At the height of awards season, at the 27th Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, presented actress Viola Davis with the Outstanding Performer of the Year Award Friday, celebrating her performance as African American housemaid Aibileen Clark in Tate Taylor’s adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's bestselling portrait of 1963 Mississippi, "The Help." (Evers' murder is depicted in the film.) "The Help" "reminded me of the personal sorrows from a painful time in my life," Evers-Williams said. "I was an eyewitness to the abominations that occurred in that time and place." She added: "Abilene and the characters of 'The Help' remind us that when we speak, if only in a whisper, momentous things can happen."
Oscar-watchers are pitting frontrunner Davis, 46, against her veteran "The Doubt" co-star Meryl Streep in this year's Best Actress Oscar contest. Davis praised co-star Streep during our sit-down interview at the Arlington Theater, complete with film clips covering her 15-year career.
Davis's background was harsh: “I grew up in Rhode Island. My mom had an eighth-grade education, my dad a fifth-grade. We lived in abject poverty," she said. "My nine-year-old sister said to me, ‘The only way to make it out of here is to have a big dream.’ Then I saw Cicely Tyson and I saw a craftsperson. I saw magic and I decided that’s what I want to do with my life.”
Davis was candid about the lack of strong roles for women of color in Hollywood. She wants more roles like "Doubt" and "The Help" that "you can really sink your teeth into," she said. There are far better roles on the stage, the Julliard-trained actress admitted, praising August Wilson for his plays: "King Hedley II" (2001) won her a featured actress in a play Tony and a Drama Desk Award, while she won leading actress in a play Tony for her role opposite Denzel Washington in the 2010 revival of "Fences," which I was lucky enough to see. It was never tiring doing eight shows a week, she said. On the contrary, she was energized.
Davis revealed that she talked rookie director Washington into letting her play the 2002 role of the drug addict mom in "Antwone Fisher" silently, stripping out all dialogue, for which Davis earned an Independent Spirit supprting actress nomination. Silence is a powerful tool, she said, especially in roles like the 50s suburban maid in Todd Haynes' "Far from Heaven." While many of her TV and film roles have been small, it's her job to fill them in and make them work, she said. She particularly enjoyed playing a serial killer on "CSI: Criminal Intent."
In 2008’s" Doubt," Davis earned her first Oscar nomination (supporting actress) as a troubled mother who confronts Streep's powerhouse Mother Superior in just eight minutes of screen time. "It was awesome," Davis said, "just the highlight of my life." She prepared for four months to nail down just why Mrs. Wilson felt the way she did about her gay son.
Davis has popped in several performances for director Steven Soderbergh, who cast her opposite Jennifer Lopez in her first film, "Out of Sight," and tried to find parts for her after that, including "Traffic" and "Solaris" and his production of "Syriana," in which her CIA exec grilled George Clooney. "What I learned from [Soderbergh] is to relax and to just be," said Davis, who was used to projecting herself over stage footlights.
She praised Oliver Stone as a director, who cast her in "World Trade Center," but played the role of a grieving mother his way–he had conceived her as a cleaning woman, while she had imagined her as a lawyer. She sees her job as delivering what the directors want, and if it's not on the page, molding the clay she's given. "Your job is to get material, good or bad, and make something of it," she said. "If we all waited for 'Sophie's Choice,' we'd be waiting a long time."
"Will you speak up from now on?" I asked. "Yes," she said.
Often her role is to make the Caucasian lead look good–she plays confidantes, sage advisors, addicts and professionals, but rarely a sexy woman–romance "Nights in Rodanthe" gave her the chance to be her sexy self in a scene with a good-looking man. She was ridiculously grateful, but worries that African American actresses don't get to use those muscles; they atrophy.
Often unrecognizable in her roles, Davis played a grandmother in 2005’s "Get Rich or Die Trying" and a community activist in "The Architect" (2006). Nobody can knock Davis off the screen: neither Julia Roberts in "Eat Pray Love" nor Russell Crowe in "State of Play." She even played a supporting role in Tyler Perry's "Madea Goes to Jail." When I asked, "Do you approve of Tyler Perry?," she praised his employment of many cast and crew who need the work.
She's constantly in demand, from "Law Abiding Citizen" and "It’s Kind of a Funny Story" to the Oscar-nominated "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, and the upcoming "Won’t Back Down," opposite Maggie Gyllenhaal and Holly Hunter (March 2012). Clearly, Davis is frustrated that at the height of her powers she hasn't been given the chance to show what she can do. Someone else write her a great part!
Davis jumped at "The Help" novel, trying to grab the rights. "Who is Tate Taylor?" she asked. Her agent initially passed on the role as she was committed to "Fences," but she and Taylor eventually worked things out until she was available. She had one week to prepare for her first major leading role as Aibileen Clark, he told me at Saturday's Santa Barbara screenwriting panel.
In her acceptance speech Friday night Davis recalled winning a footrace with a third grade boy in her bare feet, because her shoes were one size too small: that race "is a metaphor for my life."
Davis joins an impressive list of previous Santa Barbara Fest Outstanding Performer Award winners, including Colin Firth (2010), Angelina Jolie (2008), Helen Mirren (2007), Heath Ledger (2006) and Kate Winslet (2005).
In Contention covered the event here: