Viola Davis’ Oscar-nominated performance as an anguished mother in the screen adaptation of Doubt put her on Hollywood’s A-list, and the versatile actress soon found herself playing an artist on TV’s United States of Tara and Julia Roberts’ best friend in the eagerly awaited movie Eat, Pray, Love. In a recent news flash, Davis has landed the coveted lead role of Mississippi maid Aibileen in the upcoming film version of top-selling novel The Help. But never mind all that: The big story for theater fans is that Davis is giving a fierce star performance as Rose Maxson opposite Denzel Washington in August Wilson’s Fences at the Cort Theatre. It’s her third time playing a Wilson heroine on Broadway, after a Tony-nominated performance in Seven Guitars (1996) and Tony-winning turn in King Hedley II (2001). A few days before Fences’ April 26 opening, the friendly and soft-spoken actress chatted with Broadway.com about the legacy of August Wilson and the fun of being in demand at age 44.
How does it feel to be back on the New York stage for the first time in six years?
Fantastic. I’m reminded of all the things I love about acting: the live audience, the interaction with the other actors and the relationships that develop over a period of time—all the things you miss when you’re doing TV and film.
It must be nice to co-star with someone you already know well [Denzel Washington directed Davis in the movie Antwone Fisher].
I love working with Denzel because he’s like everyone I grew up with down South and in Rhode Island. He is a regular guy who absolutely is not attracted to his own celebrity. He’s a jokester, a little rough around the edges, with great heart and compassion; he loves his family. I feel very comfortable with him. I don’t see “Denzel Washington Star,” I just see Denzel.
You’ve now starred on Broadway in three of August Wilson’s 10 plays. Why is Fences the most popular?
I think it’s because it’s a “well made play” in terms of structure: two acts, exposition, climax, all of that. But I also think the relationships in the play are very familiar. It crosses racial lines, it crosses sex lines; it speaks to women in relationships; it speaks to father-son relationships; it’s about baseball and broken dreams. Everyone can relate to that.
Wilson didn’t hesitate to write heroes who are not very heroic.
Absolutely. I compare it to Arthur Miller, who was the first to elevate the “everyman” to the proportions of a tragic hero. August Wilson dared to do the same thing, but in the body of a black man, a forgotten man. Negro League [baseball] players [like Troy Maxson in Fences] were unbelievable athletes, and a lot of them died in obscurity. The maid, the domestic, the rogue—he gave all of them a voice, a spirit. I mean, I have material [in Wilson plays] for when I’m well into my 60s and 70s. He left an incredible legacy.
What was Wilson [who died in 2005] like personally?
Very complicated and interesting. There’s a little bit of him in all the characters he created—the poet, the romantic. If you saw him on the street and had a brief conversation, you probably would never know that all these words were in his spirit. He was a very shy man. But he had a special gift for observing and understanding people. If you told him a story, he would write it down and use it as inspiration for a character. When he lived in a [Pittsburgh] boardinghouse, he listened to all the conversations and was able to write dialogue that had such richness; you felt that when you were with him.
Do you feel any pressure knowing that the original production of Fences and its stars [James Earl Jones and Mary Alice] received numerous awards and acclaim?
Denzel does a fantastic job [dealing] with that—he’s 150 percent more mature than I am, okay? [Laughs.] Of course I think of Mary Alice’s performance, because she is extraordinary. That’s one reason I didn’t want to take this [revival] at first. I’ve always done new plays in New York—Everybody’s Ruby, Intimate Apparel, Seven Guitars, King Hedley. I wasn’t following someone else’s interpretation. But at the end of the day, what can you do? If you take the job, you have to get up there and interpret the role to the best of your ability. The beauty of being an artist is that you can put 10 Richard IIIs on the stage, and they can all be different.
Did you enjoy all the hoopla surrounding [the 2008 movie] Doubt? You looked gorgeous at the Oscars [in a gold Reem Acra halter-top gown].
I loved that whole experience. Who wouldn’t? If you walked out of that experience not liking it, you’d have to be extraordinarily cynical. Great role, great director, great writer, great actors. And my scenes were with Meryl Streep? I mean, come on!
Your husband [actor Julius Tennon] looked so proud of you.
We’re proud of each other. We’re each other’s cheering section.
Is it tricky to juggle two acting careers, especially since you are so successful?
We don’t have a difficult time of it. Egos are an occupational hazard in acting, but I don’t have much of one and my husband doesn’t have much of one, so it’s good. He was very much a mensch, a regular guy, before we met. He did a lot of film, TV and theater, but he also raised his children. He’s a grandfather. He was a probation officer. He’s lived a life. And I think when you’ve lived a life, you can put this business in its place. It’s really just making a living, it’s not your life. If you blow it out of proportion and use it as a wedge in your relationships, you’ve got a problem.
When did you realize you had a gift for stage acting?
When I was eight, three of my sisters and I wrote a skit for a contest in Central Falls, Rhode Island [where Davis’ father worked grooming horses]. It sounds silly now, but at the time it was like we were auditioning for American idol. We were the only black family [in town]. The Caucasian kids took dance classes; they were immersed in the arts because their families had a little bit more money then we did. So we took it upon ourselves to enter this skit contest along with all of them. I was the writer and director. I did the rewrites in the closet of our apartment. We got our costumes at the Salvation Army and put this skit together—and we won! I thought, “This is what I was meant to do.” I was into the work and the attention; I was into the release of being able to express myself. All of it was very attractive to me.
Having grown up in a less-than-wealthy family, did you find moving to New York to attend Juilliard a big adjustment?
There’s not enough time to talk about what a huge adjustment it was! First of all, just being in a training program, feeling like I had gifts and being excited about getting up onstage. A training program is about tearing all of that down in order to get better; you have to focus on the things you don’t do well. That was hard, and it was a hard adjustment living in the city and being on my own. I grew up in abject poverty, so I knew about living in a fourth floor walk-up full of mice and roaches. A lot of young people who come to New York feel like that’s hip and cool. They love the struggle. I don’t. I struggled my entire life, into my 30s, when I met my husband, and I’m confident in saying that I don’t like living hard [laughs]. I didn’t have any choice when I was a kid, but as an adult, I don’t like to struggle!
You’ve got several big movies coming up, right?
Yes, I’m in Eat, Pray, Love, which is coming out in July. It was so much fun. I had fun with Knight and Day, the movie I shot with Tom Cruise. Everything is fun lately! When I was younger, I’d make everything miserable, but now it’s fun [laughs].
Is it official that you’ll be starring in The Help? That’s a biggie!
It’s official. I’m excited. I think it’s great whenever there’s a movie that is driven by a female protagonist. And it’s especially great that the female in this case is a black woman. There is a true need for that in Hollywood. We’re still holding up the caboose there.
Did you like the book?
I did. I read the book with expectations—and not good ones—because I knew who had written it, this beautiful young white debutante from the South [Kathryn Stockett]. So I had trepidations, but I have to say, there were so many parts of it that moved me. And talking to black women now who were domestics in the sixties, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. In my head, I want a story to be different—I want it to be grittier. That’s just my nature. But when I actually talk to people who experienced that [life], the stories are never as hard or revolutionary as I thought they were. There are so many [black] women in the south who loved these [white] kids and loved these families.
You’ve been through theater awards season a couple of times. Are you looking forward to it?
Uhh, no [laughs]. Oh gosh! Here’s the thing: 95 percent of the profession is unemployed at any given time, so I would be highly cynical if I said, “Oh these awards, da-da-da.” But it puts so much pressure on you that has nothing to do with the work. Even if you feel you’re not going to win or you don’t deserve it, you get so nervous. And there’s already a lot of pressure in getting on the stage and doing the work. But you know what? I live a fantastic life. Why should I complain about awards?
See Viola Davis in Fences at the Cort Theatre.