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Overcoming fear in ‘Doubt’: Viola Davis rises to occasion alongside Streep

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by Lynda Gorov, Boston Globe

violadavisViola Davis figures she had six or so seconds between celebration and sick to her stomach.

Here’s how the first part went: “It was like God saw me that day and said, ‘My child, I’m gonna rain down the biggest blessing on your life right now.’ This would be: a fantastic role in a fantastic story in a movie with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams and a fantastic director. I couldn’t believe they chose me. It was like the physical manifestation of a dream, something I had hoped for and dreamt of my entire life.”

And then: complete terror, albeit terror offset by excitement, which the 43-year-old Davis considers a sign of maturity on her part. At least until the assistant director requested her presence at a rehearsal opposite Streep the very next afternoon.

“All I knew was that I had to step up to the plate. I knew Meryl Streep is not going to [stink]. Philip Seymour Hoffman is not going to [stink]. Amy Adams is not going to [stink]. So it’s on me. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s so fast.’ I don’t know if it usually happens that fast. It never happened to me before.”

That’s not to say she hadn’t had opportunity strike before she was cast in the film version of “Doubt,” opening Friday. And there’s no denying she’s come far in a life that began with relatively little.

Davis, who grew up in what she describes as abject poverty in Central Falls, R.I., daughter of a horse track groomsman and a homemaker, went on to graduate from Juilliard. She took home the Tony for “King Hedley II.” She landed roles in what seems like every TV drama, and has been in plenty of movies, most notably “Antwone Fisher.” She signed on for Tyler Perry’s upcoming movie, “Madea Goes to Jail,” for the “street cred.”

But it’s “Doubt,” written and directed by John Patrick Shanley and based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, that stands to alter Davis’s acting career. She has only a single extended scene as Mrs. Miller, the mother of a boy whom the Catholic school priest played by Hoffman may or may not have molested. But the scene is opposite Streep as Sister Aloysius, and much of it is in close-up. It’s both powerful and nuanced. Streep voices her suspicions, and expects a certain reaction from the mother of the school’s lone black student. Mrs. Miller does not give it to her.

Davis, who’s seated perfectly straight on a straight-back chair, was horrified when she first saw her portrayal of Mrs. Miller. It was in a looping session, where actors fill in words that the microphone might not have caught, and it literally made her sick.

“I went home and drew the blinds and took to my bed and pulled the covers over my head and said, ‘I can’t believe that’s what I did, the snot coming out of my nose, my lips quivering, I look like hell’ – not that I thought I looked cute to begin with,” Davis said.

The actress reports this with all the hand gestures and expressiveness of a theater veteran. She does fill up a room. The relief she says she felt at the premiere, the first time she saw “Doubt” on the big screen, is palpable, as if her heartbeat is audibly slowing. “I was pleasantly surprised,” is all she says. But Davis – made up far more glamorously than she is in the movie, with eyelashes that would do a Supreme proud – is also grinning wildly.

Shanley did not share her uncertainty. He remembers her initial audition as strong but in need of adjustment: Her etiquette was off. He told her to remember that a black woman in the Bronx in 1964 would not have been confrontational with a nun. Dialing it down was “a major obstacle for the actress,” Shanley said.

“We had several people who were really tremendous but, when Viola did her [screen] test, the crew stopped breathing,” he said. “I noticed that. I thought, ‘Well, I guess I’m casting her.’ And I never was sorry.”

For her part, Davis doesn’t seem to regret much, not even what by any standard sounds like a difficult childhood: lots of siblings; little money; no other black families in the neighborhood; what she says were “hard, hard lessons” about shame and low self-esteem. Even so, Davis says she wouldn’t want to leave that little girl behind, and hasn’t.

Instead she visits members of the family still in Rhode Island (her dad died two years ago, after 48 years of marriage to her mother) and remembers picking apples and going to the park and playing a made-up tea party game. In it, she played a character resembling Sophia Loren, her sister a woman based on Marilyn Monroe.

“We were wealthy socialites named Ja Ja and Ja Gi and we’d get together and talk about our lives for hours,” Davis recalled. “I wanted to escape, I wanted to be someone else. And I was really, really comfortable staying in that imaginary world for days.”

Real life has been a whole lot more fun lately. Even now Davis sounds excited when she describes getting to know Streep. “She is a fabulous person . . . so that helped me calm down,” Davis said. “But I remain star-struck, I do.”

Whatever comes next, in some ways she says she still can’t believe “Doubt” happened. She used to dream of Streep. And then she woke up.

“The first day I was thinking . . . I’m going to do what I dreamed I would do,” she said. “And I think I did.”

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