'The Help's' Viola Davis on Race in Hollywood and Wanting to Be Compared to Meryl Streep (Video)
Davis talks to THR about her rocky childhood, her fear of working with Streep, the husband that she 'prayed' for and dealing with the pressure of the awards season.
A few days ago, I had the opportunity to moderate a Q&A with best actress Oscar nominee Viola Davis (The Help), one of only two that the 46-year-old -- like all of this year's nominees -- is permitted to do post-nominations, according to new rules announced by the Academy last September.
I hope that you will check out video of our entire 40-minute conversation above and/or read some transcribed highlights of it below.
On growing up as part of the only black family in Central Falls, Rhode Island in the 1960s...
"Every place your mind would take you with that is exactly what our lives were like everyday -- constantly being called 'ugly,' 'black,' 'n*gger'; people spitting at you out of cars and throwing things at you; boys chasing me after school -- and I mean a crowd of them -- wanting to beat me up; always having to defend yourself; always fighting; and, basically, kind of living on the periphery of the culture."
On why she wanted to get into the business...
"If it were just a dream to be famous then I probably would have died a really quick death, because there is nothing about me that equals fame. I'm not a standup comedian. I don't sing. It's like I'm like -- bam! -- supermodel-beautiful. I didn't aspire to be just a celebrity; I aspired to be an actress... I always wanted to be respected as someone who knew their craft."
On the sense of pressure that she felt leading up to the start of filming Doubt (2008), in which she appeared for only eight minutes but was rewarded with a best supporting actress Oscar nomination...
"I was really waiting for that 'a-ha moment' because, I said, 'I'm gonna be opposite Meryl Streep and she's gonna tear me a new a-hole!'"
On how she hopes people will -- and won't -- see her in the future...
"I never want anyone to say that she's not an actress. And, too often -- I'm just gonna say it -- too often, with African-Americans, they're dismissed as not being actors, you know? 'She's a comedian,' or 'she's a singer,' or 'she's a' whatever. But she's not 'an actress' -- not an actress in the same sense as a Glenn Close, or a Meryl Streep, or a Sigourney Weaver. And the reason why I mention these people? These are all people -- a lot of Yale or William & Mary; they came from Broadway, they came from the stage; they really studied; and they have a craft. I want you to think of me in the same vein as you think of them, minus this [points at her skin], just beyond this."
On the story behind The Help, which was sort of a pay-it-forward exercise (Tate Taylor, the childhood best friend of the author Kathryn Stockett, was given her blessing to direct a film version of it when she couldn't find a publisher; then it became a best-seller, and she stood by him amidst great pressure to get a bigger name to direct it; he cast his close friend Octavia Spencer, a struggling character actress, in the meatiest part of her career; Spencer fanagled an audition for her close friend Ahna O'Reilly, who wound up with a key part in the film; and the list goes on)...
"It's a great story. It's the kind of story that makes people who have dream stay in the business. It really is. It's just magical. It's a real story of friendship and integrity."
On the challenge of communicating the feelings of Aibileen Clark, her character in The Help, who, like so many women of her race and generation, kept most of her thoughts and feelings to herself...
"Every character in this movie is flamboyant except for Aibilene. I had issues with that because you sometimes feel like your talent is gonna be lost... I had some trepidation about that... But, in actuality, it does take a lot of craft to put together a quiet character."
On her husband Julius Tennon, who has been by her side at virtually every screening, Q&A, party, and awards show that she has attended...
"I don't know how I got a great husband. I mean, God just blessed me with that one. Because, trust me, before him I was not making good choices. So I was just absolutely blessed. I just prayed for that man... He's my secret weapon because he's so gregarious and he's so filled with joy. Me? I can sometimes be more cynical and I'm very shy."
On how she's coping with the spotlight and pressures of the awards season...
"I'm trying to enjoy it. It's on a whole different level. So when I say 'I'm trying to enjoy it,' it doesn't mean that I'm not enjoying it. It's really wonderful. Truly. Truly. It's just overwhelming. It really is. People don't understand. Like, lately, people started talking about how you look. Nobody's ever talked about how I looked, okay? And so you're looking at picture of yourself and you think you're looking at a whole different human being. That's what it feels like. That's exactly what it feels like. It feels like this whole different human being -- this persona -- is becoming bigger than who you are. And who you are is a girl with cornrows at home that forgot to color her hair, so the greys are coming out, you know? And running around with ashy feet at home, running after my 19-month-old daughter. And cooking at home. That's who I am. And so that's what's overwhelming about it. And you almost want to rise up and meet it where it's at -- this persona, this celebrity -- but you can't. It's not even you. Emma Stone always says, 'What's happening to me is not really happening to me.' And that's what it feels like. But, trust me, it's truly a blessing. You have to know that if you dream big, and then it comes at you, you gotta step up to the plate!"
On one of the key moments in her life: when, in third grade, she challenged a white racist who had bullied her -- and who was supposedly the fastest kid in school -- to a foot race outside, on cement, in the winter, without even wearing socks or shoes (because her socks were falling apart and her family couldn't afford to buy her shoes that fit), and still managed to beat him...
"That's a metaphor I use for my career, you know? You can't be perceived as 'the black actress who doesn't get the same kind of roles as the white actress.' You gotta run the same race. You gotta give the same quality of performances. You gotta have the same standard of excellence, even though people know that you're coming to the race in a deficit. That's just what life is about."
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