DOUBT—Interview With Viola Davis
The cascading accolades Viola Davis has received for her supporting turn as Mrs. Miller in John Patrick Shanley's film adaptation of his Broadway play Doubt confirm that this is the breakout performance every actor dreams of and which Davis unquestionably deserves. Best known for her performance in Antwone Fisher, Kenneth Turan writes at the L.A. Times that Viola Davis "brings a sense of decency, urgency and even fear to her rending performance." At the Chicago Sun Times Roger Ebert praises the scene between Davis and Meryl Streep "as good as any I've seen this year. It lasts about 10 minutes, but it is the emotional heart and soul of Doubt, and if Viola Davis isn't nominated by the Academy, an injustice will have been done." At Slant, Dan Callahan writes that Davis's performance is "stealthy and cautious, and her presence fills the screen with a rage she can barely contain." My immediate reaction after seeing Doubt was that Davis was an obvious shoe-in for an Oscar nomination in the Supporting Actress category and that—if I could interview anyone from the film—I wished I could talk to her. As wishes go, mine was granted.
Michael Guillén: It's been said that if a person is willing to begin with doubt, they can proceed to certainty. Clearly, with your performance as Mrs. Miller in John Patrick Shanley's film adaptation of his Broadway play Doubt, the certainty is that this choice role will launch you into a season of nominations and awards. It's a stellar performance inspired by formidable talent.
Viola Davis: Thank you.
Guillén: Congratulations on your Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress and—as of this morning—your S.A.G. nomination. Any others I don't know about?
Davis: The National Board of Review gave me breakthrough performer of the year—that was a good one—and various film critics awards, many of which I've never even heard of before: St. Louis, Dallas, etc.
Guillén: Are you surprised?
Davis: Frankly, I am. I have to say I am surprised.
Guillén: I'm aware you come from the Broadway stage, where you garnered a Tony for your portrayal of Tonya in King Hedley II, so I'm curious if you know Adriane Lenox, the actress who originally played your role in Doubt on Broadway?
Davis: I know her personally. I'd never seen the play before; but, I know her personally, yes. She's a fabulous actress and a great person.
Guillén: Did you know about the role when the play was on Broadway?
Davis: Oh yeah, because everyone talked about it, "My God, the scene with the Black woman"—they'd say "the Black woman" or Adriane Lenox, dependent upon whether they knew her name or not—but no one ever told me what the scene was about. It was like everyone had a gag order on them. It won Adriane the Tony, even though it was just one scene, so I knew the actress was fantastic and that the scene itself must be something extraordinary; but, I didn't know how extraordinary until I picked up the play to solicit myself for the role in the film version.
Guillén: I would say the scene is the most well-written scene in the script as a showcase for the nature of your character, Mrs. Miller. First of all, how did you come to the role in the film version?
Davis: I came to it because I heard the play was going to be done as a movie and I knew Scott Rudin would be producing it and he really likes me. Then I heard they had secured Meryl Streep. I thought, "I have a chance at this role. I can solicit myself—which I never do—so I picked up the script four months in advance, phoned my manager and said, "I really want an audition." Now probably every other actress would say, "I want the role", but I just said, "I want an audition." Every Black actress in America auditioned. I finally made it to the short list of seven. They screen tested in New York. They paraded us in full costume, hair, everything. Seven Mrs. Millers! [Laughs.] They carted us into a room with the producers, the director and the full crew to do the scene and I found out maybe an hour and a half later that I got it. I felt like I had won $150,000,000 in the lottery; that was the feeling.
Guillén: Well, you earned the win. When you read the role, and you decided to audition for it and lobby for it, what was it you felt you could give to the role? What was it that you saw in the role that you knew you had the chops to deliver?
Davis: You're always doubtful if you have the chops; but, I felt I could play the complexities of it. She's not what she appears to be when you're introduced to her. You think you know what she's going to say. You really feel it's going to just be a conflict, an argument scene, and all of a sudden it unfolds and she's so much more. It's such a scene about the extraordinary mother love, loving in extraordinary circumstances, and I felt like I could give that duality and complexity through simplicity. I feel that's my thing. I know how to be simple and how to play different emotions through that simplicity.
Guillén: I would argue that the simplicity you're describing lends itself to the collective conscience the role demonstrates and requires. That conscience is the service of this role to the story. I first noted your acting in Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven where you played Julianne Moore's maid Sybil. Especially the scene where you offer to accompany her to visit Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), when you realize she's on her way to see him and that it isn't quite appropriate and that maybe it would look better if you went with her. In that—as you say—simple offer, the audience recognized Sybil as informed, conscious, moral, loyal, and someone who really wanted to help this woman who was going out on a weak limb.
Davis: Yes, absolutely.
Guillén: Are these roles of steadfast consciousness simply portrayed the ones you prefer to play?
Davis: I love to play them! This role in Doubt would not exist, this scene would not exist, if it were set in 2008. No one would buy it. They buy it because it's set in 1964, because of restraints. Things you want to say but can't say. A kind of relationship you want to have but can't have because you're too restrained by the culture, by racial differences and sexual differences. I enjoy playing characters like that. You have to communicate what you need and want through other means besides the obvious. I find that to be a challenge.
Guillén: I'm aware that you come from a background of abject poverty. I, too, come from humble origins, the child of migrant laborers, and—as a gay male—my mother, like the character of Mrs. Miller, loved me unconditionally. Mom was, of course, concerned about my sexuality because—as you say—it was in the mid-60s, not 2008. And yet she wanted me to get ahead. The first few times I started associating with older gay men, her friends cautioned her, "Don't let Michael go with that guy! Don't let Michael do this. Don't let Michael do that." Yet Mom wanted me to find opportunity however I could find it, wherever I could find it, in a way that fulfilled me. That's a decision she made at that time that only now I recognize as a consummate sacrifice. Perhaps that's why I related so much do how the role of Mrs. Miller was written and your portrayal of her. Her demonstration of love is amazing.
Davis: Yes! That's what it's about, right? People want to put all the labels on me too—not me, Viola, but the character Mrs. Miller—and I don't mind it, sometimes, but other times I say, "I can't take it" because they want to make the character out to be so heroic and I guess she is in a very simple way; but, she is absolutely frightened. I don't think she's as progressive as people make her out to be. I think she's a bit horrified by the fact that her son is a budding homosexual; but, I think that any mother that is at the crossroads of recognizing that their child is someone that they didn't envision them as being or want them to be then has a choice. You either love them, or you don't. Really, that's the bottom line!
Guillén: Believe me, I know. I've had many friends tell me how they were abandoned by their families once they came out. I feel blessed that my mother's love was abiding.
Davis: Mrs. Miller decides, "I love my son." Ultimately, you love your child because that is something ingrained. God has put it in you, I think anyway. From the moment you get pregnant, that child's life is probably more important than your own. She's made that decision, despite the fact that she doesn't even understand the rest of it.
Guillén: As a hypothetical—and I'm not sure you can even answer this or if it even needs to be answered—but, I've been alert to the presumption in some of the reviews that Philip Seymour Hoffman's character Father Flynn actually molested the boy Donald. Do you think he molested your character's son?
Davis: I think that they had some sexual exploration.
Guillén: So you think that indiscretion actually took place?
Davis: My character so fully believes that, that I probably believe that I believe that, even though I don't think that's actually the point of the movie.
Guillén: Interesting. I didn't read it that way. I felt that Father Flynn knew what the repercussions would be if such a scandal broke and how Donald might be harmed. He knew you. He knew your husband. He knew what would happen to the boy. That's why he elected to make the choice he made to leave. I believe it was a choice made from loving compassion and generosity of spirit.
Davis: That's great! Everybody reads it differently. But it's so funny you ask me that because I don't even know what I think, as Viola, but Mrs. Miller—because she has no frame of reference for homosexuality—she's thinking, "Well, if my son is already showing signs of homosexuality and this priest is showing such an interest in him, something may have happened." She has a line in the movie—"My husband was afraid of how he would act with the other boys; but, nothing has happened as far as I can tell"—which is very cryptic. When she comes into the office, I think that's part of the fear in the back of her mind that something has gone on, that maybe her son has touched someone. That's just character information that I'm giving you.
Guillén: I'm sure you've been asked this before; but, what was your personal feeling working across Meryl Streep?
Davis: Complete horror and terror. [Laughs.] I was absolutely terrified.
Guillén: And yet Roger Ebert, in his review for the Chicago Sun Times, qualifies that your scene with Streep "is a confrontation of two equals that generates terrifying power" [my italics] and some reviewers have even ventured that you stole the scene right out from under Streep?
Davis: Well, I have to tell you right now that—though I'm very flattered by that—I will absolutely disagree. It's funny, once again, truth is stranger than fiction, as they say. I was absolutely petrified to work with Meryl Streep because, c'mon, you gotta come 100%, right?
Guillén: I would be terrified just to talk to her!
Davis: There you go, right? Well, me too! [Laughs.] I had to work with her in this scene! But for all the reasons that I was terrified, they were the selfsame reasons that made working with her, Meryl, not Meryl Streep—such a wonderful experience. Because she is just as invested in your work as in her own. She's a consummate actor. That's what an actor does. They say you're only as good as your partner. She's a fantastic partner because she's not just invested in her close-up; she understands that it's about give-and-take. Whatever you do, you know she's going to be right there for you. And then off the set, she's a fantastic human being—interesting, funny, curious, bawdy, y'know?—and she creates a comfortable atmosphere in which to discover and to take risks. So all the reasons you're terrified of her—Is she going to be a diva? Is she going to be so fantastic that she's going to critique your work? Blah blah blah—none of those things come into play. She's a great actress and a great person.
Guillén: I've read that when you first saw your rushes, you were very unhappy. Is that true?
Davis: [Groans.] Yeah.
Guillén: But now when you look at yourself, do you realize differently?
Davis: I saw the film once. I feel like you could put me in that theater once; but, don't put me in that theater again! I was okay the first time, but…. [Laughs.] The thing about it is, when you watch yourself it's a different experience than actually shooting the scene. When I'm shooting a scene, I get out of the way of the character. I check my vanity at the door. But then when I watch it, all that vanity comes back and I'm looking at my nose dripping [what Manohla Dargis at The New York Times described as "shaking the film up with a few extravagantly mucousy minutes"], I'm looking at my lips quivering, I'm looking at what I'm doing with my eyes, I'm looking at all the things I didn't know I was doing when I was actually shooting the film. Now I had an outsider's perspective and I took to my bed, as they used to say back in the day. I drew the blinds in my house, got under the covers, for two weeks until my husband said, "This is ridiculous, Vi."
Guillén: I do understand the conflict you experienced, though. But the truth remains that your performance is precisely powerful for being authentic and stripped of vanity, as you say. You were in service to that moment in the script, both of you were, and that's why that scene is so pivotal in understanding the deepest currents of the story.
Davis: I knew when I read the scene—well, I didn't know at first; it took a long time—but, I sensed that the scene was very very intimate and I also knew the stakes were very high. I knew you couldn't play it just as a conversation because I knew that by the end of the scene Mrs. Miller was making an incredible confession. It would have been catastrophic if taken the wrong way, if it landed the wrong way. So I didn't know any other way to get there except to rip my heart out and put my guts at the feet and mercy of Sister Aloysius. In the end I knew I had to affect her and the woman constantly lives in her head. I mean, c'mon, she has a whole party going on inside of her head where she's the life of the party!
Guillén: She's so mental she could snap out light bulbs!
Davis: Absolutely! And so the only tool I had, the only weapon of mass destruction, is to slay her heart; to appeal to her heart. I mean, c'mon, by the end my character is pleading with Sister Aloysius. It says it in the script, she's pleading. They say that in acting, whatever your character says in the script are the given circumstances. You cannot question it. It is what it is. She is pleading with this woman in the end. What do you do when you plead? Have you ever pleaded with anyone?
Guillén: More often than I care to admit. [Laughs.]
Davis: I've pleaded with people and—when you're pleading with people—that means you're at the end of your rope.
Guillén: Again, comparing the role of Mrs. Miller to that of Sybil in Far From Heaven, you're exactly right when you describe your effort to pierce her heart. Both performances are the grounding performances in a context of behavior governed by false ideals or ideologies or—as Kenneth Turan stated it in his review of your performance in Doubt for the L.A. Times: "The concerns of the real world, not the cloistered one, walk into the film with her, and that's quite a difference." Mrs. Miller and Sybil are both performances that provide a reality check to what's come before in their narratives. In that tradition of grounded authenticity, your work is very much like Cicely Tyson's or Alfre Woodard's, two actresses who I admire tremendously. Who were your inspirations?
Davis: Cicely! Cicely Tyson is the one who inspired me to act. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. I was six or seven years old when I saw that and watching her transform from 15 to 105, I could not believe that it was the same human being. And she was a human being who looked like my mom, like me, dark-skinned, full-lipped, y'know? It changed my life because it was not acting just for purposes of entertainment. I saw the craft and I didn't know that acting was a craft until I literally saw Cicely do it. What made me feel that it was possible for me to do it was that she looked like me. I know that might not make sense for a lot of people; but, I'm telling you, when—as a child—you see a physical manifestation of a dream, it makes it feel possible for you. When you see someone who's doing something that you want to do and they look like you, you can feel it and touch it. She changed my life!
Guillén: I like how you phrase that—"a physical manifestation of a dream"—because when I was listening to your NPR interview with Farai Chideya and hearing about your background, I thought, "Here is a woman who has shaped her prayers. Her prayers have taken definite form. She's moved out of difficult circumstances, seen where she wants to be, and has moved towards it." I love stories like that because they confirm what I did with my own life. I decided, "I am not a victim of my upbringing. I will hold it close to me as I become who I know I'm supposed to be." That's one of the aspects I find so remarkable about your career.
Davis: Thank you.
Guillén: I'm aware you've expressed criticism about the casting of Black actors in the Hollywood system. What are your hopes from this performance in Doubt? Are you dusting off your mantle in preparation for that little golden man? Can you even think that way?
Davis: No, I can't think that way because I feel like someone's setting me up to break me down. [Laughs.] I know the breakdown is coming! But my hope? This is my hope. I sum it up through an argument a friend of mine once had with a man in a bar. My friend is Black and the man he was arguing with was White and he had, of course, probably had too much to drink. The White man said, "What do you people want? What do you want? What is it that you want?!" And my friend answered, "What do you want? Because we want what you want." That, to me, sums it up. If you could sit with any White actress right now, or a Hispanic actress, they will tell you the kind of roles they dream about. I would love to do a science fiction action movie. I mean, c'mon, I would love to do a Terminator-type movie like Linda Hamilton.
Guillén: You did The Andromeda Strain, didn't you?
Davis: Oh yeah, but I didn't get to kick anyone's butt! [Laughs.] I want to do it all. I want to do what Meryl Streep is doing, what Amy Adams is doing. I want what any actress would want. I want to work in great roles and that's it. I don't want to be limited to roles that are designated for Black actresses, which are usually functions and archetypes.
Guillén: That's fascinating that you reference functions and archetypes, because those are Jungian psychological terms.
Davis: Functions, archetypes, metaphors: that's usually what the roles for Black actresses are. Usually the writer, the producer, the director, whoever, they don't know who you are and so then you become just a way to move the protagonist on and the protagonist is almost always—not always, but almost always—White. So you know as a Black actress that your service to the story is not as another human being with her own story and her own background. That's not fulfilling.
Guillén: Returning to the context of your peers then, have you had a chance to talk with Adriane Lenox about your performance in Doubt?
Davis: You know, I have not.
Guillén: Is that anything you dread or look forward to?
Davis: If I were to be honest, I probably would say that I don't look forward to it because I feel that's the worst part that comes with the business. You have a great actress like Adriane Lenox who originated the role on Broadway and who won the Tony award for it so, obviously, she did a fantastic job. Then for the movie to come along and she's not in it? Another actress is in it? I would think that would be uncomfortable, even though you understand it's an occupational hazard. I certainly hope that she understands that I have nothing but utmost respect for her and her work.
Guillén: Having been both on the stage and in front of the cameras, is there a difference for you in terms of how you commit yourself to your craft?
Davis: No, no difference, absolutely.
Guillén: Not even as to scale?
Davis: You do have to modify. The camera's right there so there's no extraneous movement or twitches or whatever; but, basically, no, there's no difference in terms of how you approach it because your job as an actor is to create a human being so you use all the tools that you learned in acting class and then some and then what slowly forms is a human being. That's what you have to do on stage too. If there's an actor out there who doesn't follow the same process, that would be interesting to hear. But they're still people that you're creating on stage, just on a grander scale because you're trying to fill up a theater with maybe 1200 people so you have to—what?—talk louder and project facial movements; but, it still has to come from a place of honesty, of talking and listening, all those values have to be there.
Guillén: Well, within the craft of creating genuine human beings, you have created one of the most memorable characters in recent film history. I wish you the best. You have my vote for Best Supporting Actress. Remember that when you polish up your little statuette on your mantle.
Davis: [Laughs.] Thank you.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.