Playback: Viola Davis on ‘Fences,’ ‘Suicide Squad’ and Feminine ‘Bada–ery’

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

On today’s show Jenelle Riley and I finally boil down the year’s best films. But we’re boiling it way down, to top fives. Which movies did we agree on? Which ones did we disagree on? And how did 2016 shake out in general as a cinema time capsule?

A little bit later (26:22) I’m talking to “Fences” star Viola Davis, who also popped up in the DC supervillain blockbuster “Suicide Squad” this year. In the former, she finds herself in the thick of the Oscar discussion, six years after winning a Tony for her performance in the 2010 Broadway revival.

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

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The word “trust” keeps coming up when the principals of “Fences” discuss the film and Denzel Washington’s handling of the actors on it. That was particularly important for Davis and the rest on a film like this, where you’re going to emotionally volatile places.

“A lot of times you have directors that are more interested in the shot, or they’re more interested in other aspects of the film other than your performance,” Davis says. “And you don’t know what they’re seeing when they’re at video village looking at playback. You want to trust that they’re looking at something that at the end of the day you’re going to be proud of and you’re going to believe. And the thing about Denzel, and I think it’s because he is a great actor, he knows the words that are going to unlock the thing that is holding you back, and he knows when to step away and let you fly. A lot of people just don’t know that.”

Davis has had plenty of experience working through Wilson material on the stage. But “Fences” is the one from his portfolio that looms largest. She says she loves the character of Rose Maxson so much because her journey is complete, an important commodity for actors.

“When you meet her, she’s in the background, probably not knowing that she’s just filling that role in the background, but someone who is just trying to make her life work,” Davis says. “She’s trying to keep her family together. That’s where the center of her life exists. That is her purpose. That is how she matters. That’s how you’re introduced to her. And then this traumatic thing happens and you see her pain. You see her go through her pain. You see her articulate it perfectly. And in the end you see how she redeems it and you ultimately see forgiveness and accountability. That, to me, is a complete journey, and any actor wants that.”

Contrast her work in Washington’s film with something like “Suicide Squad” and you’re liable to get whiplash. The big-budget comic book adaptation finds Davis dipping her toe into the massive cinematic universe waters that are driving the industry as of late. So often you can just feel like a cog in the wheel of that kind of machinery, but how did she take to it?

“I loved it,” Davis says. “And I think I loved it because I didn’t think that deeply about it. I just thought it was fun. What was fun to me about Amanda Waller — who is heavy, pearls, afro — she has no superhuman strength, but absolutely just puts fear into the hearts of all these villains. That appeals to me greatly. There’s something about her for me that was familiar. I was working out the bad girl, but from a space that, for me, is based somewhat in reality. I liked playing with that power. It’s something so often not given to women, that kind of unapologetic bada–ery.”

And speaking of feminine bada–ery, we also discuss her forthcoming Harriet Tubman project, as well as working with filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh (super easy) and Michael Mann (not so much). For that and a whole lot more, listen to this week’s episode via the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

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