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Talking with Viola Davis about Her Golden Globe Nominated Performance in ‘Doubt’

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by Brad Brevet, Rope of Silicon

violadavis1Out of the blue, last Wednesday I was offered the chance to interview Viola Davis for Doubt, a film I recently reviewed (read here) and dowsed her with much praise, but my interview came one day before her Golden Globe nomination and I wasn’t able to offer my congratulations, but I am pretty sure she could tell I enjoyed her performance as well as the movie.

The Supporting Actress category is going to be hotly contested and if Viola were to come home a winner I would not be surprised, but she is facing stiff competition from the likes of the front-runner Penelope Cruz, Kate Winslet, Marisa Tomei and Taraji P. Henson. Suffice to say it isn’t going to be a cakewalk. However, she seems to be coping with the new found attention as we discuss her performance, how she prepared for the role and just how does someone get their nose to run on command?

For a little background on what we are discussing, Davis plays Mrs. Miller, the mother to a young black boy attending a Catholic school in 1964. There is an assumption by Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has involved himself in inappropriate ways with the young boy and Mrs. Miller has been called in to speak with Sister Aloysius about Father Flynn’s presumed guilt. There is a clip from the scene below and trust me, it is one of the more powerful scenes of the year.

I hope you enjoy the interview and definitely check out Doubt once it opens in your town.

Your role, while small, is quite crucial to the film and I was wondering if that was something that was ever discussed between you and [writer/director] John Patrick Shanley after getting the part or even while auditioning.

Viola Davis (VD): No we did not discuss the fact the part was so crucial, I think it was just basically an understanding that it was because every black actress in America was auditioning for it. I guess that was indication enough that it was a pretty tremendous role and it won the actress – Adriane Lenox, who did it on Broadway – the Tony award.

How it came to me was I knew they were going to do the film version of it with Meryl Streep and Scott Rudin was producing it and I knew Scott Rudin liked me. So I asked my manager to get me an audition for it and if I could just audition I would be so excited! I picked that script up four months in advance – the play – and I studied that scene because it’s a very difficult scene to crack and I just auditioned. I really had to work for it. I auditioned in Los Angeles and then they flew me to New York with six other actresses and they screen tested us in full costume and makeup. They paraded us into a room with the producers, director, crew – one after another.

How does preparing for a character like this differ, or does it differ, from preparing for a lead character in a film? Because you don’t have a ton of time on screen.

VD: There isn’t any difference, you have to do the same kind of investigative background work. You research the period, of course, you read the script over and over and over again because in acting school they tell you whatever you say about the character and whatever someone says about you, about its truth. Then you use your imagination, you figure out what is motivating the character, what are their memories, where did they grow up, everything. Then, slowly, but surely you form a human being from all of that work.

Yeah, I read you wrote a bio for your character. And as I am sure you are aware, you are getting a lot of acclaim and Oscar talk for your work, and yet I see some people, in comments around the Internet, saying they aren’t quite sure such a small amount of screen time should be considered to have as much weight as larger supporting roles. But as you say here, the preparation time and work that goes into it isn’t really that much different, if at all.

VD: Oh no, there is absolutely no difference. Because you still have to create a person. You still have to create a human being. If anything the smaller role is more difficult because you can’t over-compensate for screen time. You can’t come in saying, “I have one scene and I have to blow it out the box because it’s with Meryl Streep and duh-duh-duh-duh-duh…” You have to approach it like it’s just one moment in this character’s life. I’m going to the principal’s office because she’s calling me to the principal’s office. So by the time I knock on that door and walk into that scene I’m bringing in a whole history of this woman, a history of who she is.

How long were you on set?

VD: Everyone says different things. I was in New York from mid-November to mid-February. I was on the set probably, I’m just gonna say, a week or two weeks of that time. We rehearsed for three weeks in theater in November to December and the scene is broken up into an interior shot and an exterior shot.

You have no children personally, but your husband has two, did that affect your approach to this role in any way?

VD: My husband has two children, but I feel like I have been a mother my whole life because of my nieces and nephews because I feel like I’ve been a part of their growth my entire life. I’m invested in them the same way a mother would be invested in them and in every way you could imagine – in every aspect of their lives. I understand about being your child’s advocate when there is no one else, and when there is no one else it is up to you.

How did you personally connect to the character, was it one where you almost disagreed with her decision or a certain level of understanding?

VD: It took me a while to understand it. It took me a long, long time to understand it. I had the script for four months and it took me a long time to understand it. I’ll tell you what really broke for me, understanding my mother. I think my mother really helped me a great deal in understanding this woman and how she loved her children under extraordinary circumstances.

We moved to Central Falls, Rhode Island from South Carolina in ‘66 and I remember there were just so many times in our growing up that our mom has had to defend us and fight for us. I was in the hospital when I was a year old with vitamin D deficiency and they were going to experiment on me because they said I would never grow properly. They wanted to break my legs and then reset them. They had me on tubes and said, “Mrs. Davis your child is never going to grow,” and she went to the hospital and she took me out of the hospital and said, “There is absolutely no way you are going to do this to my child.” And then she said she fed me a bowl of lima bean soup, Saltine crackers and ice water and that did it. It was cured! But I imagine her face at that time – and several other experiences which are too numerous to name – but she had to fight in extraordinary circumstances and as an actor you’re sensitive, you become a sponge, you soak up other people. You have a type of sensitivity to them that is not normal. [laughing]

Race, among many other things, plays a large part of this story, and I was wondering how it was for you to adapt to a character that exists in a much different time than our own?

VD: Very, very difficult. In 2008 I would walk in with an attitude with Sister Aloysius. I would not respect her as a woman of God. I would have no sense of her as a white woman. I would just come in full steam and I would probably raise my voice a little bit. But in 1964 there was a sense of etiquette and people were very aware of how they came off, especially women and especially a black woman approaching a white woman and a white woman who is a nun!

So that attitude – the whole tension of the scene – it opened the scene up for me. I thought to myself, I have to be polite to this woman?!?!

Are you a method actor? Was there some dark personal place in your history you had to go to in order to reach the level of emotion we see on screen?

VD: I wouldn’t say so… not really. First of all, every actor is a method actor – I don’t care what they say. They are looking at some part of their experiences to get into the emotional life the character. So we’re all method actors. But I went to Julliard for four years so technique has been beaten into me. [chuckling] There is a whole technique to seamless acting, to being emotional. There are breathing techniques, literally, which is too boring to even get into. No one wants to hear about that except for actors. There is a way to breathe and work on your craft so that when you get to a point in a scene like this, an emotional scene like this, that it is going to be available to you.

Now, this may sound silly, but how do you make your nose run on command?

VD: Oh no! That is not silly. I think it’s an excellent question! You know what, I would love to sit in my hotel room right now and tell you there is a technique to my nose running, but you know what, I’m just one of those people that when I cry my nose runs. [laughing] It’s genetic, which by the way, I loathe that part of myself – that part where the nose runs. But, like anything, when you’re really passionately into something you’re not aware of what you look like. You really lose it and it’s only then after, when you wake up, that you go, “Oh, okay, my nose is running,” not in the heat of the moment. So, I just let it run.

There were a lot of takes, there were some takes where I kept wiping it and some takes where I just had to get across to this woman that she cannot do this to my son. I had to get to work, but she could not do this because otherwise he’s gonna die. I was going to have to watch my son get beaten to a pulp by his father.

How have you personally taken to all of the attention you have been gaining due to this performance?

VD: I’ve been really, really good. I’ve been happy about it because I did want to affect people with it and I feel like at least people are noticing what I do, so it’s been good. And now it’s making me a little bit nervous. I’m one of those people that I can only take attention in spurts. Now, what’s happening is expectation. I feel as if people have noticed me now, whereas I’ve been blissfully happy in not being noticed. I’m feeling like, What’s next? People are really going to be watching me next. Are they just setting me up to break me down? All this stuff is coming into my head now because I have too much time to think.

Otherwise I’m still pretty good. I’m holding up.

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Written by Symphony

December 16, 2008 at 11:13 am

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