Viola Davis Details ‘Ma Rainey’ Transformation, Inspired by Aretha Franklin: ‘I Wanted That Body’

"I tried to gain as much as I could but she was really big, close to 300 pounds," Davis says. "I got close to 200 pounds."
Viola Davis in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"
Viola Davis in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"

Actors going through extreme physical transformations to play real-life figures is often catnip for Oscar voters, from Charlize Theron in “Monster” to Christian Bale in “The Fighter” and Gary Oldman in “Darkest Hour,” among other winners and nominees. Will Viola Davis follow with her performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” this season? Oscar pundits are keeping a close eye on Davis, who took home the Best Supporting Actress trophy in 2017 for her performance in “Fences.”

Similar to “Fences,” the Netflix release “Ma Rainey’s” is adapted from an August Wilson play and features Denzel Washington as a producer. Davis leads the film as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the iconic singer who became known as the “Mother of the Blues” during the 1920s. The actress underwent her own physical transformation to play Ma Rainey, some of which she detailed last month during a conversation with the Toronto International Film Festival.

“I tried to gain as much [weight] as I could but [Ma Rainey] was really big, close to 300 pounds,” Davis said. “I got close to 200. Ann Roth, the great costume designer, she said, ‘Viola, what body do you want to look like?’ And the body that I loved — once again I grew up with a lot of big woman that I thought were the most beautiful woman in the word. So for me it was Aretha Franklin. I wanted that body.”

Davis continued, “What [Ann Roth] did was she got Aretha’s measurements and she made a fat suit based on Aretha’s measurements. That was Ma Rainey’s fat suit. I felt very sexy with that fat suit. You could tell Denzel was like, ‘You are loving that suit!”

In an interview with The New York Times this week, Davis said she felt “fan-friggin-fantastic” while in character on the film’s set. The actress added, “I reveled in her, I swished my hips every day. There was such joy in that freedom of expression.” Transforming into Ma Rainey also hammered home an important lesson for Davis: “I have to remember that I don’t have to barter for my worth. I was just born with it.”

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is directed by George C. Wolfe and stars Davis opposite Chadwick Boseman in his final movie role. Netflix is premiering the drama on its platform globally on December 18. Click here for first look photos from the project.

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