Viola Davis may be new to movie audiences, but she was hardly a tyro when she landed the role of Mrs. Muller in “Doubt.” Davis arrived on set with a Tony Award in hand (for “King Headley II”) and critical applause for her role in “Antwone Fisher.”
Even so, she says, she was “scared as hell” when she learned she’d won the role she calls her “big break.”
“Forty-five minutes after that, I get a call that I have a rehearsal tomorrow afternoon with Meryl. Yeah, it made my ass tight, because I felt like I didn’t have the character yet,” she recalls.
“Then you feel all the things you always feel, but you never say anything about it: Oh my God, they’re going to find out they made the biggest mistake of their lives casting me in this role. I’m going to suck, and Meryl is going to see that I suck. Then John Patrick Shanley is going to see that I suck, and that’s going to be it. I’m going to be fired.”
It also didn’t help that she was following another acclaimed performance, Adriane Lenox, who’d created the role on Broadway and won a Tony Award.
As it turned out, Shanley wanted a lengthy rehearsal process that was more akin to legit than film, so Davis had ample time to raise her game — or, at least, in her perceived notion, that she needed to.
“What makes you a better actor is being around people who you feel are more talented than you are,” she says. “It scares you, and whenever you’re scared, you work harder. ”
Davis, who shines in a pivotal scene alongside Streep as the mother of the boy whom Philip Seymour Hoffman is accused of molesting, began generating award buzz early. That made her anxious all over again. “Once people have seen it, it’s flattering, but when people haven’t seen it, it’s nerve-wracking, because it sets a level of expectation,” she says.
Now, though, she’s getting to enjoy her first time through the whirl of interviews and award chatter.
“Thank God I have a publicist. I knew nothing, not even (that) you went on this many press junkets before a movie.
“I’m a working actor who worries about how to pay her mortgage and put food on the table. All this awards buzz is nothing but exciting for me, because it could mean more work. I’m going to enjoy it.”
Favorite film this year
“‘Changeling,’ and I thought Angelina Jolie’s performance was fantastic.”
“It had to come from an acting teacher who said you can’t be afraid to get egg on your face.”
“My biggest inspiration was living in poverty, only because it taught me the value of hard work and faith. It’s played a key role in building my character thus far.”