How Viola Davis Found the Courage to Be Herself: ‘I’ve Always Had to Take the Road Less Chosen’
The Fences star tells The Daily Beast how she pulled off the most powerful performance of her career, and how she hopes it will continue to change how we see black women.
Viola Davis has played those roles.
They’re the characters—“And I’ve played them,” she reiterates—that come on screen for two scenes. They’re typically women, typically women of color. They might be a cop, or the lawyer. You see them and you start thinking, “Oh, who is this actress playing her?” And then, maybe, “OK, so who is this character? Who does she love? Does she have children?”
By the time you’ve gone through those questions, she’s gone. She’s not there anymore, and she doesn’t come back.
“I’m trying to change that,” Davis tells me. “I’m trying to change the black woman coming in at the ninth hour to give a sassy line and walk out, to be the best friend and just be the sounding board giving information. I want to know her. I want to sit with her, and I want to sit with her pathology.”
She takes a breath: “And that’s what you get with Rose.”
Davis and I are talking a few days before her performance as Rose Maxson in Fences hits theaters, which happens to be on Christmas Day. For the Emmy-winning (How to Get Away With Murder), twice-Oscar-nominated (The Help, Doubt) star, it’s another towering performance that makes you not just rethink Davis’s already prodigious capabilities as an actor, but, as she says, reevaluate the ways in which our culture does and does not allow women of color to simply be seen.
The play, by August Wilson, centers on Troy’s struggle to provide for his family as a trash collector and, more subtly, as a black man in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. And after 18 years at his side, Rose is forced to come to terms with her life’s purpose as her family’s rock when a bombshell indiscretion comes to light.
Davis has said before that it is her mission in life to make women of color part of the narrative. Her portrait of Rose gives her a powerful megaphone in that pursuit.
“Rose is a Fully. Realized. Woman,” she says, her voice practically italicizing as she stresses each word. “She is complete in her journey. She’s complicated. She is not just a walking social statement. She is not just someone there to give you comfort and love and be maternal, or to sass, or to just be someone’s best friend. She is strong, vulnerable, joyful, and”—her tone goes up here—“messy.”
That Davis is on this mission isn’t a new revelation. It’s something she discussed while promoting The Help. It was at the crux of her transcendent Emmys speech for How to Get Away With Murder, in which she powerfully said, “The only thing that separates women of color from everyone else is opportunity.”
It’s in the way she has, through her work since her Hollywood breakthrough in Doubt, redefined what it means to be a beautiful, sexy leading woman who happens to be black but also—and this is important—is black.
Her characters, Rose especially so, have private lives, interior lives, and a complicated human condition. In simply existing onscreen in such rich ways, but also having a keen awareness of that significance, Davis has managed to both finally reflect reality while also, for a new generation of black women, ignite the imagination.
Fittingly, the reconciliation between worth and possibility is at the cornerstone of Davis’s biggest scene as Rose in Fences. It comes when Troy blindsides her with the revelation that changes everything she knew about their relationship, but also her existence. She has a reckoning not only about her new reality, but her desires.
She explodes like an emotional powder keg.
“You’re not the only one who’s got wants and needs,” Rose says. “But I held on to you, Troy. I took all my feelings, my wants and needs and dreams… and I buried them inside too. I planted a seed and watched and prayed over it. I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. It didn’t take me no 18 years to realize the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn’t never gonna bloom.”
In Davis’s performance, there is grief and desperation and fury and, still, love. There is snot and tears and trembling. There is a real mother, wife, and woman—a black woman, at that—processing what her entire life has become in one intense moment, and somehow Davis manages to convey all that with authenticity. It is as triumphant as anything so heartbreaking could possibly be.
Asked how she got to that place, Davis’s answers are at first simple: the craft, August Wilson’s words. But then she breaks down the four-page, as she calls it, “aria.”
“If you’re going on and on and on like that for four pages, something traumatic is happening,” she says. “You cannot look at those words and the fact that it’s gone on for four pages, and what it’s being born from, and not understand that that is a leaving-snot-pee-and-poop-on-the-ground moment.”
The moment is about a woman who is fighting for her life, for everything that she’s known being taken from her: her ability to be a mother, a wife, her purpose. It’s not just Rose’s existence. It’s her joy. It’s, Davis says, how she matters.
“You just have to have the courage to go there, and the courage to make it look uncomfortable, whatever comes out,” she says, perhaps alluding to our fascination with her snot-filled crying scenes. “We have all had moments like that in our lives, at some point, and we hope in the deep recesses of our mind and we pray and we are very happy when no one has seen that moments.”
She lets out a big laugh: “But I have to recreate that on screen.”
Davis laughs a lot during our conversation. It’s a kind of helium giggle that naturally wafts off the punctuation of what she’s saying, usually even after some of her most profound sentences.
She might giggle when talking about a personal breakthrough she had because, for the struggle it took there, the realization seems fairly obvious in hindsight. Or after taking a beat to mentally relive one of her more mortifying life moments, she gives a little chuckle to herself. She laughs when we talk about Christmas.
Yet the conversations that she is often required to have, including this one, tend to be rather limited on the laughter front. People, including me, want to talk to her about heavy, issue-y things. Does she ever wish for a lighter reprieve?
“Yeah, I mean sometimes I just want to have fun,” she says. “That’s always the biggest surprise when people meet me, how buoyant I am and how fun and light I am. But then the alternative is answering makeup and fashion questions, and I don’t want to do that! I’m so bad at that.”
She lets out another of those laughs, which I have to say, is glorious. “But, yes, I do wish at times I could have some laughs in an interview. It would be nice. But then if I was so conscious of it I probably wouldn’t be funny.”
It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate the position she’s in to share her wisdom, her observations, and her experiences as a black woman and a black actress—as a human, really. In fact, she cherishes it.
She recently gave a beautiful speech, for example, at the Critics Choice Awards, in which she said, “I truly believe that the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are. And I just recently embraced that at 51.”
That’s a remarkable thing, I tell her, and a comfort with one’s self that most people never have the opportunity to achieve. What does it feel like?
She exhales: “Liberating.”
She tells me she’s going to think of all the metaphors she can to describe the feeling. They’re wonderful: “It is like diving into a pool on a hot day and just swimming underwater and coming up.” “Like being underneath a warm blanket on a rainy day.” “Like solving the biggest puzzle in the world.”
Since she was 18 years old, she says, she’s wanted to be someone else. People would always ask her, “Who do you want to be?” It was never, “What do you want to be?” Always, “Who?” So she wanted to be Oprah Winfrey, or Diana Ross. She was depressed, but couldn’t figure out why. Until she started thinking, “I just want to be me! That’s it. I think who I am is fabulous. It never occurred to me.”
She remembers, for example, when she was cast in How to Get Away With Murder. She was 48, and thought there was no way she could be like Kerry Washington, or Ellen Pompeo, or Julianna Margulies, the women who were fronting network dramas at that time. She didn’t know how to be that sort of woman.
“The big revelation was, ‘Why do I have to be that kind of woman?’” she says. “It excited me to be able to give a different spin on the leading lady on network television. It excited me more than it scared me.”
Again, I point out that the place she managed to arrive at—to be more excited by risk than scared of it—is somewhere most people never reach. “I’m used to, in my life, being off-balance because my life, especially my childhood, has not been easy,” she says. “I’ve always had to take the road less chosen. So it was easier to ignore the fear and move towards the excitement of possibly being different.”
Things are changing in Hollywood, she says. Her legacy, she hopes, will be that she’s given people permission to live their authentic life, leading by example. But the effect of that is a changing industry.
“I believe that there are certain characters that come in a package that make them more palatable to the audience,” she says. “For instance, if a woman is young, beautiful, and sexy, and she may be complicated beyond that, but if she comes in a package as young, beautiful, and sexy then it’s an easier in. Because you value that.”
“But I’m going to believe that’s changing,” she continues. “And I’m going to believe that’s changing because I think that women and I think people of color, what they’re doing is they’re now getting it. They’re getting the fact that the waiting for the change is not the ticket. The ticket is in creating the change. It’s in being the instrument of the change.”
She always tells kids to dream big, she says. It can’t just be a dream. It can’t be lackadaisical. It’s got to be big, big enough to make you jump out of bed in the morning. That big.
“That’s how I got the courage,” she says. “Yeah. That’s the journey of how I got the courage.”