It's a reflection of the 16 years she has spent in an industry that does little to support the career of black women. It's being a part of a Hollywood that continually asks her to play the "urban single mother." One that honors the movie "Precious" but does little to make another one like it.
So it was with great apprehension that the 46-year-old Davis took on the role of the uneducated Southern maid Aibileen in the film adaptation of the bestselling novel "The Help." Despite reading and loving the book by Kathryn Stockett — so much so that she wanted to option it for herself — Davis feared that Hollywood would take a dignified, complex character and turn her into something straight out of "Gone With the Wind."
But "The Help" didn't go that way. Screenwriter-director Tate Taylor was able to navigate the minefields that accompany depicting Mississippi at the dawn of the civil rights era to create a film that dared to be both nuanced and optimistic. "The Help," which depicts a beaten-down woman who comes back to life with the help of a young college graduate who gets her and other maids to tell their stories for a book, has grossed more than $160 million at the box office prompting audiences to do more soul-searching than what usually accompanies a summer blockbuster. It's had a similar effect on the movie's leading lady.
"The beauty of the film is by the time you get to the end, you see that these lives have intertwined, that they have crashed and clashed against each other in the course of writing this book," says Davis, sipping Starbucks iced coffee inside a mini-mall in Granada Hills. "It's affected me. It's changed me. It's melted this hard, icy heart."
It's also likely to bring Davis some Oscar attention. Critics have been heaping praise on Davis' performance since early August, so much so that it's likely she will be among the women vying for the lead actress award come February.
It's a position that doesn't sit comfortably with Davis, a woman with little desire to live a public life. One who walks into the local coffee shop wearing a long coral sundress, with a gold purse slung over her shoulder and no makeup on her face, and gets recognized by exactly no one.
"I'm the slug. I'm the person who does her work, goes home and I don't want to do anything. All of a sudden, I'm being thrust into this whole Oscar push with the Meryl Streeps and the Glenn Closes and all these wonderful, big-time actors out there. It's like crawling and then someone throwing you onto a bicycle and telling you you've got to ride."
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Tempering the role
Despite the heat of the Mississippi summer, Davis arrived on the set of "The Help" still feeling icy. Taylor remembers being in the middle of a story meeting with actress Octavia Spencer when Davis arrived at the front door. "There's Viola, screeching to a halt in her rental car," recalls Taylor. " 'We've got to talk, Tate,' she said. 'I've got some ideas.'"
The two spent hours honing the character of Aibileen, with Davis providing copious pages of notes and Taylor willing to take her ideas. "She didn't want to look like a mammy," says Taylor. "She wanted her character to be efficient in what she said. And I agreed. When we were rehearsing, I was slashing whole paragraphs. She thought that was cool."
Davis is drawn to the quiet characters — the difficult ones who aren't afforded the words to tell their tales. With no flash, Davis says the roles she chooses are the ones that get "the crappiest end of the stick in every movie." And it's a testament to her talent that it's those quiet parts, whether it's Aibileen in "The Help" or her brief but memorable role as Mrs. Miller in "Doubt," which earned her an Academy Award nomination, that stand out.
As Taylor puts it, it's all about her face. "She's like a tornado coming. You can just stare into her soul. I don't know how she does it but she's mesmerizing and, as a result, you can just keep peeling back dialogue, peeling back scenes. You get this whole layer [from her] that you're not going to get on the page when you read it."
But the role of Aibileen forced Davis to worry about a lot more than finding her character. From the moment she signed on, she was criticized for playing the uneducated maid — and some African Americans even boycotted the film.
"It's that old saying, 'For the healing to start, you have to give up all hope of a different past,'" says Davis, who sympathizes with those who wouldn't even walk into the theater to see the film. "Sometimes, we just live in that pain. And I understand being oppressed, being dehumanized, [taking issue with] everything Hollywood has done in the past and feeling like you can't look beyond that. That's what we were up against with this movie."
The process has emboldened Davis, who says that she became stronger during the course of the film. "I've learned how to stand up for myself and not be this whipping pony, this puppet for other people's assumption of what I should be doing with my career."
But she does take offense that some audiences won't acknowledge her work or the work of the other black actresses in the film. "We weren't just shucking-and-jiving, Ebonics-speaking mammies," says Davis. "I think that people actually emerged behind the uniforms, and I think that's something that people haven't recognized. These were our mothers and grandmothers, and these stories are just as emotionally viable as others."
Few people have had as much of an effect on Viola Davis as Cicely Tyson. As a pre-teen living in abject poverty in Central Falls, R.I., Davis says it was Tyson's TV movie "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" that inspired her to become an actress. So when Tyson called Davis to congratulate her on winning the Tony Award for her performance opposite Denzel Washington in "Fences" last year, it was a moment that marked a critical turning point for the actress.
"Crying like a dog," Davis listened as Tyson, who costars in "The Help," told her it was OK to embrace her success. Says Davis, "Cicely told me, 'I know the road.' And what she meant by that was she is a dark-skinned black actress. She has the full lips, the dark skin, that look that doesn't meet any conventional standards of beauty…. She understands the obstacles that were placed in front of me, and she knows that I was able to achieve what I achieved only through hard work. A lot of times people have to give you permission to enjoy your life."