Viola Davis embraces her African roots in ‘Beautiful Creatures’

Viola Davis, Alice Englert, and Alden Ehrenreich in 'Beautiful Creatures.' Photo courtesy Warner Bros.

Viola Davis, Alice Englert, and Alden Ehrenreich in 'Beautiful Creatures.' Photo courtesy Warner Bros.

It was a year ago this month when Viola Davis finally decided to take off her wig, and the hairpiece has stayed tucked in her dresser drawer ever since.

The Academy Award-nominated actress showed up at the annual Oscars ceremony in 2012 donning a cropped, textured afro, surprising many of those around her and liberating herself from what she describes as a fashionable and personal rut. Now, glamorous and natural as ever, Davis tells theGrio that while her successful run in Hollywood continues forward, the hairpiece lingers behind.

“Listen, I love my wigs,” the 47-year-old said at a press junket in Los Angeles for her new film Beautiful Creatures. “But suddenly it felt odd. Suddenly it felt like I wasn’t being who I was. I’m still going to wear my wig, but I think it’s interesting in this time period for me to just kind of use it as an enhancement, not a crutch.”

It’s a fitting step for the movie starlet, who says she now aims to progress her career by taking on roles against stereotype, and steering clear of redundancy. In her new fantasy flick, out in theaters Feb. 14, Davis portrays a supernatural librarian and housekeeper, channeling the spirits of her slave ancestry, and binding together a physical and ethereal existence through their powers. The story, based on the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, is set in the fictional town of Gatlin, South Carolina, and tracks the passage of star-crossed lovers, Romeo & Juliet style, both destined and forbidden to be together.

For Davis, it was an opportunity to play a character with a “rich inner life,” elicited primarily through introspective observation. She could also avoid another gig being cast in “African-American servitude,” to take on a part with more gravity, and that which draws upon her Southern heritage.

“I was born on the Singleton Plantation in St. Matthews, South Carolina,” she remarks. “Literally when you drive up, you drive down the long pathway, you see the big house, and then you drive further down you see the one-room church. You drive further down you see the sharecroppers’ – they called it the slave quarters – but the sharecroppers lived there with the outhouse. And that’s where I was born: my grandmother’s house.”

“I had to imagine what we, African-Americans, would be doing during the Civil War,” she continues. “I’ve done a lot of research of where we came from and where we landed in the African slave trade, and all of that. I thought it would be interesting if the characters that I channeled came from the distant past – Yoruba and Nigeria – you know the scares on their back; where they could have landed and what their lives were like once they got to the United States. I know about the plowed fields and the cotton and the pecan trees.”

Davis speaks of her history with reflection and commemoration. She mentions discovering the memoir of an old slave from her grandmother’s plantation in her studies, which she used as a reference point when creating the story of her character. Additionally, the actress built her part against the context of the South as an individual itself, a sort of recurring figure in her recent films.