) in the South who meets and falls for a mysterious girl named Lena (Alice Englert) when she moves to his high school. Soon after, strange, supernatural things start happening, and it seems there may be more to Lena than he first thought.
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“When a character has so many secrets and so much inner life, it’s a joy to play those characters because you can use your craft,” says Davis, who spent four months in New Orleans to shoot both Beautiful Creatures (which hits theaters on Feb. 14) and the upcoming sci-fi film Ender’s Game.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Davis about why she liked the changes LaGravenese made to her character from the book, what kind of research she did for the role and her views on how to make love last.
The Hollywood Reporter: Did you read the book by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl?
Viola Davis: Richard LaGravenese forbade us from reading the book. He said, "Do not touch the book." I got the book. I read half of it and then I put it down, because Amma is a maid, and I just said, “OK, there’s nothing I can learn from this.” This is a total re-imagining of the character, and I like it. I’m going to be confident and bold and say I like it because, listen, I understand and I respect the book, and I think the book is wonderful, but this is 2013, and I think that when black people are woven into the lives of characters in 2013, then I think they play other roles than maids. I think that that needs to be explored, and I hope that the audience is willing to suspend their disbelief and embrace what Richard LaGravenese has given them.
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THR: So what kind of research did you have to do to play this supernatural character?
Davis: For me, because she was a channeler, a seer, I had to do that research. I went down to the French Quarter and spoke to some psychics and tried to meet with a seer, but he was only there at night, and I was too scared to come down to the French Quarter at night. [Laughs] So I just looked at a lot of videotape, and I also did a lot of research on the Yoruba tradition in Nigeria, because they do a lot of meditation and channeling.
THR: You shot Beautiful Creatures and Ender’s Game at the same time in New Orleans. Did you find it difficult to switch between characters?
Davis: It wasn’t so hard with these two because I had a lot of time off, so I had a lot of time to sink my teeth into both.
THR: The two leads, Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert, are both relatively new to acting at this level. What was it like working with them?
Davis: I don’t care if someone is new to acting or experienced in acting, you always learn something from them. It’s just like people in life -- whether they’re young or middle-aged or old, you always learn something from someone. If someone is giving you a character or interpreting a character in a certain way in a certain style, then it informs what you do. You’ve got to adjust, and then when you leave that job, you’ve learned something. Every job I’ve ever gotten has transformed me in some way as an actor.
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THR: What do you look for in the characters you’re choosing to play?
Davis: I look at whether they’re going on a journey. I look at depth of character. And you know what I look at? I look at whether or not I absolutely buy them as a human being. Because, listen, I always say this, you can do a lot of things that are interesting, a lot of gimmicks ... but at the end of the day, if you don’t buy that person as a human being, you don’t recognize any kind of humanity in that character, then the actor isn’t doing their job.
THR: Since this story is coming out on Valentine’s Day and is a story about first love, what’s your take on that? Can there be love like this that’s so instant, or is this just for the movies?
Davis: I believe in instant attraction, but because I know love because I love my husband -- I’ve been with my husband for 13 years -- I know that love is a journey. I know that love is real when it’s not convenient, when it’s not selfish, when it’s challenged ... sometimes even if it’s not reciprocated. I know about love, and I know that type of love can’t happen in a second.
Beautiful Creatures opens in theaters on Feb. 14.