Viola Davis already boasts a Tony and an Obie for her work in Gotham legit, and she turned heads several years ago with a role in “Antwone Fisher.” Yet, despite that pedigree, she says it took “divine intervention” to get cast in the upcoming film version of “Doubt.”
“So many African-American actresses were lined up to play that role because it’s considered to be one of the greatest roles for an African-American woman in the last couple of years,” she explains.
After being whisked off to Gotham for a screen test, she was thinking she was in a good position to get the part.
“Maybe it’s between me and one other actress if I’m flying to New York,” Davis recalls, “but they actually flew six actresses to New York.”
Then, just 90 minutes after her audition, she got the call that she’d won the role.
She found herself struggling to relate to Mrs. Muller, the 1964 working-class wife and mother she plays in “Doubt,” who faces an impossible choice when a nun (Meryl Streep) asks for help to stop a priest who may have molested her son.
“The contemporary Viola wanted to come in and just tell the nun off,” admits Davis. “The other part of it was that I didn’t have anything in my life that let me understand a black woman who would be willing to sacrifice her son to a teacher who might be molesting him.”
That’s where she relied on her training.
“‘Who am I? What do I need? How am I going to get what I want?’ … (Craft) is more than just showing up and just going for it, flying by the seat of your pants.”
On the subject of race in Hollywood, Davis laments, “I think we’ve fallen into such a habit of using the minority actor as a device or function,” but points to her small turn in the upcoming pic “State of Play,” with Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams, as an exception.
“On paper, she’s just a pathologist, that’s all she is. She doesn’t do anything fabulous, but I like that. They just wrote the person. They didn’t write the color.”
Confident and intense but self-effacing, Davis is occasionally recognized in public, mostly by people who saw “Antwone Fisher.” The conversation can be awkward.
“I’m really quite shy, and I don’t have a huge ego, I don’t like listing my credits,” she says. “People will say, ‘Can you give me a hint?’ Being in Whole Foods having to recite my resume, I don’t enjoy that.”
An actor should always: “Leave their vanity at the door.”
Lucky break: “Antwone Fisher.” “It was lucky because it was an opportunity for me to show my craft.”
Favorite film character: “The character that made me want to become an actress, Jane Pittman in ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,’ with Cicely Tyson.”