Viola Davis has won two Tony Awards for her Juilliard-trained stage work in the August Wilson plays "King Hedley II" and "Fences." She has been Oscar-nominated twice, first for a supporting role in "Doubt," more recently for a much larger role, in "The Help." Playing the African-American domestic, Aibileen, in that hit brought her much acclaim and no little amount of grief, Davis told me the other day by phone. She's coming to Chicago Monday to pick up a career achievement award from the Chicago International Film Festival.
"The Help," said the 47-year-old actress, whose 2-year-old daughter watched a Donald Duck cartoon in the background, "was the film where I found my voice as an artist, because I found myself having to defend my choice to act in it. I would not say confidence is my No. 1 attribute. I'm confident enough to say that. So I had to somehow find that confidence in the midst of people attacking me."
The role, she heard from many, was ... you name it: patronized. Patronizing. A throwback. Inauthentic. But, she said, "compared to 99.9 percent of the other scripts that come my way, I chose something I felt I could make work. I saw something I thought I could humanize."
Continuing: "The big regret I have is this: Up until that time I never was able to go onto a film set and say, 'OK, what about changing this? Or adding that?' Aibileen's inner life, I thought, was not explored in the movie. That was the one thing lost from the book; everything that makes the character special takes place internally. On screen, at some point, you've got to hear the thoughts."
That said, Davis is grateful for the role, pleased with its impact. "My career totally shifted after 'The Help' because 'The Help' made money," she said. Shortly after filming, but well in advance of its release, Davis accepted the role of the frustrated public school teacher in "Won't Back Down," a film that many saw as an anti-union screed.
Was she surprised at that perception? "I knew it would be a little controversial going in," Davis said, laughing, "but I had no idea! Usually my instincts are good when the message is bigger than the story, and with this one, I didn't think it was anti-union or anti-public schools. I just saw the story; I just saw the character." And again, she reminded me, it hasn't been that long since the best she was offered was a juicy two- or three-scene showcase in the supporting ranks.
"On screen," she said, "I have had so many great experiences. But like a lot of people I feel I haven't yet had the role that reflects all I can do." She and her husband, actor Julius Tennon, have established a production company and begun optioning literary properties for screen adaptation, including projects built around the lives of civil rights leader Barbara Jordan and abolitionist Harriet Tubman. "I look at that young actress from 'Beasts of the Southern Wild,' Quvenzhane Wallis, and I think to myself: OK, let's fantasize. Let's say she gets an Academy Award nomination. Let's imagine then that she wins the Oscar for best supporting actress. What's next? What's out there for her, what's going to carry her throughout her career, through her teens and her 40s and her 60s?"
Hence the production company. And here's to the next quarter century of Viola Davis' career.
Viola Davis picks up a career achievement award 7 p.m. Monday at the AMC River East 21 as part of the Chicago International Film Festival. Tickets to tribute and conversation, $35; tribute and party, $75. Go to chicagofilmfestival.com for details.