For The Help's Viola Davis, acting is a craft
LOS ANGELES—Viola Davis came off acclaim and an Academy Award nomination for Doubt and immediately went back to work in theatre and in small supporting roles in film and television. One of her theatre choices, last year’s Fences, won her a Tony award. That win, and early support for her upcoming performance in The Help, have led Davis to believe she should rethink her options this time.
In an L.A. hotel room, she says that although she believes that 45-year-old African American actors are probably just lucky to be working, she is looking at a route that has been successful for Caucasian actors of a certain age. She says that cable television has shown some imagination when it comes to actors who have served their time in movies.
“I am working with HBO on a show that I would produce and star in, because I have seen so many of my contemporaries, great actresses all, go on from movies to rekindle their careers. You look at Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Kyra Sedgwick, Mary Louise Parker, Toni Collette: all those actresses are either over 40 or close to it. At some point they hit a wall and people stopped showing any imagination when it came to their careers. But they are also white. We have a heavier burden as black women, because we need something that is based on our voice.”
The Help, which is now playing in Vancouver, could lead to another Oscar nomination for Davis. She plays Aibileen Clark, a career maid who is raising the children of white women in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s. When Skeeter (Emma Stone), one of the white kids who grew up with local maids, returns to Jackson and talks about writing a book from the maids’ point of view, Aibileen is the first woman to stand up and be counted. A religious woman, she believes that her faith will help her to withstand the loneliness that comes as she and Skeeter carry on with their meetings.
Davis sees the maids’ intense faith as being both a blessing and a curse. “In the novel [of the same name], Aibileen says her prayers have power, and you find that in a lot of indigenous cultures. There is nothing in your life that confirms you are a wonderful person. A lot of black people sought power in Christianity, where the power comes from God loving you no matter what. The definition of faith is that you believe it’s there, but I think that in her life there is no evidence saying they [the maids] deserve anything.”
Davis, on the other hand, believes that she deserves better. Or at least better scripts. She says that until she started to talk to HBO, she really didn’t have a plan for her career. She took what she could get and moved on to the next project. However, she cautions that too many actors get into the business to be stars but aren’t willing to do the study and hard work that will make them better at their craft.
“If I get a boost from this movie, all the roles could be maids, for all I know. The fact is, I have been doing this for 23 years and I have a theatre degree. I went to Juilliard and I did the whole regional-theatre thing and film and TV and everything. I was classically trained because I wanted to be like Meryl Streep.
“I tell actors to study their craft all the time because what I think is a problem in society—and in our business, as well—is a sense of entitlement with no sense of responsibility. We have a business where the people you see on TV and film represent less than one percent of the profession. The only thing you can control in this business is quality of the work, and that is why I tell actors to study.”
Watch the trailer for The Help.