Viola Davis and Julius Tennon have a great love story. It led to one of the year’s best films

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Viola Davis.
(Oye Diran / For The Times)

Get Viola Davis and Julius Tennon talking about how they found each other and the conversation instantly turns into one of those couples interviews you see in “When Harry Met Sally,” with the husband and wife finishing each other’s sentences while making sure that the details are relayed just so.

On their first date 23 years ago, Tennon took Davis to the Crocodile Cafe on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. Tennon says they didn’t go there for any particular reason. Davis reminds him: “You said you loved the bread basket!” Tennon remembers. “Oh, yeah ... the bread was fresh and gooood.”

After dinner, they walked to the Santa Monica Pier, Tennon wrapping Davis in his coat because of the cool ocean air. “He drove me home in his Nissan Maxima,” Davis says. “My new Nissan Maxima,” Tennon interjects. “Oh, it was so clean,” Davis continues. “And he drove me to the front curb and he shook my hand. He said I was beautiful and that he’d had such a beautiful time. And he stayed there until I got to the door of my apartment. He was such a gentleman.” Tennon smiles. “Texas hospitality.”

Davis and Tennon have been together ever since, marrying in 2003 and forming their own production company, JuVee Productions in 2011, which has generated a plethora of projects, including “The Woman King” — an action epic about the Agojie, the all-female unit of warriors who protected the African kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s — a film Tennon calls their “magnum opus.” The American Film Institute recently named it one of the 10 best movies of 2022.

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The directors at this year’s Envelope Roundtable -- Rian Johnson, Jordan Peele, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Maria Schrader, Charlotte Wells and Florian Zeller -- found shared experiences.

“I’ve never met a couple more in sync about the work they want to put into the world and with their beautiful energy, who they are together,” says “Woman King” director Gina Prince-Bythewood.

Hyperbole? Read on and decide for yourself.

When you two met on the set of the CBS series “City of Angels,” did you feel an immediate connection, like a love at first sight?

Tennon: I gave her my card, but she didn’t call me for six weeks!

Davis: Let me tell you ... at the time I had a 500 credit score. I couldn’t get a credit card. I couldn’t get a rental car. Sometimes I’d take the bus or I had to walk. I was so stressed out. And when I got these 10 episodes of “City of Angels,” I couldn’t stay in the apartment I had because it was $2,500 a month. I ran out of money! My anxiety was so overwhelming, and I felt like I wouldn’t be attractive to anyone, a 34-year-old woman running around on a bus. Listen, when I met him I had 99-cent sheets ...

Tennon: From the 99 Cent store. [Laughs]

A man and woman sit close, hands linked.
“I would call Julius a more Type A, organized personality. And I’m not,” Viola Davis says of husband and business partner Julius Tennon. “Definitely not,” Tennon replies.
(Oye Diran / For The Times)

The 99 Cents Only Store sells linens? What was the thread count?

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Davis: Zero point five. [Laughs]

Tennon: It was like sleeping on razor blades.

But Viola, just three weeks before you met him, you had prayed for a man almost exactly like Julius ... and here he was, a manifestation of answered prayers. And ... you took six weeks to call?

Davis: I didn’t know that at first! I remember telling my therapist at the time, “I think he’s nice. He’s really cute. But I don’t know ... I’m struggling with this, that and the other.” They say nostalgia isn’t what happened in the past. It’s a story you tell yourself about what happened in the past. So I’m telling myself, “This guy may not even be a nice guy. It’s L.A. It’s this. It’s that. Let me just work on my credit.” Until my therapist told me, “Oh, my God, just call the man, Viola! Call. Him.” And that’s when I stopped making excuses.

Tennon: My mom always told me that when you meet a girl, you don’t ask for her phone number. Give her your phone number. And if she’s interested, she’ll call you. So I always followed that advice because even when my mom was wrong, she was right. So when Viola did call after six weeks, it was a surprise.

Davis: I was shocked you remembered me!

Tennon: Well, of course I would remember you. I was like, “Heeeey, what’s happening?”

Screenwriter Dana Stevens had her plot twist, complete with tension and drama, and used it to fill in the rest of the story’s characters, conflict and plot.

A woman warrior stands amid foliage holding a torch in a scene from "The Woman King."
“We stuck with ‘The Woman King’ for seven years,” Julius Tennon says of his and Viola Davis’ company JuVee Productions.
(Ilze Kitshoff / Sony Pictures)

And now you’ve been together nearly 25 years. When you’re with somebody this long, there’s usually one fight you keep having. What’s yours?

Davis: I would call Julius a more Type A, organized personality. And I’m not.

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Tennon: Definitely not. [Laughs] And I can relieve her of that. You know, “Don’t worry about cleaning up. I got it.”

Davis: He came over and cleaned my apartment!

Tennon: Mostly it was just the bathroom, not putting tops back on things and leaving stuff everywhere. I like things to be organized.

Davis: He raised his children on his own! [Tennon, 68, has a 46-year-old daughter and 43-year-old son from an earlier marriage.] So that is the conflict sometimes. I’m like, “Be free! Be open to life!” But what complements us is I think I help Julius fly by the seat of his pants a little bit more. [Pauses] But I don’t know if that’s really true. He does just fine. He helps me laugh a lot too. My ass can get tight.

Tennon: We laugh a lot.

Davis: I’m saying, rolling out the bed, laughing on the floor. That’s all the time. A friend came to South Africa when we were filming “The Woman King” and was staying two doors down. And she was saying, “I was just listening to you guys laugh for the longest time.” And I remember that. I was rolling on the floor. He does great imitations. I think those imitations probably got me through the movie.

When you started JuVee Productions in 2011, you said, Julius, that it was out of necessity, that the talent was there but the material was not. Has that changed in the intervening years?

Tennon: We’ve definitely made some strides. We stuck with “The Woman King” for seven years. And we’ve found some wonderful things for Viola, and in between there have been the August Wilson adaptations. [Davis won an Oscar for “Fences” and was nominated for her performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”]

Davis: When you are an actress of color, when you are a Black actress, there’s certain characters you haven’t seen in movies that have your makeup. People are OK when you’re funny and you’re Black. They’re OK if you’re maternal and you’re Black. Or maybe overly angry. But nothing like “The Woman King” had ever been done before. People would focus on the commercial aspect of it. “We want it to land. We want white males to get it. We want white women to get it.” So how do we do that and still retain the integrity of the story? You just have to go for it. Ava DuVernay has a clip out today, saying if you’re a Black woman and you’re an artist, you cannot wait for permission to create. You just have to do it. And that’s what we did with this movie.

What do you think it says about the business that it took seven years?

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Davis: I don’t think — and I’m not saying this in a way that’s condescending — but I do not think most people understand what it is we do. There is the work and there’s the business. The business tells you there needs to be a young female lead who’s cute. There needs to be a love interest. Why isn’t there a man in this film? Why don’t you have a bumping soundtrack with an artist who’s young and hip?

That has nothing to do with the work. You create a piece as an artist, you fight for your choices, you try to make bold choices, you collaborate with the right people, and then you give it to the audience and the audience has to receive what you’ve given them. It is coming from the heart of the artists who created it. You do not change it. You do not shift it to make it palatable. That is not art. That is commerce. That is fear. And fear is why it takes seven years.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood, Beninese economist and historian Leonard Wantchekon and film professor Racquel Gates push back on the online campaign accusing ‘The Woman King’ of historical revisionism.

Tennon: It’s an ongoing journey, but the journey has been worth it. Viola’s got the skill set and we’re continuing to develop projects that she wants to do.

Davis: And now that I’ve reached 57 ... eeeeh ... I do want to keep doing quality work. I just don’t want to work myself to death anymore. [Laughs] I remember taking some friends to the set of “How to Get Away With Murder.” Eighteen hours later, we were going home and they said, “Oh! You shot the whole season already?” And I said, “No. We just shot a couple of scenes. You were right there!” They were like, “Oh! Eighteen hours!” “Yes. It takes eight to 10 days to shoot one episode of a TV show. It’s not uncommon to work a 100-hour week.”

Shooting a TV show is a grind ...

Davis: Being on top is a grind. Everyone wants to be on top. That’s the whole goal. “I want to be Cate Blanchett. I want to be Meryl Streep.” It’s a sacrifice. If anyone were to ask me what my life was, I would say, “[Daughter] Genesis, Julius, my mom.” They’re my heartbeat. A lot of times, you’re filling in the gaps with the things that are important to you. Again, I’m 57. That slaps you in the face. You see what’s important.

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You know, all the things I thought were maybe overrated I now think are underrated. Like doing nothing. Doing nothing is very underrated. It’s like Brené Brown says: When you’re overwhelmed, doing nothing is the only cure. I’ve always been told, the idle mind, you don’t want to be idle. But it’s not true. Taking a breath and taking the time to connect to yourself again and connect to your life ... I don’t think that anyone goes to the grave thinking about how much money they left in the bank. I don’t see it on anyone’s gravestone. I see “beloved mom,” “beloved son,” “beloved daughter.”

What constitutes “doing nothing” for you?

Davis: I’m a simple woman ...

Tennon: I can attest to that.

Davis: So, picking my daughter up from school. Going to Disneyland. Sitting in my movie room watching “Trolls” or “Wednesday” with my daughter.

Tennon: Don’t forget the Jacuzzi or the infrared sauna.

Davis: Laughing with Julius. Laughing with Genesis. Walking our dog. Are you kidding me? That’s rock star. I looooove that dog.

Tennon: When I came home the other day, there was lipstick on that dog.

How are you at drawing boundaries?

Davis: I’m starting to learn. To be perfectly candid, when you come from any level of trauma or abuse, it’s very hard to draw boundaries. But I’m starting to understand that that is connected to how you want people to treat you. That’s tied into showing up, being seen and saying, “This is who I am. And in order to come into my world, this is how I need to be treated. This is what you cannot do to me.” That’s been an aha moment for me, but I’m really starting to learn and I’ve recently started to do it. And it has reduced my anxiety a lot.

I’ll tell you, one of the things that helps too is that I haven’t gained anything in my life by being nice. I haven’t. That’s the story of my life. But it’s all good. I’m learning. Boundaries.