If Viola Davis has learned anything in the near 30 years since she graduated from Juilliard, it’s that you don’t play games with August Wilson, the work or the man. An actor should honor him, and his words, because he honored the lives and words of the black men and women he wrote about.
“My whole thing is, I’ve got to be as good, as courageous as what’s written on the page,” Davis said. “If he wrote a four-page monologue where I tell this man the depth to which he’s hurt me, then I’ve got to go there. If he went there as a writer, I’ve got to go there as an actor. If I don’t, I’m not respecting his work.”
This is how she approached the role of Rose Maxson in Wilson’s “Fences” on Broadway and it’s how she approached its reprisal in the play’s cinematic adaptation, in theaters Sunday. Both have paid off: She won her second Tony in 2010 for the role (she won her first for another Wilson play, “King Hedley II,” in 2001) and is a front-runner for Academy Award recognition next month.
Over lunch — the night after she won two honors at the Critics’ Choice Awards and just hours after nabbing a Golden Globe nomination (she would also get a SAG Award nomination two days later) — Davis, 51, is calmly collected. Wearing an aqua blue, knee-length dress and a charcoal gray overcoat “Scandal’s” Olivia Pope would envy, she sits in a wooden chair at NeueHouse Hollywood’s rooftop restaurant, her eye contact intense, voice assured. You can tell she’s been here before, a place where her day off is now populated with a press interview and photo shoot and a moment in which Hollywood recognizes her gift; but also, a place where she still marvels that a dark-skinned girl born into poverty in St. Matthews, S.C., could feel at home.
Davis is no stranger to the world of celebrity, though fame was a long time coming. While the beginning of her television and film career was populated with minor roles, often as nurses, it was through a recurring role as an attorney on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” that audiences began to take note of her. But it wasn’t until the 2008 Oscar-nominated role — her first — in “Doubt,” opposite Meryl Streep, that people clamored to know her name.
Still, she didn’t truly blow up until her second Oscar nomination, for playing a humble maid in 2011’s “The Help.” Though she lost that year to Streep, as almost every actress worth her salt does at one point or another, it cemented her as a force to be reckoned with. Since, Davis has claimed ground in TV with “How to Get Away with Murder,” for which she became the first black woman to win an Emmy for lead actress in a drama in 2015. With “Fences,” undoubtedly, this is her year to take home all of the awards.
And the credit goes to Wilson, the playwright known for chronicling the African American experience during the 20th century through a series of 10 plays — one for each decade. Davis’ relationship with Wilson, whom she considers “the best writer” about black life, began with a 1989 staging of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” the second of the series. That’s how she earned her Actors’ Equity card and became a professional, and since she’s found herself continually drawn to his work. “Fences,” the sixth in the series, set in the 1950s, was her third time performing Wilson’s work on Broadway. (He wrote the film adaptation of “Fences” before his death in 2005.)
When describing his uniqueness, Davis puts him in a category with only one other person: Streep.
“They are people who are living their lives, available and open, but at the same time they’re watching,” she said about both Wilson and Streep. “They’re taking it in and at the most opportune time, they use it.”
Wilson used it in his writing, translating with precision and authenticity what he saw and heard while living in the boarding houses of Pittsburgh’s historically black Hill District. Davis said Wilson was so exacting in his writing, evoking the natural rhythm of how black people speak, that “when he was in a rehearsal, he would sit, put his head down and you would think he would be asleep.
“Then, as soon as you missed one word — you’ve got to be word-perfect — his head would jump up, he’d look around, grab and look at the script and look at the actor,” she said. “He’d start tapping on the [director’s shoulder] and then you’d have to go back and do it again.”
We have to stop thinking about diversity and start thinking about inclusion... That’s what you can take from August Wilson.
According to Stephen McKinley Henderson, who reprised his Broadway role as Mr. Bono for Denzel Washington’s screen adaptation, Wilson’s ability to capture the intricacies of black life was unmatched.
“He’s got kind of a blues poetic that goes throughout [his work],” said Henderson. “When you hear the characters talk, you also hear some of the great blues songs [of the time] and as the decades go by, it starts to get jazzy with that blues bass in it.”
Davis said Wilson had also perfected writing roles for women, her character Rose being a perfect example, “complete in her narrative,” starting as someone assumed to be a background character who, through pain and devastation, becomes much more.
“It is a complete journey of a human being and I don’t get that” in most of the characters that come her way, she said. “I don’t get [roles with] journeys… You get your three scenes and you hope, you just pray, that you get even a tiny bit of backstory. It’s fabulous that I got all of that and then some.”
And with that, “she goes all the way,” Henderson said of Davis. “That’s just how she rolls. She only has an A game, and it can go A-squared.”
Charles D. King, a “Fences” executive producer and leader of Macro Ventures, which co-financed the film, agreed, saying “it was quite apparent that she channeled and took [the role] to another level than what she did on stage,” noting “the power and nuance of her performance.”
One scene of the film perhaps best illustrates this. Confronted by her husband (Washington’s Troy), Rose is told that he will be a father — of another woman’s baby — and he’s not ending the affair. Her response is intense, emotional and traumatic, for the character and, in a way, the audience. She ugly-cries. Snot runs from her nose.
“It’s like a jazz riff, knowing how to ride that wave and still have it grounded in truth,” Davis said. “It’s not one of those tiny cries-with-the-handkerchief, I’m-really-deeply-hurt scenes. It’s I-don’t-care-who’s-watching, I-can-rip-my-clothes-off-right-now, I-could-claw-every-bit-of-skin-off-your-face… Vanity and everything else gets thrown out the window.”
Luckily, Davis said, the trust between the cast and Washington allowed her performance to flourish. Because they all staged the Broadway production together, she knew “that they could handle the work, that you could throw the ball at them and they’ll throw it back at you.”
Davis admits that being cast as Annalise Keating on “How to Get Away with Murder,” helped her better emotionally connect with Rose because with the television role, “I had to give myself permission to fit into those adjectives of being sociopathic, sexualized, manipulative,” she said. “Then, as I was thinking of that not being me, I asked, ‘Why can’t that be me?’
“The whole idea that you’ve got to be big to be maternal, if you’re dark skinned, you can’t be the girlfriend ... I’m trying to fit that into what I understand about life and they don’t fit,” she said. “They are diametrically opposed to each other. That’s why I asked ‘why’ with Annalise and I have to say as soon as I did, my whole brain exploded with possibilities.”
She’s since become a vocal critic of the roles written and opportunities for women of color. At our sit-down, she talks of what the industry can learn from Wilson, whose plays have traveled worldwide.
“We have to stop thinking about diversity and start thinking about inclusion,” she said. “That’s what you can take from August Wilson. That there are whole cultures out there living experiences exactly like yours and their stories can be just as dynamic, sold in the foreign market, put as many butts in the seats as any Caucasian movie out there.”
And that brings her to what Hollywood’s most recent diversity conversation, prompted by #OscarsSoWhite, is missing: “our own participation in it.”
“We sort of just want it to happen, but we don’t want to be the one that makes it happen,” she said. “How are you moving the whole idea forward? Are you plopping your money down to see that different narrative that includes people of color? If you’re a studio exec, are you giving the green light to those stories?
That’s why she, along with her husband Julius Tennon, created JuVee Productions: to ensure “the next generation of filmmakers and artists have the space to craft dynamic stories spanning the broad spectrum of humanity,” as the website reads. The company has already had some successes, signing an overall deal with ABC in April and partnering with HBO for a TV movie on Harriet Tubman in which Davis is set to star.
“I’m just looking for any new voice that’s going to be inclusive, that is going to be different,” she said about the types of stories she’s looking to tell with her company. “All I know is that there is a need for people to see their own images. They’re hungry for it.”
She sits back in her seat. The interview is over and my audio recorder is off. As we finish our meal, she revisits my last question, about the types of stories she wants to tell. She describes a casting call for a movie about a journalist. She makes a number of assumptions that lead to: “Who says a journalist has to be a white man dressed in a suit? Why can’t they be like you?”
I, black, gay and gender-nonconforming, am wearing a black and grey poncho, leather pants almost as tight as leggings and a pair of three-inch black heels.
“Why can’t they be dressed like you?” she said. “That would make me lean in.”
Get your life! Follow me on Twitter: @TrevellAnderson.