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John Patrick Shanley’s film adaptation of Doubt certainly has its share of silver-screen titans: Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman play the leads, opposite up-and-comer Amy Adams in a smaller role. However, there’s a deafening buzz surrounding bit player Viola Davis, who’s best known as a stage actress, and who only has one meaningful scene in the film. But boy, is it a doozy; Davis plays Mrs. Miller, the matriarch of the only black family in town, and the mother of a boy whom Streep suspects Hoffman of molesting. Davis’ performance has earned the 43-year-old Tony-winner an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, not to mention accolades from Streep, who shouted at the SAG Awards, “Viola Davis: My God, somebody give her a movie!” The A.V. Club recently sat down with Davis to discuss her tough time at Julliard, the details of her very early acting start, and her habit of researching the hell out of her characters.
The A.V. Club: You mentioned in another interview that you put together a 50-page bio about your Doubt character, for research purposes.
Viola Davis: At least.
AVC: Is that typical for you?
VD: It’s typical of me, yeah. It may or may not be that long, but this one was particularly long because I had one scene to establish the whole life of this character. And I had the 500-pound gorilla in the room named Meryl Streep. [Laughs.] I had to create a whole life that she had with her husband, her son, because I didn’t want to overplay the scene. I wanted to come in with that whole history. They tell you in acting school, “Arm yourself with as much information as you can.”
AVC: What’s your process for gathering all that information?
VD: Well, first of all, you read the script a million times. Because what the script gives you are given circumstances. Given circumstances are all the facts of your character. Her name is Mrs. Miller, she has a son named Donald, she’s in an abusive marriage. You line all that stuff up, and then all the stuff that’s not there, you fill in with your imagination or your personal experience. My case, I grew up in Central Falls, Rhode Island. I moved from St. Matthews, South Carolina, to Central Falls, Rhode Island, in 1965, which is a year after this movie is set. Central Falls, predominantly Catholic community, we were the only black family, living on the periphery. I have seen my mom be the advocate for us in so many different situations, fighting with doctors and parents who felt like we were bad influences when we were just rambunctious children. And then, using my imagination, and then after all that, I have to tackle the scene.
AVC: Which seems easy in comparison.
VD: Yeah, well, unless you’re working with Meryl Streep. It is terrifying, it’s terrifying. If you were in any profession and thought of your icon in whatever profession you’re in, Meryl Streep would be it in acting, and here I am doing this scene, which is a very complicated scene, with Meryl Streep.
AVC: Do you remember how you were introduced to her?
VD: Yes, in rehearsal. I got there really early just to sit down and tense up, the way I usually do, and then she walked into the room. And she said, “Hi, I’m Meryl!” and I thought, “I know.” The air changes when she walks into the room. It does. And I don’t know if she realizes it—or maybe she does—and she’s already a wonderful human being. She’s completely relaxed, and if she’s not, she just plays it very, very well. But she overcompensates to make you feel like you are a part of the whole. She does not want to take over, and I really appreciated that, coming from the neurotic place I was coming from. I was baptized by fire, absolutely. [Laughs.]
AVC: What do you mean?
VD: Every black actress in America was auditioning for this role. I had to really audition. That was in L.A., and then I had to do a screen test in New York with six other actresses. We were flown into New York, put up in a hotel, and the next morning, in 45-minute sessions, we were each put in total hair, makeup, wardrobe, and we had to perform the scene in front of the camera with the full crew, all the producers, and the director. So there were seven Mrs. Millers walking around a soundstage.
AVC: What was your experience with the play before you found out about the audition?
VD: No experience. I hadn’t seen it, I hadn’t read it. I came into it completely green, and not on purpose. I was doing a play at the same time Doubt was happening in New York, Intimate Apparel, so I didn’t get a chance to see it.
AVC: How did you originally get into stage acting?
VD: Growing up in Central Falls, just doing skits in the park, and then performing plays in high school. High-school theater competitions, Rhode Island Drama Festival. I was a theater geek, I was a complete nerd.
AVC: What do you mean “skits in the park”?
VD: I shouldn’t say skits in the park, that really only happened once—a skit in the park, in a contest in a park in Central Falls. And my sisters and I won the competition. We actually put a skit together where we each had our own roles. I was the writer-actor, my sister Delores was the director-actor, and I was also the costume designer. And we had rehearsals, and we also had rewrites—the whole thing—but we performed the skit, and I have to say, we were very, very savvy with our rehearsal periods, and we won the contest, and it was a big deal for me at the time.
AVC: How old were you?
VD: Eight. I was 8, and my sisters were 10, 11, 9, I think. We were all really close in age. I’m the youngest of the three of them. I have one younger sister now, but she wasn’t around then. But we won the competition, and it was a big, big deal for us, because once again, we were on the periphery of this city, always kind of fighting to get in, always trying to prove ourselves. This was in the early ’70s.
AVC: What was the skit about?
VD: We created a game show called “The Lifesaver Show,” where you had to come in and give your greatest lifesaving story. And all the characters we created were from sitcoms we loved during the day: Sanford And Son, That’s My Mama, and of course, Monty Hall in Let’s Make A Deal. [Laughs.] We had the music, and we went to Salvation Army to get all the costumes, or raided my mom and dad’s closet.
AVC: Pretty savvy for an 8-year-old.
VD: Yeah, I thought it was pretty savvy. That’s what I’m talking about! I made it! [Laughs.] Everyone from the city was there.
AVC: You mentioned that you grew up in poverty. A lot of times, when there isn’t a lot of money, the arts are the first thing to be neglected. How important were the arts to your family, your community?
VD: When I grew up, the arts were very much alive, in the high school especially. In terms of variety shows, we did Rhode Island State Drama Festival, and like I said, the skit contest in Central Falls, or I would go to the neighboring cities’ community centers. Community centers are really big for arts programs, because it’s a way for kids to express and release. You know, any arts program anywhere is going to have the unruly kid they can’t control in the classroom, so they throw him into the theater class. It happens all the time. But it’s very important in that way, because once again, it’s an outlet. And any kind of outlet was also something to do. It’s just simply that: Something to do. I mean, I would take knitting classes and crocheting classes at the local community center, because it was something to do. But also, you need a kind of positive conduit to just release all that pent-up energy and frustration, because it’s frustrating being poor. You don’t have access to things, and you’re not seen in a great light. It makes you develop a certain self-image that’s not good. It really helped me to be able to express myself, and to be kind of rewarded for expressing myself well. It kind of built my self-image. I was so painfully shy.
AVC: How does your background affect the way you view Hollywood?
VD: You notice the excess, what a bubble it is, how it’s not created in reality. [Elsewhere,] people are struggling every day just to eat, just to take care of their children.
AVC: You attended Julliard after high school, and you’ve mentioned in the past that your experience there was mixed.
VD: Everyone has a mixed experience at Juilliard, unfortunately.
AVC: What do you mean?
VD: It’s like any great medicine that works. It tastes absolutely lousy going down, but ultimately helps and heals you. And that’s what Juilliard was. Juilliard is classical training. They don’t really want to focus on what you do well—that’s what got you into the school. They’re training you to do other stuff well, which may not come easily to you. And when you focus on that a lot, it’s just like therapy—when you focus on all your inadequacies, you start feeling inadequate. You start noticing your inadequacies, and that’s what Juilliard does. And it doesn’t help that there are no windows at the school. [Laughs.] You’re there about 12, 13 hours a day, and you’re poor, you’re broke in New York City, living in a lousy apartment. And of course, it’s all the—once again, here it goes—expectations of what it was going to be, as opposed to what it was. I don’t know, I thought there was going to be more glamour to it all. I feel the same way about my business, though.
AVC: Your business of acting?
VD: Yeah. When you’re working as an actor, you don’t think that when you get out of school, it’s going to be so hard to get a job. Just to get a job. Any job. Whatsoever. You don’t think that people are going to see you in a certain way. Uta Hagen said this, “In my life, I see myself as just this, you know, kind of flamboyant, kind of sexy middle-aged woman. And then I see myself onscreen, and I go ‘Oh my God.’” And it’s the same thing with me. I didn’t see myself any different from my white counterparts in school. I just didn’t! I thought I could do what they did. And what I didn’t do well, I thought people were going to give me the opportunity to do well, because maybe they saw my talent, so they would give me a chance. I had no idea that they would see me completely different. I just didn’t.
AVC: What was the misperception you had?
VD: I guess I saw myself as being 28. Little did I know that I was competing more with fortysomethings. They saw me as more of a character. They didn’t see me as a 28-year-old young woman, but that’s how I saw myself—kind of funky and hip and quirky and shy. And they saw me as strong, authoritative, and not pretty at all. Any time a role had just “attractive” on it, I knew I wasn’t going to get it. So not attractive at all, not even on the radar of attractiveness, which just—it took me a while to get it. But because I could put my ego aside—I have the ability to do that—I got over that after a couple of months.
AVC: That’s pretty fast.
VD: I know. I mean, when I say “get over it,” I got over it more so than other actresses I know. I should preface it by saying that, because I don’t want to make myself sound like I’m just, “I am woman, hear me roar!” I still struggle with that kind of idea, but I did get over it, because I saw that there’s a difference between my real life and acting. That’s a conclusion I drew.
AVC: You just alluded to the fact that you noticed a difference between how white actresses were perceived, and how you were perceived. What was your experience with that?
VD: [With white actresses,] people see the possibilities. There are so many different types. You have the young 18/19-year-old types, the Amanda Bynes, or the early-20s, Hilary Duffs, the Lindsay Lohans, and the Miley Cyruses—teens. And then you get in the thirtysomethings, the Cameron Diazes, the Kate Winslets, the Reese Witherspoons, they’re all different! And then the older, the over-50, over-60, Helen Mirrens, Meryl Streeps, Diane Keatons, Sally Field. The fortysomethings, Nicole Kidmans, Julia Roberts, we can go on and on with this, and they’re all different. Some of them are quirky. You have the geek princess, you have the off-centered beauty, they don’t even have to walk in looking like Grace Kelly or Charlize Theron, they’re considered classically beautiful. They can be off-centered, their nose can be a little big, they can look ethnic, but there’s something in their eyes, or in the way they talk, that can make them kind of attractive. The girlfriend, the wife that the guy loves, but he sees the hot babe on the beach and decides to go with her, then ends up going back to his wife. The possibilities, the range.
I don’t see that with black women. And I very rarely see the over-50s, over-60s. Very few of those exist, even with Caucasian women, but they almost are nonexistent with us. And so that’s what I see. So if you don’t fit in the three categories that they have, then you don’t exist. You almost take all those qualities that you have, because you know they’re not going to see it, you almost try to cover them up. Because you know that if you show them, they’re going to be confused by that in an office, in an auditioning room. And at the end of the day, you try not to let it hurt your feelings, but it does. It hurts. And I’m hopeful that it will change, because I think that all of those women do exist. The woman who inspired me, Cicely Tyson, I saw as very beautiful. She was dark-skinned, she had full lips, she had high cheekbones, she was a fantastic actress. I saw it.
AVC: You’ve gotten a lot of acclaim for your stage acting—
VD: I never stopped doing plays. I’m probably more at the point now where I can be a little picky. Which feels good, to be a little picky.
AVC: You’ve gotten a lot of acclaim for being in August Wilson plays, specifically. You won a Tony for King Hedley II. What is it about that playwright that clicks for you?
VD: It’s exactly what we just said—I see the wide range of the black experience in his work. He’s the keeper of history. I mean, all the different periods, he wrote. And he’s the keeper of what the black human experience was in all of those time periods, and he tells it honestly, and with depth and contradictions. All the black women [in his plays], for me, are interesting and realized and sexy and funny and grounded, and they’re wonderful.
AVC: Richard Roundtree once said “The truth of the industry is that the stage is for actors, movies for directors, and television is for residuals.” Having acted in all three mediums, what’s your take on that?
VD: That’s great. I like that quote. That’s more savvy than what I would come up with! People call me a theater actor, but I’m just an actor. But I tell my friends all the time—especially a lot that do theater and haven’t done a lot of TV/film—that you have so much more control over your work onstage. When you go onstage, you can really see the difference between people who can really do it, and people who are just kind of pretending to do it. There is no editor, there’s nothing that’s going to stop the actor from showing what they can do unless it’s not a well-written role. Whereas in film, it’s up to the director to tell the story in whatever way he sees fit, and however you fit into that ultimate vision is where you fit in. So what you did on that stage, on that set, may not be what you ultimately see when you see the final product. And TV works so fast, it works so fast, it’s just about product. The average TV show, one episode shoots eight, 10 days. That’s it. You get three or four takes for a scene, and then it’s over. But people do it for the money.
AVC: What was your reaction upon seeing your scene in Doubt for the first time?
VD: Horrified. I gained 17 pounds while I was shooting that film, and I had no idea until I saw it. And people always say, “Oh you gained so much weight, it was so great you put on that weight for the character!” And I thought, “I had no idea I put that much.” I look huge next to Meryl Streep. She looked short—well she is kind of short anyway. And then my nose running, and the way my lips looked—
AVC: You’re going to have to see all that snot again at the Oscars, when they show your clip.
VD: Over and over—on Oprah. And you know, I did so many takes where, at one point Meryl hands me a Kleenex, so I wipe my nose. And then I did some takes where I just let it all hang out. Of course, [the editor] chose the take where I just let it all hang out, and I don’t wipe it until the end. I saw all of that, all of the little quirks, and I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. So I took to my bed, as they said in the old days; I went home with a lot of food, I ate all the food—I remember bread, and I forgot what else I ate—and I literally, for two weeks, fell into a pit of despair. Because I was so happy with the scene when I shot it, it was the dream of my life. Working with Meryl Streep, I was just—love, divine. Just wonderful. And seeing it was nothing like I remembered. But then I finally saw the whole scene at the L.A. première, and I was okay. Watching yourself is very difficult, let me tell you.
AVC: What do you think of your Oscar chances?
VD: Oh, I have no idea. I’m just glad it’s right at the beginning of the show. Then I can relax.