Viola Davis knows Rose Maxson. Six years ago, the actress won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her turn in the Kenny Leon-directed revival of the classic August Wilson play, the sixth offering in his ten-part Pittsburgh Cycle. Davis starred in the film alongside Denzel Washington, who played Rose’s husband Troy Maxson, and who also picked up a Tony for his part in the play. Washington’s affection for the production has never abated, and the Oscar winner has now adapted the 1983 play into a film by the same name, doing double duty as both director and star.
Davis, of course, reprises her role in the film, an on-screen reunion that breathes new life into a production the pair have already excelled at making their own. But for Davis, the choice to return to Rose and the play itself, which chronicles the traumas and dramas of the Maxson family in 1950’s Pittsburgh, wasn’t rooted in a desire to pick back up where she left off. She wanted to do much more.
After a special event for “Fences,” held Thursday night at New York City’s Walter Reade Theatre, Davis and Washington, along with co-stars Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adebo and Mykelti Williamson, participated in a post-screening Q&A, during which Davis got honest about Rose and why she wanted to revisit such a beloved role.
“Besides the fact that it’s a great role?” Davis joked when asked about what drew her to the role of Rose. “It could not be any more perfectly written.”
For Davis, it’s Rose’s slow-growing presence that really makes the part pop, in addition to a final act that sees her very much coming out of her shell and speaking her mind.
“I think the best part of Rose is, when she’s introduced in the play, she’s in the background. She really is,” Davis explained. “She’s cooking! She’s sitting! It’s not that she’s not enjoying the banter, but you kind of feel like this is how it’s going to be. It’s Troy’s story. And then, when she steps forward and she’s betrayed, then you hear her voice.”
Even for an actress as lauded as Davis, that’s a rarity. “You don’t get that often,” she said. “Sometimes, women are in the background and they stay in the background. When she really taps into her voice, she really taps into it. I like that about her.”
Photo by Amanda Schwab/StarPix/REX/Shutterstock
Still, Davis was concerned that the role wouldn’t stretch her the way it did earlier.
“I didn’t want to do it by rote,” she said. “I felt like I already knew it and I felt like that was a trap. There were times I would keep repeating a line and I would emphasize different words, just to wake me up.”
And yet, Davis hit her stride as Rose — well, for the second time — when she realized that it would offer her the chance to do something few people would expect from Davis: to correct her previous work.
“It was a chance and an opportunity to fix some things I never got right on stage, and that was the last piece with Cory,” Davis explained, referring to a pivotal scene with her son that unfolds during the last act. “I never got it on stage. I mean, literally, there was one day, for hours, we went through the scene over and over again. I said, ‘At some point, I’m gonna get it. I went to Julliard. I’m gonna get it.’
Despite her Tony win for the role, Davis was adamant that there were things that needed fixing. She even knew it at the time. “You know when you’re not getting it right, you know when you’re coasting,” Davis said. “Every time I would get to that scene, every single night, I would want it to be over. That was my internal monologue.”
But revisiting the story at a different time in her life allowed Davis to finally nail Rose in the way she had long desired.
“To be honest with you, one of the reasons why I didn’t get it is because I said, ‘Okay, she did all of this because she wanted this baby? Really? She didn’t want like a great job at a bank?,'” Davis remembered. “And then I became a mother. And then everything changed. My heart changed, your whole being changes. All of a sudden, I got it.”
It was simple enough. “Never got it. Until I did the movie,” Davis said.
Paramount Pictures will release “Fences” on Christmas Day.