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Sundance: Viola Davis Talks Her Rare ‘Troop Zero’ Role, Clarifies Comments on ‘The Help’

Troop Zero
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

You don’t see Viola Davis like this often, the Academy Award winner said of her new film “Troop Zero,” premiering on Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival.

Yes, there are still roles that the powerhouse dramatist cannot get — or, according to her, ones that seem like a natural fit. Namely the fun ones, she said.

“This is not a movie where I would think I’d be the person whose name would automatically pop up,” said Davis of the comedy, which came to her through producer and frequent collaborator Todd Black (“Antwone Fisher,” “Fences”).

Davis said Black “knew me and my personality, which other people don’t know. Which is the fun part, the part that has levity.”

Davis plays a “bawdy, brass, and funny without knowing it” troop leader to a pack of misfit girls in the 1970s, who rally around one young lady out to win a competition that would place her in NASA’s Golden Record — a time capsule that was put on board the Voyager space craft, and intended as a record of humanity for any extraterrestrial life out there looking.

“Somewhere in there is a heart that she has for these children who see her as a leader. They see her as one of those beautiful, on-the-periphery types,” she said.

Davis is no stranger to playing characters on the periphery, from an abandoned wife in “Widows” to a weary domestic worker in “The Help.” She made waves last September when discussing the latter film, saying she regretted the experience because “at the end of the day it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard.”

Davis said she loved working with the cast and creative team, but the sentiments still made some bristle given the commercial and critical success of the film.

“It’s in the zeitgeist … people fighting to be seen, and unapologetically doing so. What that means, especially for people of color, is that we want autonomy. I personally want people of color to be seen as the complicated people that we are. And I think, sometimes, that who we are is watered down to get butts in seats,” she said.

Rich portrayals of complicated women in films like Jane Fonda’s “Klute,” Jill Clayburgh’s “An Unmarried Woman,” and Meryl Streep in “Kramer vs. Kramer” brought her into the business, she said. For people of color, she finds, “what you get is an almost cartoon, one-dimensional version of who we are. I feel, as an artist, that is not acceptable.”

The actress and producer said a lack of artistic exploration of people of color is a “cultural more. Just to put them in there. I’m not satisfied with just being in the movie. I want to be explored, I want that black character to be a meal.”

She got that meal in “Troop,” from no less than two chefs: the female directing duo Bert & Bertie.

“How many situations do you know of where there are two women directing, and they make it work? They are a walking metaphor of the word collaboration. And [there’s] that feminine energy — which is about connection and sharing and love and nurturing their actors,” she said.

With over 40 films under her belt, Davis said she finds the director’s job requires some narcissism, and a “lone wolf” mentality.

“The two of them, they would just switch off … there were no fighting ideas. And it was nothing but fun. Which is sometimes missing from our work, you can lose that after being in it for awhile,” she said.

Davis and husband Julius Tennon’s production banner JuVee will continue efforts for inclusion in Hollywood. Perhaps she’ll think of herself when those fun roles pop up.

“Troop Zero” is an Amazon Studios production, produced by Black, Jason Blumenthal, and Steve Tisch. It’s set for release in 2019.

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