Viola Davis has a top-notch batting average on Broadway, where she's appeared in two August Wilson plays — Seven Guitars and King Hedley II — and earned Tony Award nominations for both. In an interview, the superb actress also scores a home run; she's as delightful as she is talented.
This could be called "Viola Davis Week": On Tuesday, her new CBS show, "Century City," debuts in its regular 9 PM ET time slot; on Wednesday, previews begin for Intimate Apparel, the premiere attraction at the new Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre (111 W. 46th St.); on Saturday at 10 PM ET, CBS airs another episode of "Century City."
At first, explains Davis, the series "was set in 2054. After showing it to test audiences, they had to knock it down to 2030, because people didn't feel it was futuristic enough. Producers learned that technology was changing so fast that a lot of ideas they were presenting were already in place. They already have something where you can choose the sex of your child." I ask if it involves tying garlic around one's neck. Davis laughs, "No old wives' tales."
Davis plays lawyer Hannah Crane. She's shot nine episodes, "all of which are about how technology has influenced the justice system." The pilot concerns a father who wants to clone his ailing son, in order to use part of the clone's liver to cure the child. "Every episode," says Davis, "is thought-provoking. One I really loved was about a chip that is implanted in children after a certain age, so parents can monitor their whereabouts. They're going to send me kicking and screaming into the future." While working on the show, Davis was sent the script to Intimate Apparel, written by Lynn Nottage, and directed by Daniel Sullivan. "What attracted me to the role is that [her character] is a complex human being." She stars as Esther, a 35 year old who excels at making lingerie in 1905 Manhattan, and decides to marry a man she only knows through correspondence.
"As a black actor, you get so many roles that are archetypes. People write the ethnicity, the politics or social viewpoint; the character is used as a kind of mouthpiece. You never get to play a human being. But this character, Esther, has that. She goes on a journey — and I think that's a joy to play as an actress. That's why I got into this business." (Opening night is April 11.)
Born in Saint Matthews, South Carolina, Davis notes that her parents, Mary and Dan Davis, are happy for her success. "They have kids that didn't exactly make the best of their lives. There are three of us who actually did succeed, got married and are leading normal lives. That makes [her parents] feel like they've accomplished something.
"We moved to Central Falls, Rhode Island. My father groomed horses, and the biggest racetracks were in Rhode Island: Narragansett and Lincoln Downs. We grew up in abject poverty. Acting, writing scripts and skits were a way of escaping our environment at a very young age." When Viola was 14, Ron Stetson ("who now teaches at the Neighborhood Playhouse") spoke to her class, and told them how difficult an acting career could be. "He asked how many of us wanted to be actors. Everybody raised their hands. He kept telling us how brutal it was, and half the class put their hands down. He kept on, and finally I was the only one left with a hand raised. I didn't care if he said you had to lay yourself down in the middle of a street and let a truck run over you."
The determined young woman took acting classes and attended Rhode Island College, where she majored in theatre. "I went to Juilliard for four years. It was my way of getting out of Central Falls — and away from a future that could have been teenage mom on welfare. I figured the harder I worked on my acting, the farther away I got from that reality."
Her Juilliard experience was a mixed blessing. "I'm happy that I went there. The school does what it says it wants to do, which is to stretch you as an actor, make you break old habits, expand you and make you more versatile. The problem is that it doesn't celebrate the individual. It stifles everything about you that makes you uniquely you.
"When you go out into the world of acting, people don't want to see you doing what everybody else is doing. When you go into an audition room — for TV and films, especially — people want to see what is different about you. 'What is your spin on this ingenue, or this lawyer, or Lady Macbeth?' Juilliard doesn't know how to celebrate that. They tried to make me into a small, white woman, which I'm not.
"You can't be hesitant about who you are. And that's what Juilliard did. When they stifle who you are, you start to feel self-conscious about what you do. You can't do that as an actor when you're working as a professional. Juilliard almost made you apologize for how you look, what your voice sounds like, for your regionalisms — all of those things that could, and does, enhance your acting. At the same time, you need technique and to know how to use your voice. It's a marriage of the two, which Juilliard doesn't necessarily do."
Among her film work, which includes "Traffic" and "Far from Heaven," Davis prefers "Antwone Fisher." Observes the actress, "It was a small scene, but I loved shooting it. I loved working with Denzel [Washington]; he's a great director. We rehearsed, just as if it was theatre. Usually film roles are just jobs. You hit your mark and go home. But ['Antwone Fisher'] was a joy!"
Onstage, the role that has given Davis the most satisfaction ("so far") has been Ruby in Everybody's Ruby. "That's been the pinnacle, but we'll see with this character [in Intimate Apparel]. She recalls King Hedley II as "the first time I've ever done a play where every day was a joy. Brian Stokes Mitchell was fabulous! There was no tension, no fear. I understood that character; that's my mom, my sister — not a stretch, the way that Esther is in Intimate Apparel."
Does there come a time in rehearsals when Davis feels that she has a lock on her character? She laughs loudly, adding an emphatic "No!" Claims Davis, "You're always finding it, and never quite feel like you've arrived. Probably by the time the show opens, you feel like you're competent, but personally, I don't feel like I've ever arrived. You have to leave yourself open. Everyday, you find something new. The audience teaches you something, other actors teach you something, the understudy teaches you something." She doesn't memorize her lines beforehand. "I can't do that until I know what I'm doing."
In her earlier TV series, "City of Angels," Davis played Nurse Lynette Peeler. "The only bad thing is that I didn't feel they used me enough. The best thing that happened was I met my husband [Julius Tennon]. We just got married, but we've been together five years. He came from Texas, had been a single father for 16 years, and finally decided to try his luck as an actor. I got an instant family and a couple of grandkids. Home base now is Los Angeles. We bought a house. As much as I love New York, it feels good to have a life. It puts everything in perspective."
A house in L.A. will be convenient if "Century City" is renewed in the fall. "You sign a five-year contract. Basically, you sign your life away." But TV work does allow an actor to be able to afford to do plays. "It gives a certain comfort. I can relax and just rehearse, and not worry about the mortgage and bills. And that means something. People don't tell you about that when you start acting. They think it's kind of cool to take a vow of poverty. I grew up poor. There's no poetry, no dignity in being poor and struggling and having bad credit."
Had Ron Stetson mentioned an actor's lack of security in Viola Davis's classroom years ago, somehow one believes that this very talented woman would still have her hand raised. She laughs loudly one more time and says, "Absolutely!"
This is my lucky month for enjoyable interviews. Geraint (GAR-int) Wyn Davies is a most likeable chap and a first-rate talent. In his New York Times review of the current King Lear, Ben Brantley noted, "Mr. Wyn Davies plays Edmund, a spiritual cousin to Iago, as an almost comic Restoration-style villain."
Indeed, states the Welsh-born actor, this is a sort of different Lear, "because of Jonathan [Miller, who directed] and Christopher [Plummer, who portrays the monarch]. They've gone for a domestic drama between a man and his three daughters, as opposed to a grand, kingly thing. [Miller] wanted to reduce it. He often says, 'Life is made up of trivial moments.' This [production] is really pared down. Some people absolutely love that, some people don't absolutely love that." What Wyn Davies loves is to be making his New York stage debut. "You've heard about [working in New York]. Everything is sort of daunting. Then you're part of it. It still is daunting, but not as much. Backstage, it's the same world as anywhere, but outside. . . . I'd love to do more here."
His dressing room "is the watering hole after the show," he explains. "Christopher will regale us with stories of Orson Welles, Richard Burton and others. [Plummer] asked me to do this. I think he's brilliant — one of the most virile, vibrant Lears ever!"
I quote John Gielgud's line that the secret to playing Lear is to hire a thin Cordelia. Wyn Davies laughs. "So you can carry her at the end of the play. It would be interesting to know how many Lears carry their Cordelias on. I know one production where Lear carried a dummy in a bag, with some hair sticking out."
Was there an aspect of Edmund that was difficult to capture? Replies the actor, "It was difficult to try to balance Edmund as a very intelligent villain in a Lear where the director was showing a lot of humor. I always thought [Edmund] was sort of a Dickensian guy, the bastard outside the window who would do anything to get inside. It's an interesting journey. Sometimes, it feels like Benny Hill as Jack Nicholson playing the 'talk-show host Edmund'; other nights, it has a truth — and that's what you're trying to go for."
The actor is a veteran of seven TV series, most of which were shown in Canada. He names them in order: "The Judge," "To Serve and Protect," the last 26 episodes of "Airwolf," "Dracula" (which he shot in Luxembourg), "Forever Knight," "Black Harbour" and "Tracker."
Claims Wyn Davies, "You do them, enjoy them — to different degrees. You try to balance it all. Your kids [he has a son, Galen, and a daughter, Pyper] get used to things. [Doing series TV] is almost like being addicted, but you have to get back to the stage. Otherwise, it gets pretty false. It's all about smoke and mirrors, but [the stage provides] better smoke, better mirrors."
Born in Swansea, South Wales, the actor explains that Wyn was originally part of his first name, but separate. It's the ending of his father's first name, but part of the name. "With us [he and his older brother], it was like a Van, but I made it part of my last name, Wyn Davies."
His brother's a bush pilot; they're the sons of a preacher and a teacher. "Ironically, we discovered that my dad had considered two other professions: actor and pilot."
It was while sitting with an organist in his father's church that seven-year-old Geraint decided to be an actor. Does he find it simpler to work with directors than with God? He laughs. "I've worked with a lot of directors who would like incense [to be present] while they speak.
"I ran the theatre in the boarding school [that he attended in Toronto]. I played all girls' parts when I was growing up. I convinced the school to bring in the opposite sex. I went to university to study economics, but left after three months to join the theatre. Since then, I've been going wherever anyone would give me a job."
Those jobs have included five seasons with Canada's Shaw Festival and four seasons with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival; working as an actor and director with the Welsh national performing arts company, Theatr Clwyd; and amassing several TV and film credits. "The most fun I've ever had," declares Wyn Davies, "was doing Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady [at the Stratford Festival]. It was also the easiest thing I've ever done. I love musicals."
Other highlights include "playing Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, the title role in Hamlet, Noël Coward's The Vortex, and my one-man Dylan Thomas show." Among his stage credits: Gross Indecency, The Boys from Syracuse, Misalliance, Sleuth, Cyrano de Bergerac and Cloud Nine.
Wyn Davies has spent the last nine years in Santa Barbara, where he lives with wife Alana Guinn (an artist), Galen (who attends Berkeley; "He's going to rule the world") and Pyper (a high-school junior "who wants to be an illustrator"). A few years ago, Wyn Davies took his family to live in Paris for a year. "It was maybe the best — and stupidest — thing I could have done. [But they'll always have Paris.] We have a three-week family rule. Everyone has to see each other within that time."
While in New York, he's seen a number of shows. "I really enjoyed Retreat from Moscow, Gypsy and I Am My Own Wife. I will see Avenue Q and Mister Jackman [The Boy from Oz]. We do five shows a week [of King Lear], but with Christopher doing it, they're five darn good ones, and every other week we have five nights off." Up next, Geraint Wyn Davies is "doing Dylan Thomas [Do Not Go Gentle] again, and directing a short film. But," he adds with a laugh, "there's lots of space for people to come and ask me to do things."
END QUIZ: In 1984, Laurence Olivier starred in a TV presentation of "King Lear." Which Tony Award winner played Edmund: a) Kevin Kline; b) Robert Lindsay; c) Jonathan Pryce? (Answer: Next column, April 11)
The February 15 question was: On November 29, 1972, TV's "Hallmark Hall of Fame" presented "The Man Who Came to Dinner," in which Sheridan Whiteside was portrayed by a) Zero Mostel; b) Orson Welles; c) David Niven? Answer: b).
Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com, and may be reached at ChannelingTheatre@hotmail.com