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Viola Davis Knows What’s Wrong With Hollywood… and How to Fix It

It was a familiar dilemma for Viola Davis. What to do with her hair?

The star of the upcoming film “Widows” needed to know what kind of wig or extensions she should wear to play Veronica Rawlins, the leader of an unlikely band of robbers scrambling to pull off a dangerous heist. Director Steve McQueen’s answer shocked the Emmy-, Tony- and Oscar-winning actress.

“I said, ‘Your own hair is beautiful — just wear it that way,’” recalls McQueen. “Veronica is a wash-and-go kind of girl.”

For Davis, the decision to appear on-screen in close-cropped, curly hair was liberating and represented an important social statement.

“You’re always taught as a person of color to not like your hair,” she says. “The kinkier it is, the so-called nappier it is, the uglier it is.”

McQueen stressed that he was interested in reflecting reality. More women looked like her, he told the actress, than like the artificial and idealized images of female beauty that Hollywood frequently projects.

“We’re into a zeitgeist where people are fighting for their space to be seen,” says Davis. “People have to know that there are different types of women of color. We’re not all Foxy Brown. We’re not all brown or light-skinned beauties with a big Afro. We have the girl next door. We have the older, dark-skinned, natural-haired woman.”

Widows,” which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival and debuts in theaters on Nov. 16, represents other important firsts for Davis. It’s a commercial action pic from a major studio (20th Century Fox) that rises or falls on her performance, as well as a chance for the 53-year old actress to solidify her position on the A-list. Julius Tennon, Davis’ husband of 15 years and the co-founder of their production company JuVee, says the impact could be seismic.

“This could change the face of her career up to this point,” he says. “It’s a chance for Viola to be seen as the lead actor in a global movie.”

If “Widows” succeeds, it can help ensure funding for several Davis-led passion projects, ranging from a biopic about Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan to a drama about an all-female military unit from the Kingdom of Dahomey. It will mean that an actress known for her volcanic intensity and commanding presence will finally get the roles she deserves. For too long, Tennon notes, his wife has had to make do with supporting turns, often playing maids or mothers, while ceding the limelight to white actresses. Davis may have scored raves and award nominations for “Doubt” and “Solaris,” but often she had only a few minutes of screen time to create a fully fleshed-out performance.

“She specialized in taking a piece of chicken and turning it into filet mignon,” says Tennon.

John Patrick Shanley, the writer and director of “Doubt,” the 2008 film that put Davis on the map after years of character work, knows firsthand about the paucity of roles available to African-Americans. He says every black actress of a certain age was up for Davis’ role because, though the part lasted only eight minutes, the aria of maternal love that the character was asked to deliver presented an important opportunity.

“It touched me with sorrow to realize that they were all chasing it because those roles just weren’t there,” says Shanley. “That remains true today.”

Those days may be slowly ending. In the case of “Widows,” the film was retrofitted to suit Davis. Her character, a middle-aged woman coping with the death of both her husband and her son, was originally written for a white actress.

“This kind of role isn’t usually out there for a woman of color,” says Davis. “Widows” is a female-driven enterprise, offering up meaty roles for Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo and Elizabeth Debicki, who play the other members of a gang of widows who must pull off a heist in order to pay their husbands’ debts to a drug dealer.

“People try to be too nice with women,” suggests Davis. “They keep them pretty. They keep them likable. They cater to male fantasies. They cater to the male gaze. This film didn’t do that.”

Los Angeles is in the midst of a punishing heat wave when Davis sits down with Variety on two separate days. The first involves a grueling two-hour photo shoot, much of it done in Davis’ backyard despite the thermostat topping out at 100 degrees and change. As the camera captures each half smile, every turn of her head, Davis sparkles, radiating movie star glamour in a slinky red evening dress. It’s only when the photographer stops to fuss with the lighting that her body slouches, betraying her tiredness after weeks spent on film sets.

“I’m going to regret this,” mutters Davis as she clasps a Wonder Woman mug filled with yet another cup of coffee.

This is not her natural milieu. Tennon is the more outgoing member of the Davis household — Viola has dubbed him the “mayor of everywhere” for his ability to make friends in any social situation. Davis is more reserved. She hates to watch herself on-screen, often ducking out of movie premieres to huddle with Tennon at a nearby bar or restaurant. Although open with her fans, Davis struggles to see herself as a celebrity. She was astounded, for instance, when she bumped into Aretha Franklin in a hotel lobby and the late soul legend confessed she was a “How to Get Away With Murder” superfan.

“Viola couldn’t believe Ms. Franklin knew her name,” says Tennon.

The next day Davis leaves the gowns in her closet. She’s wearing overalls, her hair is swept up in a bandanna and she’s unpacking the makings of a fruit salad after completing a Whole Foods run.

Her sprawling Toluca Lake home, with its saltwater swimming pool, built-in barbecue area, screening room and kitchen boasting stone countertops and a wine closet, is worlds removed from the soul-eviscerating poverty that Davis experienced while growing up in Central Falls, R.I. The daughter of Dan Davis, a horse trainer, and Mae Alice Logan, a maid and factory worker, Davis felt invisible as a child. Her family lived in an apartment in a condemned building — the electricity was often out or the gas turned off. Food was scarce, and the house was frequently in disarray. Davis remembers falling asleep to the sound of rats gnawing on her toys and says that bad plumbing meant everything “always smelled of piss.”

“Poor people live a life, day to day, moment to moment, where you are constantly in survival mode,” she says. “It’s what am I going to eat today? Am I going to be thrown out of my house?”

Davis’ home is filled with family photos and drawings made by her and Tennon’s 8-year-old daughter, Genesis. The yard is festooned with balloons and streamers left over from the girl’s recent birthday party, and when Genesis runs into the middle of the photo shoot with a friend, Davis stops everything to give her a powerful hug and ask if she wants to watch a movie that night (the two have been streaming “Stranger Things” and “Lost in Space”).

Genesis’ world is very different from the one her mother grew up in. Having willed herself up the ladder, Davis feels compelled to speak publicly about her troubled childhood because she thinks that people at the bottom of the economic heap are too often shunted aside. They’re either ignored or demonized.

“We like to be around winners in this country,” says Davis. “We like to be around pretty, rich people who have resources. That’s who we cater to. Everyone else is a burden. You cost us too much money. You’re seen as lazy.”

Davis’ father was an alcoholic who, she has said, could be violent toward his family when drunk. Her early life was unsettled in other ways too. She remembers having things thrown at her and racial slurs hurled her way as she walked to school. The Davises were one of the few African-American families among the immigrant enclaves that had sprung up in Central Falls. It’s a past that’s still a major part of her present.

“If I didn’t talk about my journey, I would be denying that 6-year-old girl who was hungry, who wet the bed, but who also was tough,” says Davis. “She also dreamed big. She also was a lot of fun. A huge part of who I am is still trying to please her.”

Throughout our interview, one word keeps popping up: worth. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to understand how Davis’ formative years gave her a more vital connection to the concept of value.

“People in general are always hustling for our worth,” she says. “People in positions of power are always telling you that you’re less than or you’re unworthy. I’m a Christian. I reject that. We’re born worthy. You need to take [unworthiness] off the table.”

Actress Viola Davis photographed at her home in Los Angeles, CA July 2018 by Williams + Hirakawa
CREDIT: Williams + Hirakawa

Another, more tangible battle rages around a related subject: Gender parity, the idea that women should get paid as much as men for equal work, has become a hot-button issue in the entertainment industry. Reports that Michelle Williams (“All the Money in the World”) or Claire Foy (“The Crown”) drew significantly smaller paychecks than their male co-stars despite commanding more screen time touched off a push to close the compensation gap. Davis is all for that battle, but she says there’s a form of economic injustice that’s just as pernicious. Women of color don’t get paid less than just male actors — their salaries pale in comparison with those of white women.

“There are no percentages to show the difference,” says Davis. “It’s vast. Hispanic women, Asian women, black women, we don’t get paid what Caucasian women get paid. We just don’t. … We have the talent. It’s the opportunity that we’re lacking.”

The movie business is outwardly liberal, but the mostly white men who run the major studios tend to cling to certain prejudices when greenlighting projects. In particular, there is a belief that films with people of color in the leads don’t do as well internationally.

That logic is being challenged. The blockbuster success of movies with women of color, such as “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Girls Trip” and “Breaking In,” may be softening old stigmas. Yet a recent survey by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism shows that the number of speaking roles for women has been virtually unchanged over the past decade. It gets worse when it comes to women of color. In 2017, 43 of the top 100 films lacked any black female characters, 65 were absent Asian or Asian-American female characters and 64 did not depict a single Latina character.

Davis doesn’t think change is possible unless executive suites across Los Angeles become more inclusive. “We’re not even invited to the table,” she says. “I go to a lot of women’s events here in Hollywood, and they’re filled with female CEOs, producers and executives, but I’m one of maybe five or six people of color in the room.”

“Widows” is a heist film anchored in grief. Unlike in “Ocean’s 11” or “The Thomas Crown Affair,” where the criminality is portrayed as a lark, Davis and her accomplices break the law because they have no choice and because they have troubled home lives.

“I have issues with stories of people who just get out of bed and start robbing banks,” she says. “As an actor, I needed to know what would drive a seemingly together woman to do this, and it always starts with someone reaching bottom.”

The film is as interested in painting a sprawling portrait of urban corruption as it is in laying the groundwork for the final caper. It touches on police shootings, political back-scratching, domestic violence and economic despair. Despite the heavy subject matter, Davis says the set of “Widows” was rollicking. The set reverberated with loud music (Michael Jackson was a favorite) and was host to impromptu dance parties.

“A lot of the movie was shot late at night, and at 3 a.m. you tend to get delirious,” says Debicki. “When you’re working on dark material, you need some lightness on the set. You have to get a gulp of fresh air on the surface before you plummet back into the abyss.”

Davis says that wrestling with demons on-screen can be “torturous,” and she’s built a career by being able to radiate a kind of operatic fury and anguish. In “Fences,” for instance, her character Rose doubles over into a snot-dripping, tear-streaming state of indignation and regret after learning that her husband has cheated on her. And while her character in “Widows” is more tightly controlled, she has moments where her eyes reveal the deadness of a crippling depression. Yet those who work with Davis say she’s able to access this well of emotion without relying on a kind of Method acting intensity.

“If I didn’t talk about my journey, I would be denying that 6-year-old girl who was hungry. A huge part of who I am is still trying to please her.”

“She’s so gangster,” says Rodriguez. “She’ll be laughing one minute, and then she’ll go to this dark place when the camera rolls and she’ll be crying. It’s that ability to snap in and out of her emotions that amazes me.”

When Davis accepted her supporting actress Oscar for 2016’s “Fences,” she used her moment in front of a global audience to urge the movie business to think about embracing different types of narratives.

“People ask me all the time, what kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola?” she said on the podium. Her answer: Go to the graveyard. “Exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories.”

Her point, Davis says today, was that every person’s story has value. Every life contains the material for great drama, not just those of the famous or the well-to-do.

“We don’t just need biopics about people who made it into history books,” says the actress. “If you’re living and breathing and you’ve gone through anything in your life, your story deserves to be told.”

So Davis and Tennon are capitalizing on the clout she’s established with hits such as “Fences” and with the ratings success of “How to Get Away With Murder” to generate interest in a range of television, digital, film and virtual-reality projects. Some, such as a drama about presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, are about famous people. Others, such as an upcoming adaptation of Terry McMillan’s best-seller “I Almost Forgot About You,” a romance about a twice-divorced optometrist, are rooted in the quotidian.

For good measure, JuVee is producing a VR adaptation of “Othello” that will be used for educational purposes, as well as “The Woman King,” a historical drama set in 18th-century Africa that Davis describes as “a black female ‘Braveheart.’” The company’s staff reflects its values — it is composed entirely of people of color and underrepresented groups.

Moreover, Davis isn’t done with Annalise Keating, the high-powered and morally compromised defense attorney she plays on “How to Get Away With Murder.” She concedes that Keating’s struggles, involving everything from a drinking problem to criminal cover-ups, aren’t grounded in kitchen-sink realism. But she likes the show’s soapier elements.

“She’s not realistic, but I don’t care about that,” explains Davis. “What I care about is every day they write something for her. They’ll write a love scene. They’ll say she’s pansexual. She’s an alcoholic. … It’s a beautiful experiment in exploring the wide berth of humanity that we experience as African-Americans as opposed to doing yet another mother in the hood who is mourning the loss of her son.”

As the ABC series enters its fifth season, creator Peter Nowalk says one overarching goal keeps his writing staff motivated. “Every season we think, ‘What can we give Viola to do that we haven’t given her to do before?’” he says. “As long as she wants to do the show, we’ll stick with it. She’s that special.”

The late critic Roger Ebert described movies as empathy machines. Davis would likely agree about cinema’s power to reflect our world, broaden horizons and forge connections among people from disparate backgrounds. But the potential of the medium won’t be realized until it is harnessed to tell a broader range of stories.

For Davis, film provided an important escape hatch at a key moment as she was growing up. At the age of 11 or 12, she remembers sitting around her family’s dilapidated television, which rested on top of another broken set and had an antenna caked in aluminum foil to get a stronger signal. She was watching “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” Witnessing Cicely Tyson, an acclaimed black actress playing a defining role, age from 23 to 110 had an electrifying effect on the young woman from Central Falls.

“This beautiful, magical transformation happened in the midst of all that poverty,” recalls Davis. “It elevated me out of my situation and stimulated my imagination. I knew I needed to make a life doing this.”

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