by Moonah Ellison
photography by Steven Gomillion & Dennis Leupold
“I do not like taking pictures – I am my mother’s daughter in that way!”
Sometimes eight minutes is all it takes to make it big in Hollywood. And that’s exactly what it took for Viola Davis to catapult from highly lauded actress to tinsel town superstar virtually overnight with her 2008 Oscar nominated performance in Doubt (the previous decades of excellent work seemingly forgotten). Since those shining 8 minutes on screen, Viola has been virtually unstoppable, starring in a string of films from The Help to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Of course, the ever-grounded and ever relatable Viola is keeping her cool, her self-deprecating wit and her innate vivaciousness.
“Let me tell you, that’s like one of the biggest surprises of my life,” she says after receiving praise from our Moves photographers about her photo shoot. “I do not like taking pictures – I am my mother’s daughter in that way!” A surprising admission from a woman whose “pictures” have made her a household name. It’s small comments like these that reassure you that Viola is exactly what you hoped (and knew) she’d be: a passionate woman who is as honest and real as her onscreen personas.
Which isn’t to say that she’s a “regular” person. Please. If you’ve seen any one of her films you’d realize that while she is capable of being as average and human as the rest of us, she is clearly something more. During the course of our conversation, she unconsciously exhibits qualities of greatness. Her speech pattern is elevated, almost heightened, with no use of modifiers, additives, or fillers (she seldom drops an “um” and is completely unfamiliar with the plebian “I mean…”) Instead, she speaks in fabulously self-assured, declarative statements; brilliant pieces of conversation as if reading from an award-winning screenplay. And despite the fact that Viola would undoubtedly laugh at the mention of this observation, she does admit to noticing a great change within herself in the last couple of years.
“I feel I’ve gradually began to just tap into my voice, especially since the Oscar nomination in Doubt. And I really didn’t think it was gonna come this soon, I thought ‘Ok, maybe in my 60s if I’m still around, if God blesses me enough to give me life in my 60s, maybe I’ll get it then.’ […] I’m finding my voice.”
Which isn’t to say, of course, that she hasn’t already been here – at least for the last couple of years. While she may not have “found her voice” until her Oscar nod, Viola has certainly accrued an enviable body of work, including two Tony Awards, three Drama Desk awards, and roles in blockbuster hits like Traffic and Antoine Fisher.
Growing up in Central Falls, Rhode Island, Viola and her family lived a life that was as far away from Hollywood glamour as you can get. Born on her grandmother’s farm in South Carolina and moving to Central Falls during her childhood, she has described this period as living in “abject poverty.” Her formative years presented more challenges than triumphs for her and her family, and super stardom had to remain a fantasy in the face of harsh realities. “I have a lot of fantastic memories in Central Falls too, but I have a lot of memories where, you know, your plumbing is not working and you don’t have a telephone and you’re hungry and you’re the only black family in your community. […] You can’t see beyond that. However, every book I read, every hobby I enjoyed was the expectation that it could mean or be something bigger. […] And I wanted to be somebody because there were so many forces in my life that told me that I wasn’t anybody. That I didn’t matter. And because I was coming up against something so strong I felt like I had to approach it very very strong.”
Of course, Viola will be the first to tell you that it took more than just her own gumption to get her out of her environment. She attributes her success and discovered sense of self-worth to the few forces in her life that told her she could, most notably her parents. “[My father] wasn’t a stage parent. Neither is my mom. They’re happy to see us dream and fly and just stand on the sidelines and be so excited wherever we land.”
But it was not only her parents who saw the obvious star quality. “For me it was an educator, educators, who saw me beyond my circumstances, saw some talent, liked me, validated me.” Which is why Viola is so passionate about her upcoming movie, Won’t Back Down, a gripping new drama about the educational institution that explorers the controversial Parent Trigger laws. Viola co-stars with Maggie Gyllenhaal and plays a teacher who helps start a revolution to improve educational standards. It’s a movie that she is incredibly proud to be a part of. “Education plays such a huge role in my life so I’m always intrigued. And I’m even more intrigued when people get it right in a story, that they don’t create some fictitious, overly-sanctified, politically correct image of education, but something that’s real and true.”
Similarly, Viola is excited about the character she gets to play, Ms. Nona Alberts. “The character starts off life gung-ho about being a mother, a wife, a passionate educator, and fails in all of it. […] But in the course of this fictitious story, she decides to take a challenge and you see how she finds her passion again. And I love that! As a character and a story plot, I love that!” But it’s not only the passion that inspired Viola to take the role in Won’t Back Down. “I love that fact that Daniel Barnes wrote a character where my color didn’t come into the room before I did.”
And therein lies Hollywood’s dark side, the grim realities that not even Viola’s wattage can seem to outshine. Although she has risen to the top, roles where race is secondary (like her character in Won’t Back Down) are still rare. The film industry, like every other industry has a glass ceiling. And she accepts this disillusionment as a positive (“It makes you work and not coast”). “You feel as a woman, as a woman of color for me, there’s less room for failure. There’s no grey area in there. And so I gotta fight extra hard to be seen, to be noticed, to be validated. And that was no different when I was younger.”
As we broach social issues in our conversation another side of Viola is revealed – that of a passionate activist. And Viola’s activism and social consciousness are a far cry from the host of self-aware A-listers patting themselves on the back for their good deeds. She doesn’t wear her causes like a billboard or seek out photographers at charity events. Fact is, Viola’s activism isn’t the result of her celebrity. It’s just the obvious product of a passionate, intelligent woman who cares deeply about other people. I absolutely believe in restoration and redemption.”
Which is why Viola has been active in supporting the Friendly House in Los Angeles (www.friendlyhousela.com), the oldest recovery house in the US and a safe harbor for women suffering from the destruction of alcohol and drug abuse. “Because I have so many addicts in my family, I know the addict. And I don’t know the addict as the demon, as the person who’s not human. […] I know the addict as the person literally on the path of redemption, struggling with a problem, a sickness like anybody.”
As for what the future holds for Viola, she seems to have a good idea. “Julius (Tennon, her husband) and I are really getting into our new production company JuVee Productions.” It is a multi-ethnic production company serving film, TV, and theater. Currently they are working on a biopic of the great Texas congresswoman, Barbara Jordan – a passion project she is excited to bring to the big screen.
And with three movies about to be released, a working production company, and a new daughter (21 month old, Genesis) does Viola ever allow herself a break?
“Right now I’m talking to you, I’m sitting in my pool,” she laughs embarrassedly, the sound of Genesis’s giggling joining in the background. “In a hotel in Beverly Hills. And we’re planning on going to Bora Bora, I just didn’t mention that to you!”
“Well you know, like I always say, all the goals I always had for my life – I always, of course, wanted to be this great actress of the stage and, you know, being married. […] I have a house, I always wanted a house. I know it’s like a small goal for some people; for me, growing up in poverty, it was a huge goal. But I look at all the goals that I’ve accomplished in my life and they probably represent 1% of what my life is about, or has been about. The other 99% has been made up of mistakes, of obstacles, of pitfalls along the way. And I realize at 47 that most of life, or what you teach a child in life, has got to be about how to handle those pitfalls.”
Here’s to hoping it’s smooth sailing for Ms. Davis.