“Ms. Tyson and Ms. Streep were the only actors I talked about back in the day,” Viola Davis says, about her childhood in Central Falls, R.I., when she was “just a little girl with a really, really big dream.”
Fast-forward to today and Davis, 51, is getting her star Jan. 5 on the Hollywood Walk of Fame from none other than “Ms. Streep” — as in Meryl.
“That wasn’t part of the dream,” Davis says, chuckling. “I feel like this is the best vision board coming to fruition.”
“Ms. Tyson” — as in Cicely — was also an integral piece to Davis’ childhood vision board when she set out to become an actor at 6 or 7 years old after seeing “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”
“She looked like me,” Davis reminisces. “Her looking like me made me believe I could do it, but what she did for me was something way beyond entertainment value — it was of transformative value. I felt like if I did that, I could make a life and it could be a beautiful life.”
Coinciding with Davis’ star is a Golden Globe nomination and SAG nod for the film adaptation of August Wilson’s “Fences,” a role that landed her a Tony Award for the 2010 Broadway revival. Though she was snubbed for her starring role in “How to Get Away With Murder” (she was eligible in both the TV and film categories this year), Davis became the first-ever black woman to win the 2015 Emmy for leading drama actress for her standout work on the ABC hit.
An even bigger career trophy for Davis is that Tyson plays her on-screen mother on “Murder.”
Speaking of on-screen mothers, when talking about the biggest challenge in adapting “Fences” to the screen, after having done the play in 114 Broadway performances, Davis says having a daughter of her own enabled her embrace her character more so than she did in the theater.
|“It’s a fallacy that anyone can just walk into a room and get something to be made.”|
“How I got to feel about that final scene, I never got on the stage, and I felt like I did in the movie because since the play, I had a child,” Davis explains of the final moments when her character, Rose, gives a sobering, motherly speech to her son who has just returned for the funeral of his father, played by Denzel Washington, who directed the film and who also won a Tony Award for the 2010 revival.
Davis has garnered rave reviews for “Fences,” and is a frontrunner for a supporting actress Oscar nomination this year. Many critics say that the film with Davis and Washington is actually better than their version of the play.
“You have to trust the work that you did with the character and just live and breathe and let the cameras do all the other work.”
Though critics are praising the film, Davis admits her favorite medium is the theater. Then film. Then TV.
“I get to spend more time with the character,” she says of her stage work, which began as a student in the theater program at Rhode Island College, followed by four years at the Juilliard School. “I get to investigate more, I get to try more things and see what sticks, I get to try and fail and then try again. Each performance is a chance to learn and grow, also because the audience is always different. You get just more chances.
“I also love the stage because I don’t have to worry about all the other stuff that comes with the occupation.”
The other stuff she’s referring to is the media, the awards-season pressure, the red carpets, the box office and ratings.
But still, she credits her TV role — a job that comes along with all “the other stuff” — with truly turning her into an A-lister.
“The thing with Annalise,” she says of her “How to Get Away With Murder” character, “The No. 1 thing it’s given me is it’s exposed me to the world. That is what changed my career,” she states firmly, acknowledging the strange dichotomy of her least favorite medium and the very platform that has served as her mainstream vehicle.
“‘The Help’ changed it, too, but ‘How to Get Away With Murder’ is the thing that really changed my career. It’s in 158 territories, 30 countries. It’s been a pleasant surprise in all of that in my career.”
Davis admits that though she never envisioned herself working in TV, she took the role on the ABC show because she knew it would give her wide exposure, given the hype around super-producer Shonda Rhimes. Her beliefs are also in line with ShondaLand, a company Davis says embraces individuality, and which has been widely applauded for bringing storylines inclusive of gender, sex, and race to the forefront of broadcast television.
“I prefer women who push the button and don’t come in a mold.”
Her current TV role certainly does not come in a mold. In fact, one of the most iconic moments of the past few television seasons was marked by her character taking off her wig and make-up, which Davis hopes is part of the conversation in beginning to redefine the leading lady. “ ‘The Brady Bunch’ is no longer realistic,” she quips. “I love Annalise for all the reasons why people don’t like her. I love that she has no structure, and I love it in the same way I love to be in class and in drama school when you get to take chances and admit mistakes. That’s what Annalise has given me, Annalise has given me a great platform to be able to take huge risks.”
|MAKING HISTORY: Viola Davis accepts her Emmy
The Emmy winner is also taking risks off-screen, having recently inked an overall deal with ABC Studios through her JuVee Productions, a company set up with her husband, Julius Tennon. After “The Help” it became “very obvious and apparent” that the only way for her to get the roles she wanted was to be at the helm of a script.
“It was the big a-ha moment. Change happens by doing and creating it and propelling it.”
The couple recently sold a 1960s-set comedy series about a group of African-American teenagers, aspiring to become the next Beatles. But, Davis makes it clear that setting up a project is not easy, even if you are a Tony, SAG and Emmy-winning Academy Award nominee.
“It is a fallacy that anyone can just walk into a room and get something to be made. One thing that people don’t understand about the business is that: it is a business.”
Davis admits that she has her choice of acting gigs now, but getting good on the table was not easy.
“The only reason why I can speak to you about my career right now is because I’ve had a 30-year career of doing pilots that haven’t been picked up, doing guest star roles, doing theater Off Broadway and Broadway — and then that finally led me to ‘Doubt,’ to ‘The Help,’ to ‘Fences’ and to ‘How to Get Away With Murder,.”
When news broke that Davis would be getting a star on the Walk of Fame, many of her Twitter followers posted sentiments along the line of, “It’s about time!”
But Davis doesn’t feel like she’s a late bloomer.
“I became a professional actress 30 years ago. It’s just that the past doesn’t really count for anything in the business until you’re exposed to the masses. I’ve been around since my 20s – it’s just that nobody saw me. But I don’t feel like that’s a tragedy. I feel like I’ve always lived my dream as an actor. I never felt like if I wasn’t doing it on a high level that it doesn’t exist.”
What: Viola Davis receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
When: 11:30 a.m. Jan. 5
Where: 7013 Hollywood Blvd.