Viola Davis’ career just won’t back down.
The Oscar-nominated actress co-stars alongside Maggie Gyllenhaal, Holly Hunter and Rosie Perez in new film Won’t Back Down, which opens Friday, and Hollywood insiders already are claiming that she’s getting the gold.
At 47-years-old, Davis is finding a ridiculous amount of success —she also became a first-time mom late last year to daughter, Genesis Tennon—yet she still remains humble.
EBONY.com talks with Davis about her gift, her goal and why she went wigless on Hollywood’s biggest stage.
EBONY.com: Once again, people are talking about Viola Davis for an Oscar. Third time’s a charm?
Viola Davis: Oh my God. Listen, that’s not even for me to say. This is what I do. I went to school—I went to undergrad, I went to Julliard, I went to Circle in the Square theater —because I believed in excellence. Obviously I wasn’t the beauty queen who came—not that all beauty queens are like this—but I wasn’t the beauty queen who came out of nowhere and said ‘I want to be an actress because I feel like I look cute.’ I was the person who really wanted to act, and I really wanted to do it well because I see this as a great art form that requires craft, and I do approach the work like that. So I will say that.
EBONY.com: What’s your formula? You keep picking these amazing roles —or are they picking you?
VD: I appreciate you saying that. I don’t necessarily agree with you saying that! Look: I don’t get a lot of options. It’s not like I’m looking at 20 scripts and I’m like, ‘OK, let me choose the most thought-provoking one.’ I have to create that. That’s my role. And I think that if you put most actors of color in a room, they will say the same thing. We have to bring it. But I will say this, there are some roles where the narrative is so solid, because the narrative is 80 percent of your work. When you do have a great narrative then it’s really easy to fly. It’s really easy for all that you are to be emphasized, as opposed to being in the background in a narrative. That’s more challenging. You’re in the background going ‘look at me! You know I’m more than this role! Can you see how special I am? Can you see what I do?!’ But when a narrative is really great it’s like… you know what it’s like? It’s like having a great body and having a really great designer design a dress that’s specially made for you. Then people can see you in the right color, the right cut and people can see exactly how beautiful you look. And that’s the way it is with a great narrative too. It can enhance you, enhance everything that’s good about your gift.
EBONY.com: Every time we talk, you’re always so extremely humble —and that’s a good thing. But have you ever allowed yourself to understand the space and time that you’re in?
VD: I mean, I recognize that something has shifted. But I see responsibility. I see the access and now the power I have to somehow play my part in changing how we’re perceived in Hollywood and on narratives. That’s what I see. That’s why I started the production company. I see the deficit, that’s what I see. And I think that in order to change it, that I can’t allow myself to bask in glory too much, because I think that’ll stop me. That’ll stop me because it’ll just mean that I’m just kind of working for myself, and right now you’ve got to put something out there because there are so many young actors of color coming up and there’s not enough narratives out there that will sustain them throughout a career. Or even start a career for them. Listen me and Miss Quvenzhané Wallis from the Beasts of the Southern Wild, probably will be the two lead Black actress roles you see this year. So what that tells me is if there’s one or two a year then one actress can cover all of it. So then the other actors, what happens to all of them? Therefore, we need to create more. There needs to be more work out there for us to cover. So then, Kimberly Elise, Alfre Woodard or CCH Pounder or any number of actors out there, Octavia Spencer, Aunjanue Ellis, they don’t have to sit out, that there’s enough for all of us to shine.
EBONY.com I wasn’t aware that you’d started a production company. Is your company going to be behind the Barbra Jordan biopic?
VD: Yes it is! We’re perfecting the script right now and working with some fabulous producers, Shelly Glasser, Diane Nabatoff, and a great director, Paris Barclay, to perfect the story, because like I said before, 80 percent of work is the narrative, it’s what’s on the page people respond to, OK. And then you come in and you just enhance it. So we’re just trying to perfect that now, but it’s coming.
EBONY.com: It seems like a common thread of characters you’ve been playing the last four years —the ones that have been earning your Oscar nominations—is they’re heroines. Is that something you look for?
VD: I think that those are the projects that just find me. I think that that’s maybe a quality people feel like I emanate. That they feel that I am larger than life. I’m the reluctant hero.
EBONY.com: When you stepped on the red carpet at the Academy Awards earlier this year with natural hair, it was a moment. Your look —in some ways— usurped the Oscars itself. Did that surprise you that so many people talked about how beautiful you were, and used it to talk about the diversity of beauty in Black women?
VD: Oh God, yeah! Nobody uses those two words in a sentence: beauty and Viola. I didn’t grow up like that. I didn’t have boyfriends until I was in my 20s. Part of that was because I was extraordinarily shy, but, um, no. And especially, women of my hue are historically, traditionally, not associated with beauty. I think that’s part of the reason why I did take my wig off is because I felt that I was just addicted to the wigs. And not that you shouldn’t wear wigs, because I still do, I like them, but it felt like it wasn’t an enhancer. I felt like I was using it as a crutch. And I wanted to show people that despite all these things, I’m still cute. So look at me. Aren’t I cute? And I just felt that I needed to stop doing that and I needed to stop apologizing for that and I needed to step into who I was. I felt like that was the best time to do it, because I felt a shift in my career, and I felt that this next stage in my life and my career didn’t need to be approached with timidity, that it needed to be approached with boldness in terms of what I looked like and who I was. I feel that with Caucasian actresses, I think that they have the same issues with beauty, that people put that on women a lot. But I think that there are lots of different beauties when they think of Caucasian women. You have the girl next door, you have off-center beauty, you have the ethnic beauty, you have the quirky, geek princess. I don’t think people see Black women the same way. I think that you either are two things: you’re either beautiful or you’re not. You’ve got the wig and you’ve got the hair or you’re just not that. And I think that there are different beauties when it comes to Black women. I don’t think that we all have to look one way to be considered attractive and sexualized and sensualized.
EBONY.com: A lot of women punched their fists in the air victoriously when they saw you on that red carpet. And the dialogue that followed was inspiring …
VD: Once again I was the reluctant hero, because, trust me, I didn’t want to take the wig off on the red carpet at the Oscars! I didn’t know if that was the night to make the statement. And then I thought, what other night would be the perfect night to make the statement? Because more people are watching this than would be watching me leave a hotel in New York City with my wig off. And so I’m glad that I did it. It was a proud moment for me too.
EBONY.com: Congratulations on motherhood. Has that kind of changed how you pick projects or how you approach the work at all yet?
VD: It has. I mean, I still approach the work the same way. I have more choices now then I’ve ever had. Life was not like this after Doubt. Still, I’m still always in search of the great narrative. It’s not like I can walk into a room and say, ‘Listen’ — even with my natural hair – ‘listen, I want to play opposite Matthew McConaughey and I want to be his love interest. Make it happen!’ It’s not like that. It just isn’t. But I do feel like I now have more power to be able to just walk in the room and say, ‘This is who I am and this is what I need.’