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A Conversation with Actress Viola Davis

Kam Williams

Viola Davis is a critically acclaimed actress who garnered her first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her work in “Doubt.” She received her second Oscar nomination, this time in the category of Best Actress, for her portrayal of Aibileen in “The Help,” based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel.

Davis also received a Screen Actor’s Guild Award and an NAACP Image Award for that powerful performance.

Next fall, Viola will be seen in the sci-fi action adventure “Ender’s Game” opposite Harrison Ford, as well as in the drama “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” alongside Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy and William Hurt. And she is currently in production on “Prisoners” starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.

A veteran of the stage, Davis returned to Broadway in 2010 in the revival of August Wilson’s “Fences” alongside Denzel Washington. Her performance in the 1987 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play earned her a Tony Award, as well as the Drama Critics’ Circle Award, Outer Critics Circle Award and Drama Desk Award. In 2001, she was awarded a Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play for her portrayal of Tonya in “King Hedley II.”

A graduate of The Juilliard School, Davis also holds an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts Degree from her alma mater, Rhode Island College.

Congratulations on winning another NAACP Image Award. I loved your performance in “Won’t Back Down.”

Thank you very much, Kam.

Do you think the movie suffered from political blowback, the way that “Zero Dark Thirty” has been hurt at the box office because of controversy?

Yeah, I think it definitely suffered from that, because we were in an election year and because education is a hotbed issue. And people have strong opinions about public school education, unions, charter schools and parent-trigger laws. Occasionally, the timing of a movie is just bad and I think, in the case of this movie, it was probably the worst.

What interested you about “Beautiful Creatures”?

What interested me was that the character wasn’t what she appeared to be. That she had different secrets to be discovered. When you first meet her, she’s kind of just woven into the fabric of this family. But then you see the tribal scarification on her back, and you see her channeling spirits. And then you learn that she’s the keeper of a library that’s the gateway to different worlds. I like that. I like when there are different layers to peel away. It was just subtle enough to play and to craft.

Have you ever made a romantic fantasy before? Is “Kate & Leopold” the closest you’ve done to something like this?

I didn’t think of “Kate & Leopold,” but yeah, I guess so. It’s the only other time I’ve tried this genre.

In this case, the film is more akin to the “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” series.

I love young adult fantasies. While I say that, I have not seen all of the “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” movies. But I’ve read all of the books, and I love them. I love them because I enjoy being transported to a different world and having my imagination challenged. That’s a huge part of what we do as actors. We have to imagine ourselves in a different world. And when you are in a young adult fantasy, it challenges you in the best way.

Among all the characters you played, which one is closest to your personality and why?

You know who? The character I played in “Nights in Rodanthe,” a movie I did with Diane Lane. Jean was kind of fun, and tough, sarcastic, artistic, creative, quirky and a little sexy. She was probably the closest to the real me.

You’ll be receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this year. What does that means to you?

I keep forgetting about that until someone reminds me again. I kid you not. What does it mean? It’s hard for me to say that I’ve made it, because no real actor feels that way. But it does represent a physical manifestation of my dreams coming to fruition, if that makes any sense.

What has been the public’s response to your natural hair?

The response to my natural hair has been huge. I think people admire the boldness of it, and the courage of it. For me, personally, it represents my coming into who I am, not apologizing for it and being comfortable with the way I look. I have been amazed by the testimonies coming especially from women of color who have thanked me for it.

How have all of the accolades affected your career and the quality of scripts you are offered?

Recognition has brought me more work, because your name suddenly comes to mind when some directors are trying to cast a character. And my stage work has specifically enabled people to have faith that I can handle a role, even when it’s not specifically written for an African American. So, I’d have to say that recognition brings work. A successful movie brings more work, and that’s been the biggest blessing.

Is there a particular role you’d like to reprise either on stage or the big screen?

I would love to star in a remake of “Thelma and Louise.” Yep, that’s the one I’d be interested in redoing.

Do you have any personal charity benefiting your hometown of Central Falls, Rhode Island?

Definitely! I’m very committed to its educational institutions, including my alma mater Central Falls High School’s drama program, because I know that’s what got me my start. I do everything I can to keep it alive since it made me feel like I had something to give to the world. I also support the Segue Institute for Learning, a charter school in Central Falls run by a friend of mine that my niece attends. I’m committed to that because of its proven results. They have the highest math scores of any charter school in Rhode Island.

Are you concerned about art programs being removed from so many public school systems?

I’m very concerned. I do as much as I can in my community. I’ve gone back to do fundraisers and to offer my services. My sister started a thespian society that my husband [actor Julius Tennon] and I have done workshops with in Central Falls.

What is your favorite dish to cook?

That’s a hard one. But I would have to say I can make a great big mac and cheese.

What excites you?

Lately, my daughter. I get so excited when she says something new, which she is doing every day. I can leave the house for a few hours, come back and meet a totally different person. That’s very exciting to me.

How does the perception of Viola Davis differ from the reality of Viola Davis?

When I go home, I am a slug. [Laughs] I like to take off all my makeup, put on a t-shirt, be completely unassuming and just do stuff with my husband and my daughter.