After Years of Small Roles, Viola Davis Believes She’s Finally Getting Her Due

After decades in the business, the "Suicide Squad" and "How to Get Away With Murder" star reveals how her awards success has completely transformed her career.
Viola Davis in "How to Get Away With Murder."
Viola Davis
Nicole Wilder/ABC

Viola Davis has been acting non-stop for three decades, yet some of that time was spent playing bit roles on movies for just two or three days at a time. It was steady work, but not the kind of gigs that would — in Davis’ words — “wake her up.”

Now, as her career explodes, Davis’ eyes are wide open. Next up, the star will be seen in Oscar contender “Fences,” the upcoming adaptation of August Wilson’s play directed by Denzel Washington. She’s in “Suicide Squad,” which comes out next week, and Season 3 of “How to Get Away With Murder,”  in which she stars as Annalise Keating, is now in production.

READ MORE: The Ultimate Emmy Underdogs: Can Any One-Nomination Wonders Actually Win?

It wasn’t just her Oscar-nominated work in 2011’s “The Help” that Davis credits for bringing her to the next level. “Murder,” for which she’s just been nominated for her second Emmy as Best Actress in a Drama, has made her a star on a whole new level. “It’s opened me up to a whole different audience,” she said. “And who could’ve thunk it, after 30 years in the business?”

When IndieWire spoke with Davis, she had just completed production on “Fences” and was enjoying a brief break before returning to production on “Murder.”

“What excites me is just taking some time to breathe in life,” she said. “The mundane is very exciting. I mean, listen: I’m just coming out of Target. That’s very exciting to me. I’m in Target every day.”

Beyond the mundane, Davis is also digging with passion into the world of producing, which she sees as an opportunity to create opportunities not just for herself, but other actors who just need “their opportunity to shine.”

This is Davis’ time, and she’s now unstoppable. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Do you have a sense of how things have gotten increasingly crazy in the last couple years?

Most definitely, I’ve gotten that sense. Something has shifted. Sometimes I’m a little bit like the deer caught in the headlights, but then I remember it’s not my first time at the rodeo.

What’s really exciting for you at this stage of your career?

A challenge is exciting. Being a little a bit more at the helm of the ship. My husband [Julius Tennon] and I, we have an overall deal at ABC and we just opened our office. It’s unbelievable to have an office, it’s unbelievable to see that kind of vision come to fruition. And what’s exciting to me is just doing what I want to do, doing projects like “Fences” that challenge me. I just did a two-page monologue like 20 times.

Anything that wakes me up is challenging. I always like when people have a lead-in for something that they’re thinking of me in, and the lead-in is, “This is something you’ve never done before.” [laughs]

Was there a period of time where you weren’t getting the kind of offers that would challenge you?

Oh, absolutely. I think that it happens in most actresses’ careers, that you get parts that are a little beneath your talent and your skill set. I’m a character actress. A lot of those roles were two, three days on a movie, five days on a movie, eight days on a movie… and the character doesn’t even have much of an arc. But you do it because you want to work and you’re hungry. And so you dive into it. But you certainly aren’t challenged. It leaves you wanting more.

But all of a sudden the tide has changed. With the movie “Fences,” now I’m No. 2 on the call sheet, next to Washington. I’m there every day. I’m in every scene. I’m battling it out, I have a huge arc, and now all of a sudden, I feel alive in a way that I didn’t before. But there was certainly a time in my career, many many years, where I was not challenged. Theater has been a different story for me, but movies and TV, absolutely — not challenged. There’s been a role here or there that has woken me up, but that’s about it.

Viola Davis in "How to Get Away With Murder."
Viola Davis in “How to Get Away With Murder.”Mitchell Haaseth/ABC

What do you feel like was the turning point?

The turning point definitely was “The Help,” getting the Oscar nomination for Best Actress. And also “How to Get Away With Murder” was the tipping point. That’s the one that changed everything. Believe it or not, it just did. I don’t question it, it’s just what it is. It’s now in 150-something territories, it’s watched by a lot of people and all of a sudden it’s opened me up to a whole different audience. And who could’ve thunk it, after 30 years in the business. But so be it, you know?

It speaks to how the concept of TV stardom is a completely different thing these days.

Yes, it absolutely is. Television is experiencing a renaissance. You have so many different channels on television now. There’s so many different narratives and so many writers willing to write for actors and actresses who otherwise would be relegated to those five days of work on a movie. And now they’re leading the charge on television. Who’s writing like that for Robin Wright, or Glenn Close, or Julianna Margulies in movies? But in television, they get wonderful narratives.

You mentioned that you were getting into producing. What inspired you to pursue that? 

Because you don’t want to wait. When you are an actor, you are in the most powerless position in this business. You have less than 700 actors in the Screen Actors Guild who work all the time. These are people who make $50,000 a year or more. You’re in a business of deprivation and you’re in a business where you could do everything right and never get a job. So when you have any leeway, any window that is opened where you can have more power than you normally would, you take it. You just do, you take it. It’s the only way to be the change that you want to see in the business, it’s the only way to put narratives out there that you can be a part of or that you can see other actors being a part of.

And you get your power and your control back as an artist. This business is unlike any other business where you can be in it for 30 or 40 years and still feel like you’re a bit player. And I didn’t want to be that. It feels good to lean in. It feels good to step up as a woman in a power of leadership and control. Because then I don’t have to listen to my own rhetoric when I’m doing interviews such as this and talking about what hasn’t been happening, and knowing when I hang up the phone that I’m not doing anything to change that. It felt like a natural progression with my career.

Viola Davis in "Suicide Squad."
Viola Davis in “Suicide Squad.”Clay Enos/DC Comics

Do you wish you’d been able to start producing earlier?

I wouldn’t have been able to produce earlier. I wasn’t in a position of power. And that’s what people don’t understand. I understand that in the most perfect world, you don’t wait. You don’t ask for someone to give you power. But the truth of the matter is, this is show business. Business being the operative word. You have to wait until you’re in a position of power, to have the kind of name value to be able to get in the room and push these projects. I didn’t have that kind of name 10 years ago, eight years ago. As many times as people have seen me, I just didn’t have that power until “The Help,” which was huge domestically, and until “How to Get Away With Murder.” There is a hierarchy, there is a pecking order. And it’s only been lately that I felt like I’ve had enough power to be a producer. And it’s actually not just a feeling, it’s a fact. Absolute fact. Fair or not fair, it’s the way it goes. [laughs]

What’s clear about hearing you talk about it, is just how important this moment is for you.

Yeah! Absolutely. I remember my husband looking over at me after “The Help” — I always say this after a job is over, the three most powerful words: “And now what?” What to do next? So now I have the name recognition. Now I’m coming off of playing Abileen in “The Help,” so now what? What’s the next job? What’s the next challenge? You see actors at the Academy Awards– I always feel like the actor who’s in the most powerful position is the actor who’s walking down the carpet and rattling off like four or five projects that they’ve already started or they’re about to go into. Because they’re continuing to put their work out there. And so often with me, I’ve had nothing in the works, maybe one project, maybe two. And I just didn’t want to keep on that trajectory. I wanted to do something different.

Is directing something you’re at all interested in?

I don’t know why directing is not something I’m interested in. Maybe dealing with actors — which I feel I probably could do, because I’m pretty intrinsic when it comes to actors… Or maybe it’s something I’m shrinking from because it actually terrifies me. [laughs] I don’t know. But I’m actually more into producing than directing. And maybe because it’s a more power position.

One of the things that actors talk about all the time is it’s not always gonna be like this. I remember a time in the ’70s when I went to see Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase movies. They were the big box office stars. I loved their movies, every last one of them. They were at the top of the heap. And then people get older, people change, it shifts, and their careers shift with it. And then a new crop comes in, then there’s the next crop. And the people that I feel stand the test of time are the people that understand it’s not always going to be like that. So, “and now what?” What are you going to do when you all of a sudden are 60 or 70 and there are not roles out there that are going to challenge you? Is there something else that can challenge you in your career where you can be creative? And to me that was the difference. Directing, I don’t know. I don’t know about directing yet. [laughs]

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington on “Fences” opening night.Photo by Amanda Schwab/StarPix/REX/Shutterstock

Do you have a mental plan for yourself, for 60 and 70?

No, not really. [laughs] Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. I think I’ve lived long enough to understand that plans really are very overrated. I have vision of my life. I have vision of just being able to look back at this time of this renaissance of television and in this renaissance of people of color getting so many opportunities to shine. And my vision is that I played a part in it. That I wasn’t just a bystander or I wasn’t just someone who critiqued it from afar. But someone who was at the table. Just in it, in the fight. That’s my vision. As far as a plan, my husband and I — my husband mostly — we’re at the office every day. We have some fantastic projects that are coming up I believe. And that’s about it. And the plan to stay healthy for as long as I can for my little ones.

That’s a pretty good plan.

Yeah, I think so. [laughs]

And the wonderful thing about being a producer is that it’s an opportunity to create opportunities for other people. 

Absolutely. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I was the actor who would take about five hours to do a play in a church, off-Broadway, every kind of regional theater, Broadway. I’m that actor, I’m that journeyman actor. I know what’s out there in terms of talent. And the only thing that separates the people that you feel are the most talented from the people that are unknown is just the opportunity to shine.

And so what’s in my vision — it’s what my husband always says: Your life is literally like a relay race. At its best, when you are living, really living, and when you are absolutely in every spectrum alive, you see your life as a relay race. And your only goal should be to run your leg of the race. Run the hell out of it. And then pass the baton onto someone else, who can then run their leg. You can either pick up the baton and run with it, or you can let it drop. I’m choosing to pick it up. Now, and literally, I’m just running my leg of the race.

And that’s the fun part of producing. Because I guarantee you when you wake up — unless you’re a strung-out mother and you’re exhausted like I am right now — one of the things that will make you happy every day is when you do something for someone else. That’s it. Guarantee you feel like a million bucks. Anytime you help someone in a small way or a big way. So that’s the pull.

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