Viola Davis: ‘A woman has to look a certain way and be a certain age to be sexual on screen’

For years, Viola Davis felt she had to make her ‘blackness disappear’. In her latest role she demands to be seen – and given an Oscar

'I felt like what was required of me was to make any hint of my blackness disappear': Viola Davis reflects on her career
'The rules are broken for white actresses only': Viola Davis reflects on Hollywood's double standards Credit: Virginie Khateeb

When Viola Davis was a girl, she dreamt of money. Not vast riches, but loose change – the kind that would make daily life that bit more manageable.

“The big thing for me was quarters,” she remembers, talking from the Los Angeles home she shares with her husband, the actor and producer Julius Tennon, and Genesis, their 10-year-old daughter. “I would have dreams about finding quarters. And in these dreams I would grab as many as I could find, so I could buy some food the next day. I’d wake with my hands clutched tight, absolutely believing that those quarters would still be inside and, of course, they never were.”

Davis, 55, is one of the great screen actresses of her generation but her hard-won success, she says, still feels a little like a dream from which she might wake. She grew up in poverty in Rhode Island, the fifth of six children: her father was a horse trainer; her mother, a factory worker, maid, and civil rights campaigner. The family was so poor, her mother would fasten her braids for school with the plastic clips from bags of sliced bread.

She was inspired to act after she saw the pioneering black American actress Cicely Tyson in a TV movie when she was eight years old. Four decades later, Tyson was cast as Davis’s mother in the legal series How to Get Away with Murder. It was, says Davis, as if she’d awoken, unclasped her fingers, and found the coins she’d dreamt of were somehow still there. We’re speaking a few days after Tyson’s death at the age of 96; Davis talks about her quietly, referring to her always as “Miss Tyson”, and credits her with helping set her life on its course.

“In her I saw myself,” she says, “a respectable choice of profession, and a way out of my life.”

“Respectable”, however, is not the first word that springs to mind when considering Davis’s latest role. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a Netflix adaptation of the 1982 August Wilson play, directed by George C Wolfe, she plays the titular grande-dame of the blues: ­plus-sized, rich-voiced, garishly made-up and sexually zealous. The film unfolds during a fraught and sweaty recording session in 1927 Chicago, during which Ma clashes with – well, just about everyone, but most notably the white record executive who sees her as a meal ticket, and also her ambitious young trumpeter, blazingly embodied by the late Chadwick Boseman, who’s plotting his own future in the business.

Davis has been nominated for a Golden Globe and longlisted for a Bafta for the role, and an Oscar nod next month seems assured. She first saw the play while working as an usher at her local theatre – a job she took to pay her way through theatre school, first at Rhode Island College then at the prestigious Juilliard in New York. She remembers she “almost stopped breathing. Because it was like I was watching a famous singer that I loved in private, even though I didn’t even know who Ma Rainey was at all”.

At Juilliard, she didn’t perform any of Wilson’s plays, largely because there weren’t enough black students in her year to cast one. “I can’t say that I’m not appreciative of my training there, but I did not find a sense of belonging,” she says. “It was a place that taught classical, Eurocentric theatre as if it was the Bible – and for me, as a chocolate, kinky-haired girl, there was no way in. To perform in Shakespeare, or George Bernard Shaw, or Eugene O’Neill, I felt like what was required of me was to make any hint of my blackness disappear, that it would somehow be a good thing if the audience could forget I was black.”

Things changed when she arrived on Broadway in the early 2000s, and she won her first Tony award for her role in King Hedley II, the ninth play in Wilson’s 10-strong Pittsburgh Cycle. (Ma Rainey is the second.) Yet when researching Ma years later, she could find only stray biographical snippets of the singer, born Gertrude Pridgett, in books about the blues, while appearance-wise, there were just seven ­photographs to go on. Some of what she found “was hard to read”. Bessie Smith, another notable blues singer, who toured with Rainey early in her career, “said that she was ugly, with her grease paint and mouthful of gold teeth. But you have to play a person as they are, and find the beauty in that.”

An idealised notion of a stoic black woman? Viola Davis in The Help in 2011 Credit: Collection Christophel/Alamy 

Davis was especially keen to defy the cliché of “the obligatory big, fat, black woman” – not least because she suspected audiences might embrace it all too readily. “In the past, I’ve felt that no one really cares if you play a black woman specifically,” she says. “They just want to be able to experience her, rather than know her. So if I’d made Ma simply big, fat and funny, or big, fat and mean, many people would have been absolutely OK with that.”

This crystallised for Davis after the 2011 release of The Help, a 1960s-set period piece in which she played a put-upon Mississippi maid. The film was a considerable hit, and earned Davis her second Oscar nomination (after Doubt three years earlier). But she later realised her character felt more like a white person’s idealised notion of a stoic, long-suffering black woman in the segregated south.

“Too often, when a studio puts a movie together, it becomes a Mr Potato Head of demographic desirability,” she says. “What do people want and not want to see? What’s going to make money? What’s going to make this actor look good? And it has nothing to do with the specificity of the story or the characters.

“It’s like what Jack Nicholson said in A Few Good Men,” she continues, warming to her theme. “People can’t handle the truth. And they certainly don’t want the truth about women – that we’re not always size zero, that we don’t wake up with make-up on, that a lot of the time we’re not likeable, that a lot of the time we’re über-damaged. It’s the same thing with people of colour – we are under a shroud of mystery, because there’s long been a resistance to wanting to know who we are, or to sit with us. And a lot of the time I believe we water down our narratives as a way of apologising for them.”

Political correctness, she feels, has become a kind of kryptonite for black talent in modern-day Hollywood. “We worry that if we tell too much of the truth, the audience is going to feel uncomfortable,” she goes on. “So we create an image that will make black people feel represented, but which will also make white people comfortable enough to plop down money and watch for two hours.

“Listen, not one of those actors in Goodfellas said to Martin Scorsese, ‘You know what, maybe we shouldn’t beat this man to death, have blood splatter all over the walls, then do a scene right after where we’re all eating spaghetti, because I don’t think that’s politically correct.’ They played it exactly the way it is. And Scorsese’s courage to tell the truth is one of the marks of a great artist. So I want that same privilege. But I know that when I do that, it’s going to be more heavily scrutinised. Because maybe – I don’t know – it might not fit the image and the message that black people want to promote.”

Davis has come to realise these boundaries are hard to break through, and even harder to tear down. In 2018, in Steve McQueen’s Widows, she was seen nuzzling in bed with Liam Neeson. At the time, the scene felt quietly revolutionary, but as a moment of mixed-race, middle-aged sensuality on screen, it remains close to unique.

“There is still a sense that a woman has to look a certain way and be a certain age in order to be sexual on screen,” she says. “And if those rules are broken, they’re broken for white actresses only. And they’re wonderful white actresses – Meryl Streep in Hope Springs, or Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give. But I don’t feel like that same freedom has been extended to black women, especially dark-skinned black women. I simply don’t see it.”

So she’s taking steps to ensure that, in future, we do. Among the projects in development at her and her husband’s production company are sexually charged scripts that don’t fit the Hollywood mould. “There’s a misguided understanding of what female sexuality looks like, and we’ve got to get past that,” she says.

“If you’re constantly sitting in front of fantasy images and wondering, ‘Why don’t I look like that? Can’t my life be like that?’, I think that’s damaging. So I’m creating opportunities to explore sexuality.”

Additionally, she’s working on The Woman King – a historical epic set in colonial Africa she describes as “the black Braveheart” – and The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, a black, female-led Western.

Next, though, is the series First Ladies, in which she will play Michelle Obama: a gig she describes, with a chuckle, as “terrifying”. The show was announced just before the pandemic reached the west, and she’s spent much of the last year figuring out how on earth to pull it off.

“I was trying to pin down what Michelle does that makes her who she is, and of course it’s lots of things, but one thing was undeniable,” she says. “And that was whenever she speaks, it comes from a place where she’s not having to hustle, or insist upon herself. I mean, over the last few months I’ve found myself talking really loudly at home to my daughter because it says ‘You’ve got to look at me, you’ve got to notice who I am.’ But Michelle doesn’t speak from that place. She just speaks and she’s done.”

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is on Netflix now