Viola Davis leads 'The Help' after 'long journey of roles'

With two Tony Awards, including one opposite Denzel Washington in Fences last year, and an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress to her credit, Viola Davis is definitely among the best in her craft. Still, as she noted in a press conference-style interview at The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in Atlanta, “usually characters of color are relegated to a page or two” and, as hard as it is to believe, she said, “usually, I will get three or four scenes in a movie and that’s it at the most.”

So, it’s interesting that, even in 2011, her most high-profile film role to date is playing the maid Aibileen Clark in 1961 Mississippi in The Help. The risks did not escape the Julliard-trained actress. “A black actress playing a maid in 2011 in Hollywood, it’s a lot of pressure,” she shared with the small gathering of journalists.

“You don’t play a maid. That is just something that you do not do. And then you play a maid where a white woman has written the story and a white man is directing so I’m essentially playing a mammy so I felt a whole lot of pressure.”

Later, Davis, who was actually born on Singleton Plantation in South Carolina but grew up very poor in Cedar Falls, Rhode Island, spoke exclusively with theGrio about that fear, the pressures of being a successful black actress in Hollywood, filming in Mississippi and Oscar buzz.

Earlier, you spoke of your fear of playing a maid even before filming The Help. Can you expound upon that?

I feel a great sense of fear because people have to realize that, once you begin to gain in success in this business as an African-American actress, there’s not a lot of company on top so, therefore, when you’re the only one, you become the symbol of everything.

Everyone projects their needs and their wants onto you and that’s a heavy-duty load because you’re always going to feel like you’re going to fail. I do feel the heavyweight of responsibility, especially to the African-American community.

You’ve had a good track record though.

The last two movies I did that are not out yet are absolutely not stereotypical black roles. I’ve had a 23-year career in the theater where I’ve played a number of characters,

Everybody’s Ruby, [based upon the famous 1952 murder trial of Ruby McCollum covered by Zora Neale Hurston for The Pittsburgh Courier ] the August Wilson plays I’ve done. I have a degree in theater and went to Juilliard to not be a stereotype and so I fight to not do that and not to show that in my work.

So, because you’ve played very diverse roles, including doctors and lawyers, even in film and television, was it easier for you to accept a role as a maid?

Oh yeah, absolutely, because I just felt like it was another role in the long journey of roles but, once again, I feel like whenever you do something and it’s in the public eye it’s like you’ve never done anything before. Everything else just kind of falls by the wayside and I have to say, just as a footnote, a lot of the roles that I played in the past that have been doctors and lawyers, the weird dichotomy is that they have not been as developed as Aibileen.

You absolutely did not know who they were aside from the fact that they were doctors and lawyers and people have to understand that if you just accept those roles, literally just those roles, you will never work as an actress and, even if you see me, I’m never going to be able to show what I do. In this role, I was able to show what I do and that’s one of the reasons why I took it too.

What was it like to film in Greenwood, Mississippi?

The ghosts of the past were on us. Mississippi for me is another character. We could not have done this on a soundstage in Vancouver. The heat, the food, the people, the Tallahatchie River and the ghosts of the past, knowing that Emmett Till’s body was found six miles down the road in Money, Mississippi and the birthplace of the White Citizen’s Council was Indianola. All of it informed everything that we did in that movie. It informed our fear of telling our stories, our not wanting to kind of let go of what we did as maids because knowing the lack of choices out there for us. The heat; you could see the sweat under our arms. It could not have been done anywhere else and be authentic.

Was it also personal for you?

I have to say at night I really felt this thing in my stomach, this anxiety and I know it was the past kind of talking to me. All the bodies that must have been found and the stories that were told on the set of relatives that were killed and murdered and at the same time the love and the affection of that small town.

All of it informed the movie. Because a lot of times, it’s like [The Help’s director] Tate [Taylor] says, Mississippi is so bastardized in movies. It’s just shown as people with no teeth. All the black people are just nodding and nodding and all the white people are just really stark racists and none of the other colors are shown. I think that we did a good job of showing all the colors because we were there.

There’s some early Oscar buzz about this film and your role. Since you’ve been here before with Doubt, what do you think of award seasons?

Award seasons are very nerve-wrecking. It’s like people put so much stake into winning and, at the end of the day, you’re just an actor. At some point, the cameras are off and the carpet rolls up and you have to get back on the set or stage and be an actor and it’s a totally different head. It throws you. You don’t realize how much time you spent kind of self-promoting and not creating until you get back to creating. That’s why you cannot focus on it and it really doesn’t mean anything at the end of the day.