Hope Davis does this thing with her voice—she doesn’t mean to, it’s just the way she speaks—where it crackles and breaks slightly around words. It could make her sound like a pubescent teen, nervous and jumpy, but as it is coming from a 45-year-old woman, Davis’ shaky timbre takes on a more commanding quality; it is unique and unmistakable. Davis’ singular pitch (the product of a childhood in Tenafly, New Jersey) may have been the draw when the Charlie Kaufman cast her in his radio play, Hope Leaves the Theater, last November—as part of the Theater of the New Ear series, Davis read the radio play along with Meryl Streep and Peter Dinklage inside a warehouse in Brooklyn. And this wasn’t an unusual day for the actress—in her long career, she has worked with some of the best: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Anthony Hopkins, Jack Nicholson, and Marcia Gay Harden. She’s a favorite of actors and directors; for many years, she has been on the short list for films and plays that require serious chops.
And now Davis is having perhaps the best year of her career—she stars on Broadway in the sold-out God of Carnage, the Tony-winning play about marriage and manners (alongside Harden, James Gandolfini, and Jeff Daniels), and she is receiving serious Emmy buzz for her role as the wounded lawyer Mia in HBO’s In Treatment. The format of In Treatment is half-hour episodes inside a single therapy session, and so viewers were treated to long monologues from Davis’ character, an unloved career woman with killer lines like, “Oh you think I’m successful? Why because I have a fancy office? Do you think I’m doing well because I wear a Prada suit? This means nothing, I’m miserable.” Delivered in Davis’ wobbly voice, Mia’s neuroses seems deep and terribly sad. “To me, Mia’s story’s about what happens when you’re never really loved in the course of your life,” says Davis, driving from her home in Brooklyn to Times Square to make a performance of Carnage. “When nobody really takes care of you. You can end up extremely damaged. Thank God, my real life doesn't resemble poor Mia at all.”
“It was a showstopper to be sure. It was kind of like if in Waiting for Godot, Godot suddenly walked on stage. We were unprepared as to how to go on.”
In fact, Davis manages to maintain one of the more “real lives” that a Hollywood actress can have—she lives in a low-key part of Brooklyn, for example, with her husband and two daughters, and often takes work close to home so that she can be a fully involved mom. “It’s actually a relatively short workday, doing a play,” she says. “You know, it’s an hour and a half long. And even when I feel like I have so much on my plate, I’m still able to be home with the girls.” This is the luxury of being an actress, and Davis knows it: “This is not easy work—there are very long days, and you can waste your time. But I’ve also just been very lucky that these are the jobs I get. That this is how I’ve gotten to do this.”
How Davis has gotten to do it is pretty rare: She has been able to appear in some of the more subversive films in Hollywood—Charlie Kaufman’s Synechdoche, New York, for example (Davis played a sinister therapist with a podiatry problem), or American Splendor, the tale of misanthropic cartoonist Harvey Pekar and his frizzy-haired wife, Joyce (Davis transformed her straight blonde locks into Joyce’s nerdy kink)—and yet has been in enough commercial roles to make her edgier choices possible, all without ever losing her credibility as an actor. Though she’s appeared in mainstream television series like ABC’s Six Degrees, which she considers a struggle (“The network shows tend to be run, in general, in my experience, by committee, and it’s hard for actors and writers to do their jobs”), she is glad that she is lesser known by the masses, and more known by cult audiences for her memorable roles. “I would do American Splendor and About Schmidt again in a heartbeat,” she says. “And in the case of Charlie Kaufman, I’m such a big fan of his, I think I’d just say yes to anything without knowing what it was going to be.”
Still—if audiences had failed to notice her before, Davis has become somewhat unavoidable in 2009. In In Treatment, her character is on screen every moment of her individual episodes, allowing for Davis and Gabriel Byrne (who plays her therapist) to foment chemistry, argue with each other, and create an addictive dialogue throughout her seven-episode arc. As Davis says, “People feel so strongly about the show because they feel like they are going through therapy with Mia when they watch it. She’s ended up alone, and she’s so abusive, and so manipulative. And that’s the easy stuff to act, the scenes that are so engrossing, and so complex. It’s so much easier than something vapid.”
“When nobody really takes care of you. You can end up extremely damaged. Thank God, my real life doesn't resemble that at all.”
Davis was so taken with In Treatment’s first season (based on an Israeli series with the same concept) that she actually chatted her way into her role in season two. “I haven’t watched a lot of TV in the last three years because I have small kids, but I happened to see this and was immediately addicted to it in a way that I had not been before. Really had to tear myself away. And then when I heard that my friend Warren Leight was running the show now, and in New York—I just told him, ‘Oh my God. I love this show.””
Davis felt the same way about Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, which she had a hunch about from the minute she read it. “I have no idea how the script came to me because I haven’t been on stage in so long, but I couldn’t wait to do it,” she says (this comes from a woman who spent her childhood putting on backyard shows with her friend, Mira Sorvino). Davis’ character happens to have the show’s most dramatic moment—she plays a WASP-y corporate mother, whose son has hit another boy on a Brooklyn playground—and as the parents meet to discuss their children’s actions, Davis’ character becomes nauseous and vomits right onto the stage with fanfare. One night this month, her vomit shooter failed to go off, a fact that Davis still finds funny. “It was a showstopper to be sure. It was kind of like if in Waiting for Godot, Godot suddenly walked on stage. We were unprepared as to how to go on.”
But they did go on—and Davis will continue spewing through the end of the year. Carnage has been so successful—with Tonys for best actress (Harden, though Davis was nominated), best play, and best director, the run has been extended beyond what even Davis thought possible. “I’m just glad I work with such consummate professionals on it,” she says. “Everybody is really alive on stage, and so when one of us gets tired, somebody else raises the bar and we’re forced to kind of lift it again.”
She does say that appearing in Carnage every night, a show about how evil adults can be to one another, has made her think deeply about the play’s message and her own values. “For me the most intriguing part of the play is when we speak about Africa versus Western society, and we just pride ourselves that we should be more advanced and more evolved because we have so much privilege here, and yet obviously the message in the play is—the last line of the play is, “What do we know?” And we don't know anything at all. We think we’re different, and we think we should be able to handle things better. But in fact, we’re all the same.”
Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.