From her supporting role in the witchy love story Beautiful Creatures to her Oscar-nominated turns in The Help and Doubt, Viola Davis seems to have Hollywood —and audiences—under her spell
Author Sam Polcer
When Meryl Streep wins an Academy Award and critics protest that you were robbed, you must be doing something right. Such was the case last year for Viola Davis, whose performance in The Help—as Aibileen Clark, a maid in Mississippi during the segregated ’60s—lost out to Streep’s portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.
The funny thing is, Streep herself might well have agreed with the critics. Davis had already beaten the competition at the Screen Actors Guild and Critics’ Choice awards, two frequent predictors of Oscar success, and ever since sharing screen time with Streep in 2008’s Doubt, she has found herself on the receiving end of glowing praise from the Greatest Actress of Our Time, who has described her as “gigantically gifted.”
Not that Davis needs a champion: Having grown up in the only African-American family in a small town in Rhode Island, she got accepted into Juilliard and went on to establish herself as a force to be reckoned with onstage and onscreen, racking up dozens of awards, including two Tonys, in the process.
At 47, this fiercely determined thespian shows no signs of slowing down. Later this year she’ll be appearing with Harrison Ford in the sci-fi adventure Ender’s Game, coming off her turn alongside Oscar winners Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson in Beautiful Creatures, a tale of witchcraft and young love in which Davis plays Amma, a librarian and spirit channeler.
Play recently caught up with Davis to talk about swamp critters, Jeremy Irons’ surprising sense of humor, and how all this work has resulted in a new appreciation for her Jacuzzi.
You spent four months in New Orleans to shoot both Beautiful Creatures and the forthcoming Ender’s Game. That seems like the place to be if you’re playing a mystic like Amma.
Yes, that backdrop of Creole culture and voodoo was very much the basis for Amma. And if you’ve ever been to New Orleans, you know that everything—from the live oak trees to the people to the language to the food—has this otherworldly quality, which I really wanted her to have. At one point I even went down to the French Quarter to look for a seer or a channeler, but chickened out because the one I found was only available at night.
Wait a minute: You were leery of visiting the French Quarter after dark—yet you filmed a scene with live alligators?
[Laughs.] It took a lot of mental preparation to get into that boat! I imagined one of those alligators coming right over the side of the speedboat, clamping its jaws around me and dragging me under. But once I got over my fear, I discovered just how beautiful the swamps are. Talk about magical—I can understand why people become almost obsessed with these places. It’s a weird contradiction: Underneath, there are these vicious killers, but above, it’s really peaceful and meditative, with cypress trees and calm waters.
In the book version of Beautiful Creatures, Amma is a maid. In the movie, though, she’s a librarian—a supernatural scholar of sorts. Given that you’ve already had a high-profile role as a housekeeper, in The Help, I imagine you welcomed that change.
I did. I wanted to explore who Amma was outside of a profession. It wasn’t so much about my being against playing a maid; I just wanted to see how this woman of color could be integrated into the life of this family other than being in servitude to it.
Did you read the book, by the way?
We were forbidden by our director, Richard LaGravenese. For him, the film was a reinvention of the story. I didn’t follow the instructions, though! I did start to read the book.
Did any of your co-stars sneak a peek?
I know Jeremy Irons did not.
Speaking of Jeremy Irons, what’s he like off-camera?
Everything that you wouldn’t think he was. Watching him in interviews and in his work, you see someone who’s rather dapper—a highbrow British actor. And then when you work with him, what you find is he’s kind of an artistic hippie. Someone who’s very loose and open, and has kind of a bawdy sense of humor. He’s flirtatious, in a sweet way. And extraordinarily humble about his work. I always love being surprised by people.
Beautiful Creatures gave you the chance to work with two Oscar winners: Irons and Emma Thompson. That’s pretty good company. Did being around folks like that help your performance?
Definitely. The way I feel about working with people like Emma and Jeremy is that great actors make you step up your game. And when you finish a project, you feel that you’ve improved, that you are a better actor. Or you’ve learned something about your craft that will make you a better actor in your next project.
You’ve been cast in more than a dozen movies since your breakthrough performance in Doubt, in 2008. Are you ever not working? And if so, what do you do with yourself?
To tell you the truth, I like to be home. To simply be home, waking up in my bed, running around with my daughter on her tricycle, being in my pool. I have a love affair with my Jacuzzi.
I just think it’s important to stop at times and reflect. Self-reflection is a necessity.
Coming from somewhat modest beginnings in small-town Rhode Island, you went on to study acting at Juilliard before establishing your career on the stage, on TV and now in movies. Your next film, Ender’s Game, stars the legendary Harrison Ford. And soon you’ll be getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Has all this success changed your outlook?
That brings to mind something I read, about how the very thing that makes you heroic is also that very thing that will isolate you. And I find that—now that I have achieved a certain amount of success in my career—there’s a huge sense of responsibility that comes with it. And along with the responsibility comes a great isolation. It’s harder to make friends who are real and grounded, and you can get too busy.
But success has changed me only as much as any life experience changes me. My child has changed me, my marriage has changed me—honestly, every day changes me.