Although she has a 23-year acting career, it took the eight minute scene with Meryl Streep in Doubt for Viola Davis to really get noticed. As an Oscar nominee for Aibileen Clark in The Help, Ms. Davis was honored at the 27th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival last weekend. Co-star Octavia Spencer introduced her.
Film lovers and esteemed industry types were on the edge on their seats listening to her eloquent words at the Arlington Theatre, where she accepted the Outstanding Performer of the Year Award. But although she’s receiving many accolades, what really puts a smile on her face is the mention of a baby girl she and her husband Julius Tennon recently adopted.
The South Carolina native (whose family moved to Rhode Island when she was a baby) grew up in poverty. “I didn’t want to have that future. I met my sister Diane when she was nine and came to live with us. (Viola was five.) Diane said the only way to make it out of this situation was to have a dream. I remember watching Cicely Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Before that, I noticed people of color on sitcoms. With this, I saw something different — magic. And I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do with my life.’”
She refers to herself as the theater geek. She and her sister produced plays. “We even had a budget for costumes that we bought at the Salvation Army. We did rewrites in the closet!” Acting lessons came and, with timing and luck, she wound up at the esteemed Julliard.
“It was hell. You know when you’re sick and you have to take that nasty orange medicine? It’s the same thing with Julliard. It’s the best of the best, in class 13 hours a day, in a class with no windows. But it works!”
Her first job was at the Public Theatre for $250 a week. She thought she had made it!
Although movies were not in her plans, she had aspirations to work as an actress in any medium. “When you do theater, you can do these exercises before you go on. In film and TV, I find you can just be in the moment and the camera picks it up.” (She credits director Steven Soderbergh for that realization.)
Actress Jane Alexander told her acting is about problem solving. “A lot of characters on the page (and especially for a woman of color) are incomplete. Sometimes you can’t fill it in with words. You try to add an emotional feeling that can illuminate to the audience. That’s the best that it gets for an actor.”
Through the years, Davis has worked with George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, and Diane Lane. How fortunate they were!
“It’s a great pleasure to play people who are messy, who have shortcomings. It’s a joy to get inside the head of a character and humanize her.”
Although Julius is the man in her life, we think there’s a man named Oscar in her near future.
Sue Facter owns a news agency that specializes in the luxury brand. Her work has appeared in USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Women’s Day Australia, on broadcasts, and the web.