Interview with Kam Williams
A graduate of the Juilliard School, Viola Davis built an exceptional background in theater productions and has continued to perform on the stage throughout her television and film career. Making her feature-film debut in 1996 as a nurse in The Substance of Fire, she followed that up with several TV movies and guest-star appearances on dramatic series like Law & Order and NYPD Blue.
She went on to play another nurse in City of Angels, a hospital drama with a predominately African-American cast that didn’t last long on CBS. She began collaborating with Steven Soderbergh for Out of Sight, and went on to star in two of the director’s subsequent films, Traffic and Solaris.
In 2001, she appeared in Kate and Leopold as well as in Oprah Winfrey’s television presentation of Amy & Isabelle. The following year, she landed parts in both Far From Heaven and in Denzel Washington’s directorial debut, Antwone Fisher.
However, in 2008 she made the most of a modest but critical role as the mother in John Patrick Shanley’s screen adaptation of his award-winning play, Doubt. Although her screen time was minimal, her indelible performance garnered Viola an Academy Award nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category.
Here, she talks about her latest outing as Aibileen in The Help, a compelling tale of survival, set in Mississippi during the waning days of Jim Crow segregation, which explores the unspoken tensions simmering just below the surface between well-to-do white women and their African-American maids.
Kam Williams: Hi Viola, thanks for the interview. I’ve admired your work for a long time, so I’m very honored to have this opportunity to speak with you finally.
Viola Davis: Thank you, Kam.
KW: I have a lot of questions sent in by fans, so let me get right to them. What message do you want people to take away from The Help?
VD: That anything can be achieved with a good, healthy dose of courage. These ordinary people who are just kind of just going about their lives are transformed into heroes because they have the courage to put their voices out there. I think that’s a powerful message in this time of political strife.
KW: Patricia also asks: Are there any unwritten rules which are part of the movie industry?
VD: Yes, there are a lot of unwritten rules in the industry.
KW: How did you approach you’re role and the material in such a way that it manages to stand out from other Civil Rights era films?
VD: Well, I made a choice to humanize this woman beyond her uniform is what I did. I made a choice to explore Aibileen fully: her joys, her grief at losing her son, her journey in finding a purpose in life, because when you meet her, she has basically died to herself after losing her child. So, that’s what I did. I created a human being. That’s not what you usually see in a maid. You see the woman cooking in the kitchen or taking care of a child, and she comes up, says her one line, and then she goes back into the kitchen. So, I made a choice to use my craft to create a character.
KW: An article in which you were quoted said it is a painful certainty that you will never see a contemporary black woman on screen as layered and complex as you. Do you expect someday to be in a position to greenlight just such a story someday?
VD: Oh, absolutely! My husband [Julius Tennon] and I started a production company. We’ve already optioned a book and some scripts to do exactly that, to create more complicated, multi-faceted roles for African-Americans, especially African-American females. I think it’s important. Cicely Tyson was my inspiration to become an actor. And one of the people I’ve always wanted to emulate in pursuing that dream was Meryl Streep, in terms of the different types of roles she’s been able to play and the number of different stories she’s been able to tell. I know very few black actors who’ve been given the opportunity to do that. I want to do what she does. I want to span different genres. I want to be able to transform. I want to be able to be sexy, and funny, and quirky, and all the other things that I am. And I feel that the best way that I can achieve that is by producing. I am not a writer, but I feel that when our production company is successful, we’ll be able to give some young writers with fresh voices an opportunity to put their work out there.
KW: Are there any books that present complex women of African descent that you might consider getting the rights to?
VD: Oh, there are 50 million of them! I already optioned a book called The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. I also like The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. And I love all of Octavia Butler’s books. She’s created some very complicated black heroines with a variety of belief systems. There are many great books out there, but those are a few of the ones that stand out.
KW: A recent article mentioned that even though you are dark-skinned you have succeeded as an actress in Hollywood. How do you feel about a comment like that?
VD: I really appreciate that comment. I’ve always seen myself for who I am, which is a lot of things. So, I guess that when I walk into a room, I bring all those things to a role, and I’ve always just simply seen myself as an actor. And I believe that it serves me well to just think in terms of my craft. If hypothetically, I saw myself only as a sex symbol, or as some other limited stereotype, I think I would feel like a complete failure. I’ve been to acting school and I think that at the end of the day, when you just focus on the work and you’re comfortable with who you are, that at some point someone’s going to recognize your talent and give you an opportunity. And after that, there’s a domino effect. I’ve always believed that, and never wanted to be anything other than who I am.
KW: I’d like to know whether the actresses bonded along racial lines during the filming. I’m asking because I saw some cast members on a TV talk show, and there seemed to be different reactions to the cover photos of you on Essence and Vogue.
VD: The absolute truth is that the bond between all of the actresses on the set was beyond compare. It was the most loving and most supportive environment you can imagine. First of all, we had a great cast which was all about the work. No egos. Secondly, I think we all understood that we needed each other. We needed a relief from the world that we were creating. Each of us was as uncomfortable as the next. In terms of the magazines, I suppose that the covers are open to interpretation, but I want to assure you that if you were in a room with the cast, you would see absolutely no division.
KW: How do you encourage someone to see the film who might say, “I read the book and already discussed it in my book group, so I don’t think I need to see the movie.”
VD: First of all, film is a different medium. These characters actually come to life in the movie, and you get to feel them in a completely different way which is palpable. Plus, with a movie, you’re able to share the experience with an audience. And [director] Tate Taylor did a great adaptation of the book. Because he’s friends with [the book’s author] Kathryn Stockett, he felt a great responsibility to stay true to the story, so he fought hard for everything that you see on the screen. Therefore, I’m urging people who might have read the novel to see the movie for the unique experience the film has to offer.
KW: My wife, Susan Doran, would like to hear your reaction to this quote from the postscript to the book: “There’s no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism.”
VD: I think that is precisely what the movie is about. And I think that the reason why the book has been so successful is their unlikely friendship, because they’re coming from two different worlds. They’re coming from a place where they cannot trust each other, because of what each represents in terms of what the culture has dictated that we should believe about each other. Then, all of a sudden, this idea of a book is put in the midst of all of that mistrust, and the requirement of our having to work together to finish the book literally forces us to have some sort of relationship with each other. I think that’s why it works.
KW: Susan would also like to hear your reaction to Kathryn Stockett’s recently saying she’s proud of the South.
VD: I can’t speak for the author, but I would guess that she feels proud of the progress the South has made because, growing up, she experienced a very different Mississippi than the one that exists today.
KW: What type of roles are you currently looking for?
VD: Complicated women who are filled with contradictions.
KW: You are one of the few actresses to enjoy success in theater, film, and television. Do you view these as a continuum or as three distinct forms?
VD: Probably as a continuum.
KW: What was it like working opposite Denzel Washington in the staging of August Wilson’s Fences?.
VD: It was a wonderful, beautiful experience working with the consummate professional.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
VD: No, I think people ask me just about everything.
KW: How do you want to be remembered?
VD: Oh my God! I would love to be remembered as a person who used her life to inspire others in any way, shape or form.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Viola, and best of luck with all your endeavors.
VD: Thank you very much, Kam