The nominations for film work keep coming, but for actor, producer, mentor and new mom Viola Davis, it all started with a love of the theater by LESLIE GORNSTEIN / photographs by RUVEN AFANADOR / styling by HAYLEY ATKIN / produced by HANNAH HARTE
Viola Davis is wearing a pair of slipper socks striped in DayGlo pink and purple. They whisper across the floor of her Granada Hills living room as she sings to her newly adopted 19-month-old daughter. Genesis has just woken from her nap, has milk on her face and is still cute enough to be on a baby-food jar. “Heeeeeey, Mama,” Davis coos.
In a voice barely over a whisper, she encourages little Genesis to dance. The baby sways in time to her mother’s singing, grinning widely. If this kid does decide to make her life in the Biz, she won’t be the first to count Davis as a career counselor.
“I have so many young people that come to the house I can’t even count,” Davis says. “They come to L.A. feeling lost. Some want to be actors, some don’t. They just want to be somebody.”
Those lucky souls could do far worse in the mentor department. Davis is one of the most electrifying actresses of her generation. Her 2010 role as Rose, opposite Denzel Washington, in the Broadway hit Fences burned up the boards with such intensity it earned Davis a Lead Actress Tony. As a conflicted mother in 2008’s Doubt, she built a character as nuanced as costar Meryl Streep’s prickly, compassionate nun. Streep had a whole movie to shine; Davis worked her magic in one eight-minute scene, and the performance earned her a Supporting Actress Oscar nom.
Doing more with less—that’s quintessential Davis. In The Help, Davis breathed three dimensions into circumspect housemaid Aibileen Clark, a role that required the actress to deadpan and repress her way through the Jim Crow–era South. It was an understated performance that has managed to garner as much awards-season buzz as your more gaily painted characters, à la Rooney and Michelle. The Hollywood Foreign Press and Screen Actors Guild honored her in The Help with best-performance nominations, and as we close this issue, Davis has just locked an Oscar nom. And it’s not hard to see why.
Rewatch the scene where Emma Stone says she wants her input about “what it’s like to work as a maid.” It takes less than two seconds—no words spoken, just eyes and shoulders—to see Aibileen’s day has just gone from bad to Mississippi awful. “She can rip your soul out with a look,” says costar Octavia Spencer.
Davis prefers characters like that: underrated, slow burners, still waters that run deep. “Human life is about a culmination of moments, and 99 percent of those are quiet but powerful,” she insists. “I am always interested and intrigued with watching that.” She likes to cite an acting tip credited to David Mamet: “If you’re looking at an actor onstage with a cat, who are you going to look at, the actor or the cat? The cat, because the cat is just being a cat.”
Indeed, Davis does make any scene look as easy as a tabby stretching in a sun patch. Her latest role is in the Tom Hanks starrer—and Best Picture nominee—Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which she took to work with actors Max von Sydow and Jeffrey Wright.
But Davis’ rise has not been an easy one. She “came from nothing, came from poverty”—one of six children of a horse groom and a maid raised in the hardscrabble town of Central Falls, Rhode Island. “I never had a phone,” she recalls. She once told Charlie Rose that her shoes “always had holes in them.” Central Falls is still so poor it recently filed for bankruptcy. Its struggling library received a $1,000 cash infusion in November. It came from Viola Davis.
Davis prefers characters like that: underrated, slow burners, still waters that run deep. “Human life is about a culmination of moments, and 99 percent of those are quiet but powerful,” she insists.
Despite that background, or because of it, Davis nursed her acting ambitions early and often. “Even back when I was 11, I knew that Isabel Sanford from The Jeffersons came from the stage,” Davis says. “I never watched the Oscars, but I watched the Tonys every year. I wanted to be onstage. I wanted to be like Colleen Dewhurst or Jane Alexander—one of those great ladies of the theater, doing Ibsen and Shakespeare.”
As a teen, Davis got her own mentor. At a drama festival, she caught the attention of Bernard Masterson, then the director of the theater program at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island. He called Davis’ high school and awarded her a scholarship. She eventually landed at the famed Juilliard School, where she studied for four years.
Over the next two decades, Davis wowed Broadway and impressed big-name film directors. Steven Soderbergh cast her in Out of Sight and has worked with her two times since then. She won her first Tony in 2001, for her work in King Hedley II as a mother fighting for her own abortion rights. But superstar status never materialized. For an actress, a complex, meaty role is like a ladder—you use it to climb up the Hollywood ranks and get yourself A-listed.
But early on for Davis, those opportunities were few. “That really is our plight, especially as women of color,” she says. “You can have all the training in the world, come from a respectable background and yet never get that big opportunity that breaks you out—never.”
Instead she found herself appearing in prime-time procedurals. With a docket full of credits on NYPD Blue, CSI, Law & Order (Criminal Intent and Special Victims Unit), The Practice, The Division ad infinitum, she could likely cite criminal law like a beat cop.
“You can be in the business for 23 years, which I have been, and suddenly something happens that wakes people up. For me, that was being in a movie with Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman,” Davis says of Doubt. “It makes people realize you’re there. Otherwise you’re that black girl who had a guest or costar role in a TV show here or there.”
It’s not that Davis isn’t grateful. “I don’t feel bitterness,” she insists. But even as a second Oscar campaign awaits for her part in The Help, Davis is not afraid to point out the weaknesses in her industry. Her next target isn’t another lead role. It’s producing, a task she feels she must undertake if she and other black actresses are to get more fulfilling work. Young people need to be mentored to aspire to something fulfilling.
“I am doing this out of necessity,” she says. “If I am not the instrument of change, I can meander through this business and be the black woman who always has two or three scenes but with fabulous actors around me.”
To that end, she has optioned The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, a sweeping novel about an African-American woman struggling to farm the Badlands in 1917. She is developing a new picture—a thriller with Spencer as a coproducer—but is always on the lookout. “I have a stack of books in mind,” she says.
It includes a bit of everything—historical dramas, which Davis loves, but also just plain, good literature. “There are great characters in history whose stories need to be told,” she says. “But also, look at this year’s line-up: Melancholia, Young Adult...Someone just had imagination, put pen to paper and created a [whole] human being. That is what I hope for myself...for a number of black actresses.”
Davis insists she’ll still make the time for aspiring actors who need her encouragement. But as a new producer, she realizes she herself may need a fresh benefactor or two. “We’ll see,” she says with a smile. “I’m hoping there are enough people out there who will have my back.”
MAKEUP: Francesca Tolot / Cloutier Remix
HAIR: Jamika Wilson / Epiphany Agency
MANICURE: Lisa Jachno / Aim Artists