It took Viola Davis, up for an Oscar for ‘Doubt,’ months to understand her character — and she’s still trying
Considering that appearing in "Doubt" has virtually made Viola Davis’ career, you might think it was a project she was intimately familiar with from the get-go. But the truth is far simpler.
"I did not see the stage production nor read the play before I sought out the part — I just knew it was a good role for an African-American actress and that Meryl Streep would be my scene partner," she says during a recent trip to Dallas.
So when Davis was finally cast in the film, she was shocked to discover what the role entailed.
Her character, Mrs. Miller, is the mother of a 12-year-old boy who may be the object of a Catholic priest’s advances. When Mrs. Miller is apprised of this grim news by the school’s headmistress, Sr. Aloysius (Streep), her reaction stuns some people. "So what?" she seems to ask, "The boy almost certainly is gay — as long as he gets an education, what does it matter?"
Both onstage and in the film, her position triggers both confusion and a slow reevaluation of our perceptions and prejudices. Could it be she’s … right? It was not an easy character even for Davis to understand.
"It was very difficult for me," admits Davis, who says she has many gay friends. "It took me four months to get there — four months because I had to rethink all my preconceptions of what a mother is, what an African-American mother is, especially at that time. I had to wade through all the fifth and dirt, then I understood her: She’s doing the best she could with what she has. You know, they say the mark of successful therapy is realizing your parents did their best for you."
The film is set in 1964, before the gay liberation movement (the word "gay" was not even commonly used at the time), when a working-class mother would have few resources. Her take on the news about the priest targeting him, Davis sees, was one of adaptation. "Her take on it is that he has budding sexuality, and this may be part of his sexual exploration," she says.
"It’s not important that she be likeable, not even important that you understand her. But you should feel for her. These aren’t issues you can understand in an hour-and-48-minute movie, or even in a day. These are the decisions of a lifetime."
Davis certainly realized that, with the stakes so high, she’d have to be fully prepared. And not just because of the issues involved — because she would have to hold her own opposite the woman she and most other observers consider the greatest film actress of all time. Was she intimidated?
"Huge intimidation," she instantly admits. "Huge fear — enormous. I don’t know how else to describe it."
She envisioned Streep relating her stories of playing Sophie, or winning her two Oscars, of criticizing Davis’ interpretation between takes. But the reality was entirely different.
"Now I cannot imagine I ever thought of her like that," she admits. "I always thought of her as a goddess, but even more so now because I know she is also an incredible human being. She knits, she’s funny, she sings between scenes… she has fun. I never knew you could have fun."
But now Davis finds herself on the receiving end of almost as much acclaim as Streep — impressive, considering her role is so brief. (She hasn’t timed it, but has been told she has everywhere from four to 20 minutes of screen time.) And on Sunday, she’s considered a frontrunner for the Oscar for best supporting actress (the category is wide open, though).
Many people remember Davis because, during her intensely emotional scene, she not only cries but her nose runs down her face. How, as an actress, did she make that choice?
"I would love to tell you that having my nose run down my face was my acting technique, that I can call it up at will. But my nose runs — it just happens," she says. Still, she thinks the decision to let it all pour out was essential to making the scene work.
"So much of film and TV has been watered down to make it palatable that it is no longer truthful. People in real life don’t care what they look like in these moments. I knew the only way the scene was going to work is if I released my vanity."
The Academy Awards airs Sunday on ABC. Davis’ newest film, "Medea Goes to Jail," opens in wide release today.