New York Times Sunday Magazine
by Amy Wallace September 14, 2014
Viola Davis As You've Never Seen Her Before: Leading Lady!
“Even when I get the fried-chicken special of the day, I have to dig into it like it’s filet mignon,” Viola Davis said. She was speaking not of meals, but of roles. During her 30-year career as an actress, Davis has played a crack-addicted mother (“Antwone Fisher”), the mother of an abducted child (“Prisoners”) and the mother of James Brown (“Get On Up”). Her characters often serve to “hold up the wall” of the narrative, she said, like the empathetic best friend in “Eat, Pray, Love” or the kindly stranger in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Or the kindly mental-institution psychiatrist in “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” the kindly rape-treatment counselor in “Trust” or the kindly medium in “Beautiful Creatures.”
“I always got the phone call that said: ‘I have a great project for you. You’re going to be with, hypothetically, Vanessa Redgrave, Julianne Moore, Annette Bening,’ ” she said, sitting in the living room of her San Fernando Valley home, barefoot on the couch in a gray T-shirt and leggings, her hair wrapped under a black turban. “Then I get the script, and I have a role that lasts for a page or two.”
Yet over and over again, Davis has made these marginalized characters memorable. She earned her first Oscar nomination for eight minutes of screen time as the mother of a possible victim of molestation in “Doubt.” Four years later, she spent months conceiving an intricate back story to enliven Aibileen Clark, a housemaid with a sixth-grade education, in “The Help.” Davis earned her second Oscar nomination but soon enough returned to playing yet another government functionary or military officer. “I have been given a lot of roles that are downtrodden, mammy-ish,” she said. “A lot of lawyers or doctors who have names but absolutely no lives. You’re going to get your three or four scenes, you’re not going to be able to show what you can do. You’re going to get your little bitty paycheck, and then you’re going to be hungry for your next role, which is going to be absolutely the same. That’s the truth.”
This fall, Davis, who is 49, is finally getting her shot at the anti-mammy. As the star of “How to Get Away With Murder,” a new series on ABC, Davis plays Annalise Keating, a flinty, stylish defense lawyer and law professor who employs her top students to help her win cases. After those students become entangled in a murder plot on their Ivy League campus, viewers will wonder whether Keating herself was involved in the crime. Davis plays Keating as cerebral and alluring, a fierce taskmaster who uses her sex appeal to her advantage, with a handsome husband and a lover on the side. It’s the kind of woman, in other words, that she has never gotten to play.
“How to Get Away With Murder,” which includes Shonda Rhimes among its executive producers, will be shown on Thursday nights after Rhimes’s two hit series, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” a generous lead-in that the network hopes will result in an instant hit. But that will depend, in part, on whether viewers embrace Davis — “a woman of color, of a certain age and a certain hue,” as she says — in her new capacity. “I don’t see anyone on TV like me in a role like this. And you can’t even mention Halle Berry or Kerry Washington,” she told me, referring to two African-American stars with notably lighter skin.
Black actors have always had a tough time getting their due in Hollywood. After Sidney Poitier became the first African-American to win the Academy Award for best actor, in 1964, it would take almost four decades before Berry won for best lead actress. These days, when the paucity of strong black roles prompts suggestions of racism, film executives often cite economics in their defense. The American movie market makes up less than a third of global box-office receipts, and films with predominantly black casts typically don’t earn as much money overseas. “The Help,” which made $170 million in the United States, took in just $42 million internationally. By comparison, “Guardians of the Galaxy” made $556 million worldwide this summer, almost half of it from ticket sales abroad. Last year, the poster for “12 Years a Slave” in the Italian market featured images of either Michael Fassbender or Brad Pitt rather than its many black stars.
Films with largely black casts tend to be made on low budgets and marketed specifically to black audiences. In January, Sony’s Screen Gems scored with “About Last Night,” a romantic comedy with an all-black ensemble led by Kevin Hart: It cost $12 million and took in $49 million. But the conventional wisdom in the industry is that big-budget films like sweeping historical dramas, say, or special-effects-driven thrillers need a global audience to turn a profit. With a few notable exceptions (Denzel Washington, Will Smith), black actors are usually relegated to supporting roles. Black actresses, especially, face another hurdle: the darker-complected they are, the narrower a range of parts they are offered. Earlier this year, Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for her role in “12 Years a Slave,” said that her “night-shaded skin” had always been “an obstacle.”
Television has offered slightly more opportunity. This fall, Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson, both African-American actresses, will each star in their own network series. Shonda Rhimes, in particular, has created mainstream popular entertainment that draws viewers with juicy story lines that just happen to unfold in a multiethnic universe; not for nothing does she call her company Shondaland. The doctors on “Grey’s Anatomy” have included not only black and white actors, but also Sandra Oh, who is of Korean descent, and Sara Ramirez, a Latina. On “Scandal,” it is of little consequence that the political fixer who is sleeping with the president (Tony Goldwyn) happens to be black. “I’m not sitting around going, ‘Wow, it’s historic to have two black women on television,’ ” Rhimes told me when I noted that two of her shows are now led by African-American actresses. “I don’t think it’s odd to see two black women standing in the same place because, well, that’s my house. Like, it’s not a thing. To me, it just feels like Tuesday.”
Davis is known for her meticulous preparation. She spent four months studying for her eight minutes in “Doubt.” For “The Help,” she imagined Aibileen’s childhood, her aspirations and even her love life. Davis’s own back story explains much about the actress she has become. Born on her grandmother’s farm, a former plantation in South Carolina, she was raised in Central Falls, R.I. As one of the few black families in town, Davis and her five siblings grew up enduring vicious taunts. “Constantly being called ‘black ugly nigger’ — those words together,” she said in the 2011 documentary “Dark Girls.” Her father was a horse trainer, her mother worked in a factory and as an occasional maid and Davis remembers being so hungry that she sometimes stole food from the grocery store and rummaged in garbage cans for scraps; her shoes had holes in the soles, and her braids were secured by the plastic clips that seal up loaves of bread. “We sometimes used lard for moisturizer because we couldn’t afford lotion,” she recalled. “I smelled like chicken when I went to school.”
When she was 8 years old, Davis saw Cicely Tyson in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” Until then, she had never witnessed any depictions of “beauty or softness or kindness or femininity that looked like me.” After pursuing drama in high school, Davis majored in theater at Rhode Island College, drawing on her past experiences to flesh out characters. “When you grow up in abject poverty,” she said, “you see people exactly the way they are. You know who’s abusing their wives. You know who the drug addict is. You know the person who is stealing electricity. You see people fighting on the street with their boobs coming out and dirty clothes. So it becomes a great groundwork for an artist to observe life. I don’t see it as ugliness. I see it as just kind of human beauty, you know?”
Eventually, she won a place at Juilliard and went on to work in regional theater, then off and on Broadway. She began to get small film roles as nurses, social workers and policewomen. No one disputed that Davis had the chops (in 2001, she picked up her first Tony Award for her role in “King Hedley II”; nine years later, she won her second in a revival of “Fences”), but as her 20s passed into her 30s, Davis slipped into a pattern of playing women at loose ends, or worse, dowdy or strung out. Even after her first Oscar nomination, at 43, she portrayed a nameless mayor in the Gerard-Butler-as-vigilante movie “Law Abiding Citizen” and had a small role in Tyler Perry’s “Madea Goes to Jail.” Around this time, Davis started speaking out more frequently about the dearth of good roles for black actresses. Last year, she suggested on a segment of “Oprah’s Next Chapter” that actresses like herself were “in crisis,” comparing them to rats fighting over “a piece of cheese” and relegated to certain types. She said no one was ever going to cast her in a love scene with Bradley Cooper.
Talking bluntly like this “is only complicated for people of color,” she told me. “I listen to really smart Caucasian women all the time talking about how hard it is for women over a certain age, and it doesn’t overshadow their work.” When you’re white, she added, “your ability is not overshadowed by your rhetoric.” Davis is soft-spoken, but as she talked, there was urgency in her eyes. She felt responsible, she said, to try to make things better. “When you see what the deficit is, then you have to do something about it,” she said, leaning toward me. “I see the kind of work that needs to be put out there in order to make change. Do I think there is a crisis for women over 40, too? Absolutely. But a 25-year-old white actress who is training at Yale or Juilliard or SUNY Purchase or N.Y.U. today can look at a dozen white actresses who are working over age 40 in terrific roles. You can’t say that for a lot of young black girls. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
On a steamy morning last month, Davis was standing in a stairwell in downtown Los Angeles, in a burlap-bag factory that had been transformed into a police station. Wearing a navy blue pencil skirt, a champagne silk blouse and a trim trench coat, Davis was shooting a scene in which she and a client exited the station house, her five students trailing behind like baby ducks as F.B.I. agents screeched up in three black Chevy Tahoes. Between each take, as the cars were put in position to race up again, Davis and her fellow cast members returned to the stairwell inside the building’s front door.
Everyone on the set had been talking about the contract negotiations that were underway on another TV series, “The Big Bang Theory,” on CBS. A few days earlier, as the cast gathered in a makeshift break room, someone noted that the lead actors had banded together, all for one, one for all, to each get $1 million an episode. “Let’s make a pact right now,” Davis told them. If “How to Get Away With Murder” did well, she said, they should stand firm and insist on being paid accordingly. “We laughed,” said Matt McGorry, 28, who plays one of Keating’s students on the show. “I said, ‘I don’t think that you want to be getting paid as much as we’re getting paid.’ But you know, she was dead serious.”
As much as Davis has wanted to be a star, she admits she is not used to it. When we met, she was struggling with something she was calling the List, which Rhimes had asked her to compile. “She said: ‘Viola, listen, you’ve got to be taken care of. This show rests on your shoulders. Write a list of what you need,’ ” Davis recalled. The assignment was straightforward, but Davis was having trouble. Her husband, Julius Tennon, an actor and a producer, made gentle suggestions: Greek yogurts in her trailer fridge? Sparkling water? Maybe the occasional massage? Still, the List remained unwritten.
Davis acknowledges that building her own self-esteem has been a long process. Before she met Tennon, she was in therapy for seven years, untangling her childhood. One legacy of growing up poor, she said, was that she didn’t know how to ask for things because there was never any hope of getting them. And that reluctance led to something more insidious: She didn’t think she deserved to get things. Davis says Tennon enabled her to make a big change in 2012, during the Academy Award campaign for “The Help,” when, for the first time as an actress, she appeared in public without a wig. At the time, she described the decision to reveal her short Afro as “stepping into myself.” But in a commencement speech not long ago, she came up with a more terrifying analogy. “I compared it to Linda Blair in ‘The Exorcist,’ with her head spinning and spewing,” she told me. “And the secretary and the priest run upstairs, put on their coats and go into the room. And they lift her shirt up, and on her belly, it says, ‘Help Me.’ That’s kind of how you feel when you move through life possessed by everybody’s way of seeing you and who you’re supposed to be, everybody’s definition of beauty and of success.”
Annalise Keating may be the most stereotypically beautiful woman Davis has been tapped to play, but soon after accepting the role, she began lobbying to highlight the character’s vulnerabilities. “She’s pushed me on this,” said Nowalk, the series creator. “She’s big on the fact that we all wear masks in public, depending on what’s necessary. She wanted to show Annalise in private moments, when no one else was around.” Davis told me that she wanted Keating “to be messy", multifaceted and complicated. “Vanity destroys your work,” she said. “That’s the one thing you have to let go of as an actor. I don’t care how sexy or beautiful any woman is. At the end of the day, she has to take her makeup off. At the end of the day, she’s more than just pretty.”
But Davis told me that she had another motivation for accepting the Keating role. Davis and Tennon have a company, JuVee Productions, that they formed in 2011 to develop scripts for her and other actors of color. They have several projects they are pursuing, including one about Harriet Tubman, a leader of the Underground Railroad, and another about Vee-Jay Records, a label that released the first Beatles tracks in America. Davis is most excited about a biopic of Barbara Jordan, the Texas congresswoman who was the first African-American woman to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. It’s being written by Tony Kushner, an old friend from Juilliard, and Davis and Tennon have been pitching it around town for years. Recently, Davis has been in talks with Fox Searchlight about financing it, but she knows that whether or not she ultimately gets a greenlight will, in part, depend on whether the script is populated with roles compelling enough to attract, as she put it, “white, bankable stars.”
Davis understands that entertainment is a business and that this is the way it runs. She would just like to expand some of the definitions of a few terms — terms, for example, like “bankable.” And for that she needs the support of not only those in Hollywood who hold the purse strings but also the rest of us, black moviegoers included. “You know, I heard so many people who said: ‘Oh, “The Help,” I’m just so tired of these images. I’d rather see “Spider Man,” ’ ” she said, referring to the black community. But Hollywood, she said, wouldn’t see that preference as a sign that African-Americans were yearning “to see more complicated stories about black people. No, Hollywood is going to say, ‘They want to see “Spider Man.” ’ That’s the way it works.”
Amy Wallace is editor at large of Los Angeles magazine and a contributing writer for GQ. Her last article for the magazine was a profile of the director Baz Luhrmann.