Viola Davis.  Photo By Omar P.L. Moore/Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.
                                                                                                                                                      (Photo by Omar P.L. Moore/
When In "Doubt", Viola Davis Has No Doubt
By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel
December 24, 2008

The accolades continue to pour in for her performance in John Patrick Shanley's film based upon his Pulitzer Prize-winning play

Above: The award-winning stage and screen actress in San Francisco, pictured here exactly a week before Christmas, and four hours after receiving news of another award nomination for her performance as Mrs. Miller in the film version of "Doubt".


When you meet Viola Davis a ready warm smile greets and embraces you, a smile as pleasant as the person herself.  At the tender age of 42 she calls herself a "veteran" stage actress ("I am now considered a veteran.  My goodness, it's come to that!" -- 20 years in theater -- although veteran is something a confident and un-self-conscious actress might call herself.  Veteran or not, Ms. Davis is on an accolade roll these days with award nominations in successive weeks from the Broadcast Film Critics Circle, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globes).  On the morning that Ms. Davis was in town, exactly a week before Christmas Day, the Screen Actors Guild had just hours before awarded yet another nomination for her acting in the film "Doubt".  With the three nominations for her supporting role as Mrs. Miller, a mother of a son who may be involved in some illicit matters courtesy of a priest whose behavior has been questionable, film awards bodies have taken notice.  She is on screen for all of about ten minutes in a total of two scenes, and it is she who not only crystallizes exactly what John Patrick Shanley's film is about but she outshines Meryl Streep, the dean of stage and screen, multiple Oscar winner, etce-terah . . . etce-terah . . . etce-terah.

On her character Mrs. Miller in "Doubt" came the following revelation: "I didn't understand her at first," said Ms. Davis, dressed in a burgundy colored blouse and charcoal grey skirt, perfectly postured on a sofa in a suite at the Four Seasons.  "I didn't understand the conflict.  I didn't get her." 

Audiences however, do get Ms. Miller very specifically in one of the most riveting scenes in American cinema this year.  She speaks with a truth from deep within and Ms. Davis, who won a Tony Award in 2001 for her role as Tonya in the play King Hedley II, had to dig deep into the script to uncover the woman she plays in order to bring her to life. 

Ms. Davis speaks about the craft of acting with the proficiency and exactness of a professor as she describes the mission she had to accomplish.  "It's like investigative work . . . slowly you begin to build a human being.  And it may not be the kind of human being you want her to be, but nevertheless it's going to be the human being John Patrick Shanley created.  And then you have to have the courage to execute it.  Which goes into being relaxed, courage, breathing -- all that acting stuff.  And getting over the fear of working with Meryl Streep."

Ms. Davis laughs and acknowledges that working with Ms. Streep was a fear she had "which never went away."

"You may look at me going, 'oh man, she's scared that her son's gonna' -- I'm scared of Meryl Streep.  I'm scared of her."  Viola Davis may be laughing as she says this, but she is dead serious. 

In trying to discover just who Mrs. Miller was, Ms. Davis had rehearsed in New York for almost four months with Ms. Streep, Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman who round out the "Doubt" cast.  "Four months of holding the script.  Dozens and dozens of pages of character information that I created.  So by the time I got to the set I was, I felt like I knew her.  So then you just leave yourself alone and you trust all your work.  And that's how I got the performance.  And then you've got Meryl Streep going for what she needs and wants too, you know?", said Ms. Davis, a graduate of The Julliard School in New York.

Ms. Davis then notes a line spoken by Ms. Streep's character Sister Aloysius in "Doubt" about being a mother, a line Ms. Davis considers the best line in the movie, noting the effect the spoken line has on her as an actor and on her own character.  "That (line) is what unleashes all of it.  And it was some time in the course of rehearsing that scene in that kind of a park area in The Bronx, that hit me in a way that was so brutal when she said that.  It hurt me on -- it hurt Mrs. Miller on such a deep level." 

To construct her onscreen alter ego Ms. Davis also drew on her childhood memories.  "I have very strong memories of my mother loving in extraordinary circumstances.  Growing up in poverty, abject poverty, in Central Falls, Rhode Island -- the only black family at the time that we moved in the sixties, in a predominantly Catholic community, you know.  Feeling on the periphery.  Wanting to get in.  Feeling the shame and the sting of poverty.  Seeing my mom fight for us all the time.  To fight for us when people were teasing us.  Fight for us when we were sick in the hospital and doctors wanted to do things to us that were unorthodox.  But my mom, you know, using her kind of tools as a mother, sensing all of that -- just protecting us, being our advocate, her and my dad, being my advocate.  Those memories are really strong for me.  And memories are really -- they are the building blocks for an actor," said Ms. Davis, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband actor Julius Tennon and his two children.

Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller in "Doubt", the film based on John Patrick Shanley's award-winning Broadway play.  (Photo: Miramax Films)

After giving such an impassioned performance as Mrs. Miller, "Doubt" director John Patrick Shanley asked Ms.  Davis to do it all over again. 

"Yes, he's evil like that," Ms. Davis laughs. 

"And he lied.  So he lied -- he said he wanted to do the scene again because some lighting mistake -- or he didn't get some shot from Meryl.  I said, 'I know he's lying!'  You know when people are lying, right?  I said, 'you're lying, but you know, I'll get some overtime out of it.'"  Ms. Davis has a smile on her face throughout as she recalls these moments on the set with Mr. Shanley and is laughing by the time she cites the overtime.  (Ah, the life of a Screen Actors Guild member!)  Ms. Davis said that repeatedly performing the scene with Ms. Streep wasn't a problem.  After all, for years Ms. Davis has been on stage doing the same play for over a year or six months at a time.

"It means nothing to me to do this scene (with Meryl) -- I could have done it a hundred more times."

While Ms. Davis said that she often carries lingering memories of her work on stage each night after an evening performance, when it comes to film, she said that "it just sucks -- it just -- I mean, I know that that's probably a really pedestrian comment -- but it just sucks because you don't have a chance to do it again, so when you relive it, you always, something always hits you a different way and then you want to go back and do it another way.  And it's torture.  Occupational hazard.  Yeah, you do relive it.  It's so -- listen, it's a character you've been living with for the last four, five months and now it's over.  But she's still in you."

This prompts the question: when do you know you have done your job as an actor on film -- is it before, during or after the production wraps, or is it when the accolades come from those who have seen your performance?

Ms. Davis pauses for a moment. 

"That's a hard question.  That's very difficult.  You don't really even know it on stage.  I mean, you appreciate it when people react to it at least you have some semblance of it.  When you are shooting it, it's very difficult . . . for me I felt like, okay I got something because I felt like I was affecting my partner, wh0 is Meryl Streep, Meryl -- because I felt like I was affecting her.  Which was my job . . . as the character.  The character wants to affect her.  So I knew I wasn't affecting her so therefore I would think that was the biggest indicator.  That's the only thing that I could come up with, because you don't always know.  Let me just speak for myself . . . sometimes you feel like you've got it, you've affected people.  Five days later like you said, it's playing in your head, and you go, 'oh, I went in the wrong direction . . . and then you start questioning yourself."

In recent years Viola Davis has gently criticized the way black actors are portrayed in roles in Hollywood, whether on film or on television, saying that she isn't the "home girl" that would be seen in the UPN-WB type television comedies that have been a prominent staple in America.  She hopes however, that there will be a growth of roles for black women on the big screen in the very near future.  "It hasn't changed yet.  But, in the words of Morgan Freeman in "Shawshank Redemption", 'I hope.'  You know, I hope.  I have a lot of hope that it's gonna change, more so than even Barack Obama, you have a younger generation coming up that isn't aware of those kind of racial stereotypes.  They don't really have a sense of that.  They have more friends, they have more lovers, they have more spouses who run the gamut as far as race.  Because what happens is, these characters and stories exist because someone has the imagination to bring them to life.  They represent their experiences.  They represent girlfriends, wives, lovers, fantasies, whatever," said Ms. Davis. 

"And I think the reason why black characters get stuck as functions, archetypes, metaphors is because the people who are creating them -- and they're not necessarily just even white people, they're not -- the people who create them don't have any experience with them.  And I think a lot of times black people create them because once again you have to have a lot of courage to, to create a human being, you know, because it's not always going to look pretty.  So basically I think the younger generation is going to change it because they're gonna have the imagination to bring these characters to life.  You'll see something like "The Visitor" where the girlfriend was a dark-skinned African sister who had short hair, beautiful dark skin.  And you'll see more Angela Bassett in "Strange Days", who was very vulnerable and yet played this really strong physically fit character.  You know, you'll see more cases of that as the years go by -- I'm hoping.  Because people have to understand that we're all the same at the end of the day.  At the end of the day, you know? 

"I always play strong women.  That's my thing.  I play strong, really -- everybody's always calling on me to play strong.  Which I don't have a problem with.  But they're strong with absolutely no sense of vulnerability.  And then you try to interject it -- there's just no room for it.  They have no past, they have no sexuality.  They have nothing.  And I'm just -- I'm waiting for people to see us.  Just to see, just to see us.  In all of our beauty, in all of our frailties, and in all of it.  And have the courage to put it and bring it to life."

In just a few fleeting minutes Viola Davis brings Mrs. Miller to life in John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt", and in addition to her stage and moviegoer admirers she may just end up with another fan in late February 2009: Oscar.

"Doubt" opens on Christmas Day in additional theaters in the U.S. and across Canada, while continuing to play in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Related: Viola Davis, Just About Guaranteed

Related: The Popcorn Reel "Doubt" review

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