“If I can’t effectively move people, then I would prefer not to [act].” — Viola Davis
With a brief but heart-stopping performance in this week’s period drama Doubt, actress Viola Davis (Solaris, Far From Heaven) has simultaneously put herself on Hollywood’s Oscar radar and achieved what has got to be a near-impossible feat: stealing a scene from Meryl Streep. Although she’s wont to modesty where the latter is concerned, Davis will un-doubt-edly remain in the minds of pundits as awards season trudges on, especially given the film’s just-announced smattering of Golden Globes nominations: a Best Supporting Actress nod for Davis, as well as nominations for writer-director John Patrick Shanley, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Streep (who nabbed two nominations thanks to her other 2008 film, Mamma Mia). (See a gallery of Golden Globe nominees here.)
It’s a phenomenon that’s drawn attention before: Dame Judi Dench won her only Oscar to date with an eight-minute performance in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love; ditto Anthony Quinn in 1956’s Lust for Life. In Doubt, Davis’s appearance as the dedicated mother of a young school boy who may or may not be the victim of Catholic abuse runs about that long, if only a minute or two longer. And yet it’s among the more potent performances of the year, one that is garnering the Juilliard-trained Davis some much-deserved notice after a long career of television and award-winning theater appearances.
In Doubt, adapted by John Patrick Shanley from his own Pulitzer-winning play, the severe, authoritative Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) objects fundamentally to the progressive attitudes of St. Nicholas’s new priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and is quick to suspect him of inappropriate behavior with the school’s first and only black student, Donald Miller. Below, we go in-depth with Davis about her single scene in Doubt as Donald’s mother, Mrs. Miller, in which she memorably goes head-to-head with Sister Aloysius herself. Davis also discusses the strong social and cultural undercurrents in Doubt, plus her involvement in Tyler Perry’s next Madea film and how she feels about being lauded for her tragic characters.
It’s quite remarkable that, for a performance that’s so brief in screen time, you’re getting awards buzz. What’s it like for you to process, that such a short appearance could lead to so much?
Viola Davis: It’s pretty overwhelming! That’s a great word for it. I think it’s because when I went into the project, my only expectation for myself was to do a good job, because I knew the caliber of actors I was working with. And of course my scene is with Meryl Streep, and of course it’s based on a play that won the Pulitzer, won the actress who played the role that I played on Broadway, Adriane Lenox, the Tony…great expectations to do a good job, and to not fail. So that was it. I certainly didn’t think that in a movie filled with such fantastic performances, that people would even notice it. I thought that it would just kind of fit into the grand landscape of the movie, and just keep it together. [Laughs] I just wanted to hold up my leg of the journey. So everything else has been…I feel like I’m living in an alternate universe right now!
It’s all quite deserved. Now you’re known as the actress who could steal a scene from Meryl Streep!
Davis: Oh my goodness, I didn’t know I had that reputation. I don’t know if I can embrace that one, but I’m definitely flattered by the accolades.
Your character, Mrs. Miller, represents an interesting shift in perspective by the time we meet her in Doubt. Up until that point, the theme of faith has remained pretty religious in nature, but Mrs. Miller’s primary concerns are not faith and religion. So it’s her character that opens Doubt up into maybe a more secular perspective. How do you perceive Mrs. Miller as representative of that, and more specifically of her time and place?
Davis: It’s a great question, and it’s also a very difficult question to answer. Because when John Patrick Shanley wrote the play, he didn’t want to tell people how to feel; he didn’t even want to tell the actors how to feel. So I’m going to take a stab in the dark, as to her kind of secular influence. I think it’s upon her coming into the movie that you see the issues are much broader, and extend beyond religion. They extend into beliefs and ideals and just life issues; here’s a woman coming into the picture who literally just loves her son under extraordinary circumstances. And here is a woman who…you know, it’s funny, because I don’t even feel like Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) even represents a religious view; I feel that she just represents her view.
But I think it’s when Mrs. Miller comes in that you begin to understand that the argument isn’t just within these insular walls of this church, that it involves issues of rigid belief systems, and broadening your mind and your heart. And it’s not just even about sending this guy down the river, and whether he molested this boy or not. It becomes about love, it becomes about friendship, it becomes about being an advocate for someone, it becomes about being nonjudgmental. When you’re in a religious environment, you’re not exposed to the world, and therefore your views are not challenged. They’re just not! They become very singular, and here I am and I represent the challenge.
Mrs. Miller isn’t the first person to challenge Sister Aloysius, but she’s the first one to effectively challenge her.
Davis: Absolutely. First of all, Father Flynn is not going to get to her because he’s a man. He’s a man and he’s a priest. For me, this is my opinion. He represents the enemy; you see lots of images in the film of how repressed women were even within the convent, and how free the men were. There’s definitely a hierarchy of power, so he was never going to affect her. I affect her because first of all, I’m a woman; second of all, I don’t have an obvious response to the problem that she tells me, and I think it knocks her off her feet. She did not expect how I was going to defend my son.
It raises an interesting conflict: in what circumstances could potential Catholic abuse be anything but reprehensible? To most people, it would be without a question, no circumstances.
Davis: Well absolutely, no circumstances. In life, you know, they do this in focus groups; if you were in such and such circumstance, what would you do? Well, you never know what you’re going do unless you’re faced with it. What did Sophie do when she was faced with a Nazi soldier who said you can choose between your son or your daughter? What do you do? You never think you’re going to be faced with those kinds of situations, as horrific as they are.
And like I said, for me, the movie was about more than Catholic abuse and molestation and ruining this priest’s career, it’s about pursuing what we feel is right at all costs, and never quite admitting that there could be a chance that we could be wrong, out of fear. It’s a much more human message.
Next: Race and gender politics in 1964 New York, plus Davis’s role in Tyler Perry’s next film
The story and motivations of especially your character also rely heavily on this particular time period and social climate; Donald is the only black child at this school.
Davis: And he has very few choices, which adds to the desperation; it adds to my desperation because I have no choice. If he cannot make it through this school, then he dies; there is no gray area. If it were 2008, of course I could put him in another school, or I could get a divorce from my husband. I would have choices. But now, I don’t have choices based on the cultural climate. And that adds to the obstacles that are already in the situation.
That also makes it easier to sympathize with Mrs. Miller’s very difficult parental choices…
Davis: We get on the track of believing what we do is right at all costs, but we forget…with Mrs. Miller and Sister Aloysius, there are a lot of similarities; you know, Sister Aloysius was married before, and I’m sure she joined the convent because there were very few choices for widow, for women who had no husband to basically take care of them. I don’t know if she even joined the convent out of choice, or if she was forced to because of the cultural climate. And here is Mrs. Miller, who is in a similar situation; she’s in a bad marriage, she has a child who may be being abused in every way, he’s black, we’re black, and I’m faced with very few choices, too. So I’m fighting for what is right not knowing that it could be right, not knowing that I could be destroying my son in the process, and she’s fighting for what is right thinking that she has my son’s best interest at heart. It makes for drama. That’s what’s dramatic about the scene.
How long were you on set, and at what point during production did you come in?
Davis: I felt like I was on set forever, because I was in New York from mid-November to mid-February. That’s a long time for one scene, but we rehearsed for three weeks before. And then of course we shot the first part of the scene, which is an interior shot, and two weeks later shot the second half of the scene. It seemed like we were doing that scene for days — you know, your memory always fails you — but it seems like we were doing the second half of the scene for days. And then I came home to L.A. and I was called back to do the entire scene again!
I find it interesting that your next two projects are State of Play and a Tyler Perry film…
Davis: Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail! Which, I have to tell you, of everything that I’ve ever done in my career, that’s the only thing that’s perked up the ears of my nieces and nephews. That is it, that’s done it for them. That made me a bona fide star in their eyes! That project was just a joy to work on, that’s all, and to work with Tyler Perry in Atlanta…it was a great lesson for me to see someone who just had a vision, a dream, and pursued it and did not wait for Hollywood to bank roll it. It’s a lesson for many artists, because 95% of us are unemployed at any given time because we’re waiting, we’re waiting to be noticed. And this is a man who said, “I’m not gonna wait, I’m gonna pursue it,” and look what he’s done; of course, he faces a lot of criticism…[laughs] but I had fun.
Can you describe your role in Madea Goes to Jail?
Davis: I play, of course, an ex-prostitute drug addict. I do those roles really well! An ex-prostitute, ex-drug addict who is now ministering to prostitutes on the street, trying to change their lives around.
You certainly have an interesting body of work.
[Laughs] A varied body of work! I worked in television; I’m the Failed Pilot Queen, I’ve done so many television shows, pilots, theater…when you do it for so long, I’m telling you, you get to the point where it becomes varied because you take what’s available for a number of reasons. It’s just an occupational hazard. Sometimes you take a job for the money, sometimes you take it for the location, sometimes you take it for the script; there are just a number of reasons, and ultimately what you see is the whole landscape of it. But I can tell you from behind the scenes – that’s what it is, as an actor.
Pamela Renner for American Theatre once wrote about you in your theater days that you are “the actress of [your] generation who most honestly and nakedly wears the mantle of tragedy.”
Davis: Oh yes, I think that is a great description of me! I don’t necessarily know if I love that statement, but I am woman enough to say that I think it’s a very honest assessment of me as an actress. I think that’s something that people feel that I do really well; I don’t mind it, because ultimately I think the characters I play move people, and who wouldn’t want to move people? That’s why I do what I do, and that’s why I wanted to be an actress from the time I was six years old. If I can’t effectively move people, then I would prefer not to do it.
For reviews, images and trailers from Doubt, click here.