|Photo by Tony Esparza/CBS|
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."
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."
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