Actress Viola Davis grew up with little means in Central Falls, R.I., far away from the stage spotlight and even further away from the Hollywood movie sets which have come to define her life. She describes her childhood as poverty-stricken, but says she is a living example of how young people benefit from social programs like Upward Bound. As a teenager she enrolled in a performing-arts school, majored in theatre at Rhode Island College and attended the prestigious Juilliard School for four years. Her love and dedication to her "craft" earned her an honorary doctorate from her alma mater Rhode Island College. All of this training prepared her roles on stage and film, winning a Tony Award in 2001 for her performance in King Hedley II and an Independent Spirit Award nomination for the film Antwone Fisher In 2003.
In the movie Doubt, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley ( who won a Pulitzer Prize for the original play ) , Davis plays Mrs. Miller, a mother whose son is in the middle of an internal parochial scandal. The film is set in 1964, where Donald is the first Black student at St. Nicholas in the Bronx. At home Donald's childhood is threatened by his abusive father while at school his skin color isn't the only thing that singles him out to the taunts of peers. Something else makes Donald different; that something may be the reason why Donald has developed a special relationship with Father Flynn ( Philip Seymour Hoffman ) , a new priest at the parish. If Donald has found a safe haven at St. Nicholas, his quiet troubled demeanor is enough evidence for two nuns to build a case of misconduct against Father Flynn. Davis's character appears for only one extended scene, but it is this climatic moment that unravels between Mrs. Miller and Sister Aloysius Beauvier ( Meryl Streep ) that has won her every major nomination this award season, including an Academy Award nod for best supporting actress.
Windy City Times met Davis at the Four Seasons Hotel. Her answers were candid and unrehearsed, which gave the impression that she was either a genuine person or a really good actress.
Windy City Times: Where were you when you found out you were nominated for an Academy Award?
Viola Davis: I was at the Four Seasons Hotel [ in Los Angeles ] with my husband, my publicist, a bottle of champagne and orange juice. It was a joyous moment. I watched the nominations; I screamed in my husband's ear. I jumped on him. I've been jumping on him a lot lately and screaming in the hallways of the Four Seasons Hotel.
WCT: Did you expect the film would translate as well as it has to critics, like it did on stage?
Viola Davis: I never thought about it. I do think about being good. That's always my goal—to not fail, to succeed. I mean, how could you? You don't have control over that; it has nothing to do with your work. I came into the project wanting to hold my own against the 500-pound gorilla, [ the ] Mike Tyson of acting: Meryl Streep. I have one huge scene in the movie with Meryl Streep and I'm the unknown. I went through a lot to get the role and the day that I got it, the next day I had to go to rehearsal with Meryl Streep.
WCT: How was your working relationship with Meryl Streep? Did you meet her before working with her?
Viola Davis: I had never met her before. I just knew what you know-that she is an icon. Cicely Tyson and Meryl Streep those are the two that lit the pathway. Then I'm meeting her and I for some reason thought she was going to share stories of Sophie's Choice and give me advice on how to act and give me directions in the middle of scenes. I don't know why I had this idea and she could not be more opposite of that, completely normal. She's generous, she was wonderful, she's' funny, she shares laughs and sings between scenes, knits and shares recipes. I mean come on, she's fantastic!
WCT: What did you do to prepare for the initial rehearsal scene between you and Meryl Streep?
Viola Davis: What you rely on is what you always rely on: your craft. I don't know how actors who don't have one do it because that's the only thing that gets you through. I've been in this business over 20 years, I majored in theater in college, went to Julliard [ and ] went to acting school when I was 14. I relied on everything I'd been taught in order to discover a character, and that's what I took into the rehearsal with me because I didn't have anything else. Everything else had left the room: self-esteem, calm. Everything just went out, so the only thing that came into the room with me was my craft.
WCT: In the movie you play Mrs. Miller, the mother of Donald Miller. I read somewhere you are a mother of two, correct?
Viola Davis: I am not. My husband has two children and five grandkids. I do consider them as my own, but out of respect for their own mother I can't say they are mine. I definitely consider the grandkids [ mine ] , although it's difficult to say that I'm grandma. [ Laughs ] I do feel very maternal of them, and love and affection.
WCT: How did you prepare for this role? Mrs. Miller's decisions as a mother are complex.
Viola Davis: Well, you rely on your imagination as an actor or as a human being. Life becomes your inspiration and you take things from you life [ like ] my own mother and growing up in Central Falls, R.I. In 1965, when we moved there in a predominantly Catholic community, we were the only Black family. I saw my mom be the advocate for us, fighting doctors, fighting teachers who probably didn't embrace our intelligence. Parents who saw us just as unruly, thuggish Black kids and not the rambunctious, energetic kids we were. I have seen her have to fight, and all of that is seared in my memory. I put that in the library of my character and I channeled that. Rely on your craft as an actor because that's all you have. ... Not every character is going to have your experience.
WCT: The film allows for many implications about sexuality and misconduct. Gay men have been demonized by society as child molesters. The difference between child molesters and gay men seems to have blurred within the church and in society. What are your thoughts on this issue?
Viola Davis: First of all, in my life I know that is not the case. I have to say that when I first came to the big city I heard all kinds of ideas that were so strange to me. My experience with pedophiles in my past … they haven't been gay, and it's just like all people who are miserable weren't married; some where just living with each other. I reject that as a person. Homosexuals are demonized; I saw a lot of demonic people in my life of all colors across the spectrum. ... My character is absolutely in the mindset of... I can't reveal that to you because it's a spoiler, but I think my character is of that mindset, also. I don't think she has demonized this man [ Father Flynn ] also. I think she sees him as probably gay, but that's just who he is.
WCT: In the powerful exchange between your character and Sister Aloysius, Mrs. Miller refers to her son Donald as being "different." I translated this to mean he is gay. Is he?
Viola Davis: I can't reveal that to you or else I would have to kill you and you wouldn't leave the room. I'll tell you when [ points to the recorder ] it's off.
WCT: What religious background or experience did you bring to the film?
Viola Davis: None. My parents, my older brother and sister grew up Baptist because they all grew up in St. Matthews, S.C., in the farm with the one-room church; Pentecostal, but Baptist really. We all moved to Central Falls when I was a baby; there were just Catholic churches and maybe one or two protestant churches. We didn't grow up with a lick of religion; once again that was another thing. I run into so many angry Catholics, so many angry people who grew up with religion. I didn't grow up with any and I saw just as many angry people, screwed-up people ridden with guilt. Now I'm Christian. I go to church.
WCT: The film is set in 1964 at a historical moment for civil rights. What do you think about this historical moment in time and our new president, Barack Obama?
Viola Davis: We're starting to come full-circle. I feel like I've been reborn. I did not know I was living in so much cynicism until I saw Obama elected as the 44th president of this country. I didn't understand the depth of my cynicism, and I think I always had a problem in history class when they talked about the constitution. I think it's a fantastic document but I never bought it because it was written when slavery was an institution and we weren't considered three-fifths of a human being and women could not vote. What happened to the American Indians—in terms of the whole Trail of Tears—I didn't buy it and I never understood why no one questioned [ it ] . Every time I questioned that I was always just silenced and I wanted answers and I never got them. Obama to me is the answer, because to me it's America really walking the walk and not just talking the talk. Sometimes people need to see a physical manifestation of their hopes and their dreams.
You can't just keep telling young Black kids and Black boys that they can be and they can dream and never show them examples of it. Now we have and I hope we keep it up.
WCT: Hollywood can influence progressive ideas, yet so few Black actors are given complex roles. Do you think Hollywood is progressive?
Viola Davis: Nothing is progressive; we are not progressive as people. We are always 50 years behind the time. But it's the same thing with life experience; it always takes you a while to process anything. You never process it as it's happening; it takes you a while. It's the same thing with art—it is behind the times. Very rarely do you see a Black woman on screen with a white man making love. Very rarely do you see even vice versa and yet you walk out in life and you see interracial couples all the time.
WCT: Did a lot of Black actresses come out to audition for this role?
Viola Davis: Every Black actress did come out of the woodwork—fantastic actresses—because they are hungry for something good.
WCT: That must be a tough spot to be in. Is there guilt or pressure?
Viola Davis: You do feel a sense of that because it's the deprivation theory—what happens when you throw a piece of cheese in a room full of rats. That's how acting operates; it works from a place of deprivation. Everybody is hungry for a one piece of cheese and you try not to claw at each other, but you are so hungry for it once you get the piece of cheese you're eating the crap out of it, until your stomach is full you're not going to stop and think, "Oh, wait a minute. There is another rat that's hungry next to me."
There is a sense of guilt. I wish there were more [ parts ] . I think there are a lot of actresses who would have done great service to this role.
It's the business: Only one person can get the role.
WCT: I definitely think you were the right person for this role. I heard Oprah Winfrey wanted this role.
Viola Davis: I kind of heard through the grapevine when I was auditioning. When I heard Oprah was auditioning for it I remember thinking, "OK ,it's just going to be divine intervention." I can't even think of competing with Oprah.
WCT: She can't have it all.
Viola Davis: I thanked her for throwing me a bone. [ Laughs ]
WCT: Are you nervous about competing for Best Supporting Actress along with your co-star Amy Adams?
Viola Davis: None of us are that kind of actor, it's already assumed. I will absolutely be happy for her. I cannot think of her as anything other than my peer and my co-star in Doubt. Meryl Streep won the Screen Actors Guild Award, and I thought "My God. I lost my voice screaming for her—what the hell! I didn't win, she won." It gets like that. I root for them.
WCT: Do you think you will win?
Viola Davis: I have no idea. I don't know. This is almost too much for me to think about. It's overwhelming. I actually had an anxiety attack on one red carpet. Seriously, I shook for half an hour. My knees shook. It was at the Critics Choice Awards I was terrified that they would not stop shaking, because Meryl Streep had asked for me to accept an award for her. I said my god nothing like that had ever happened. My husband had to squeeze my legs and knees, but now I'm cool. She won, but by that time my knees had stopped shaking. Once again I thought I had won the award.
WCT: Are you going to write a speech just in case?
Viola Davis: I'm absolutely not going to write something. I know who's been important in my life and influential. I know who I would want to thank. God, only because faith has played a huge part in my life, because I haven't always been able to feel it and touch it and see it. I have not come from privilege. Of course, always my husband; I've learned more about love and enjoying life because of him. It's made it so much easier to work. I thank my parents— [ including ] my father, who is no longer with us. [ And ] all of them [ points to the poster of Doubt ] , especially Meryl Streep—she could not be any greater than what she is.
The 81st Academy Awards will broadcast live Sunday, Feb. 22, on ABC at 7 p.m. CT.