After a three-decade career playing more than 75 mostly supporting roles, Widows — an adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s 1983 British miniseries — marks Viola Davis’s first lead role in a major studio movie. In artist-turned-director Steve McQueen film, she plays the wife of a master criminal (Liam Neeson), forced to continue his work after his death. It’s a film that’s both familiar and fresh; a heist movie, but spearheaded by a group of strong-willed female characters (played by Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki Cynthia Erivo) whose racial diversity is almost incidental, something that Davis says is unusual.Liam
“I always say that one thing missing in cinema is that regular black woman,” she says, maintaining direct eye contact, as she does the whole time I’m with her. “Not anyone didactic, or whose sole purpose in the narrative is to illustrate some social abnormality. There’s no meaning behind it, other than she is just there.” Davis says she wants to play the sort of roles Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep have had. “I would love to have a black female Klute, or Kramer, or Unmarried Woman, or Annie Hall. But who’s gonna write it, who’s gonna produce it, who’s gonna see it, again and again and again?”
I was trying to fit in, stifling my voice, stifling who I was, in order to be seen as pretty, in order for people to like me. And then going home, not being able to sleep and having anxiety. I have found that the labelling of me, and having to fit into that box, has cost me a great deal.
In the past 10 years, Davis has become one of the most decorated actors in Hollywood — winning Tonys for roles in August Wilson’s stage plays King Hedley II and Fences, an Oscar for the big-screen take on the latter and an Emmy for her performance in Shonda Rhimes’s pulpy TV series How To Get Away With Murder. This makes her the only black person to win all three of the big US entertainment awards (she’s a Grammy short of a full sweep, but tells me it’s not going to happen: she can’t sing).
Davis refers to her latest role as a “gift” from McQueen, “because it was just a woman in the middle of a narrative who was facing personal challenges”. Widows is undoubtedly more multiplex-leaning fare than the director’s previous work ( Hunger, 12 Years A Slave), though his script, co-written by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, raises issues of political corruption, poverty and police brutality.
Davis says she enjoyed working with McQueen. She has played many roles written by white men and says that, when she has tried to offer insight on the black female experience, she hasn’t felt listened to. “I get a gag order placed on me. They don’t want to see your liberation, they don’t want to see your mess — they don’t want to see you.”
Round peg in a square hole
For years, she says, this had a damaging effect. “I was trying to fit in, stifling my voice, stifling who I was, in order to be seen as pretty, in order for people to like me. And then going home, not being able to sleep and having anxiety. I have found that the labelling of me, and having to fit into that box, has cost me a great deal. I’ve had a lot of lost years.”
What did she do in the lost years? “A lot of things I didn’t believe in, in order to further my career. All the things I thought had great value haven’t served me. It’s been the whole hair thing,” she says, gesturing to her close-cropped natural hair — a look that she rarely wore in her early career, but kept for her role in Widows. (“Your own hair is beautiful — just wear it that way,” McQueen told her.) “Even the weight thing, how I look in a dress, how I look on the red carpet. I’ve never been the beauty queen.”
Davis has a rallying tone that recalls the acceptance speeches she gave at last year’s Oscars and the 2015 Emmys, performances that in themselves received wide acclaim. When she won her Emmy, she quoted Harriet Tubman, founder of the Underground Railroad — a network set up to help African American slaves escape to free states — and spoke about opportunity (“You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”) At the Oscars, she praised Wilson, “who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people”. And in January this year, she gave an emotional speech to the Women’s March in Los Angeles. “I am speaking today,” she said, “not just for the #MeToos, because I was a #MeToo, but when I raise my hand, I am aware of all the women who are still in silence.”
Recently, Davis caused waves when she told the New York Times that she had some regrets about one of her most commercially successful roles to date, maid Aibileen Clark in The Help. The drama about racial tensions in the 1960s was told mostly from the viewpoint of a white woman, played by Emma Stone. It was a box-office hit and led to a best actress Oscar nomination for Davis, but was seen by many critics as a whitewash of a shameful time in US history. Davis told the New York Times that, “I just felt at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard.”
She says now that the film was both a blessing and a curse. “Listen, The Help changed my life in a lot of different ways. First of all, the friendships that I got — that experience is something I know I’ll never have again. And Tate [Taylor, the director] is a great collaborator. I don’t want them to feel that I am blasting them in any way. It has nothing to do with the players. It has something to do with the culture — that I don’t feel that people want to see, want to hear that voice in that time period. Because what it will become is an indictment, and it shouldn’t be. I look back at that movie as a missed opportunity.”
In what way? “For me, it was just too filtered down,” Davis says. “I know Jim Crow, I understand that time period. It’s a 100-year time period that was rife with lots of violence and anger, and people with lost dreams and hopes. I wanted the frustration and that anger to be more palpable.”
On a more personal level, Davis expected that her most widely seen role would change her career. It didn’t. “I went right back to playing the same roles I did before The Help, only getting paid a little bit more money. It’s like you have to sift through sewage in order to get what you feel like you deserve. I was not a box-office draw. So I just went back to having my five or six days on a film.”
White actors, she says, are afforded a vast range of roles in comparison. “The Forbes list of the top 10 highest-paid actresses are all Caucasian,” she says. “Some of them haven’t even done a film in the past year, and they’re still up there.”
She praises her peers, women from Octavia Spencer to Taraji P. Henson to Lupita Nyong’o, for producing and seeking out their own projects. (Spencer is set to produce and star in a new Netflix series about the first black, female self-made millionaire; Henson is executive producer on her upcoming remake of What Men Want; and Nyong’o is adapting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah ). If there has been any improvement, Davis says, it is “only because the black women that I know have taken it into their own hands”. Without them, “I would say no, it has not changed. I still find that we only exist within certain genres.”
Finding a path
Davis fell in love with acting at the age of six, when she saw Cicely Tyson in a TV adaptation of The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pitman (“That magic, how she transformed, the beauty of that artistry,” she recalls). She grew up desperately poor, born in what she has described as a “one-room shack” in South Carolina, before moving to Rhode Island with two of her four siblings, while the others stayed to live with her grandmother.
Her father was a horse trainer; her mother a maid and factory worker, as well as a civil rights campaigner fighting for welfare reform. At times Davis relied on school lunches as her only meal of the day. But she enrolled in the theatre programme at high school and, after graduating from college, auditioned for the drama course at the Juilliard School, New York’s performing arts conservatory. She was 26 and won one of only 14 funded places; her audition was a monologue from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.
Looking back, she thinks she learned a lot from those gruelling early years. “I feel like my past has been the perfect foundation to teach me everything about this business and about life,” she says. “I know what it’s like not to have food. I know what it means to even have half of my refrigerator full, or not to have electricity and hot water, to have a job and a paycheque. It was ripe ground to study human behaviour. Everyone knew who the town drunk was, who was beating their wife, everyone knew everyone’s mess. So that’s helped me greatly, informing my work.”
She knew from an early age that she would have to work twice as hard as anyone else because she didn’t have any connections. “When I say connections, I don’t mean that I didn’t know Steven Spielberg, blah blah blah,” she says. “I mean a connection with someone who knows how to fill out a college application. Someone who knows how to get a job, so you can make at least minimum wage, so you can afford bus fare. I’m talking that. I’m talking low level.”
Davis struggled with her confidence in the early days. “I’m not an extroverted person,” she says, wrapping her robe tighter. “I used to have crippling social anxiety. When I first started acting, I would get bad stage fright and when I say bad, I mean heart palpitations. I would stop cold in rehearsal. I’d have people screaming at me just to open my mouth and say a word.” But she persevered. “This is socialisation on steroids, this business. I’m so much better than I used to be.”
She has been married for 15 years, to fellow actor Julius Tennon (“Me and my husband are really fun, we have some great parties”) and she talks with pride of their adopted daughter. Family are key; fame and fortune don’t automatically lead to happiness, she notes. “No one ever talks about significance. They talk about success.” It’s an important distinction for Davis. “When I was young, I said I wanted to be rich and famous. I’m really embarrassed by that. I wanted to be a great actress of the stage, I wanted people to throw flowers at me. People have thrown flowers at me, I’ve got my awards, all of that, and still, bam, disillusionment. Especially when you’re working so hard and you’re away from your family — you’re exhausted. There’s no measuring significance and living a life of purpose. Significance is something way deeper. It’s about legacy.”
Her next project might be her biggest part to date, playing Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, and the first woman to run for president, against Nixon, McGovern and George Wallace.
But her most pressing concern as I prepare to leave is whether she can bear to sit through a YouTube series that Genesis wants to watch (Genesis says it involves a hacker and someone called Rebecca Zamolo; Davis describes it as “mindless”.)
In a few weeks’ time, Widows will be released, something Davis is mildly anxious about, saying, “If it doesn’t do well, then I would take it personally. It’s the first movie that I can really say I was a lead in. So it’s more of a statement about me.” Still, she has a sort of fatalistic confidence: “I know that whatever the results are going to be, there’s a famous saying, ‘God willing and the creek don’t rise’. Meaning, if I’m still alive, whatever it takes, I’m going to continue.”
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Widows is out in the UAE on November 22.