Viola Davis wants variety.
‘That’s what every actors wants,’ she says. ‘They want roles that are multifaceted, that show the full range of your work. If. You. Can. Get. It. Can I say that again? Let me say that again: IF…YOU…CAN…GET…IT!’
Wearing a fuchsia coloured jacket that’s brightening up our Zoom chat, Davis is starting to remind me of Amanda Waller, the hard-ass she played in Suicide Squad. Let’s just say, you want her on your side in an argument.
A three-time Oscar nominee and best supporting actress winner for 2017’s Fences, Davis is back with another awards-worthy role. Like Fences, the Netflix-streamed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an adaptation of an August Wilson play.
But this time it’s based on the real early blues icon, Ma Rainey – a no-nonsense diva who, in the film, has arrived at a 1920s Chicago recording studio to lay down the track that made her a star. She’s big. She’s bisexual. And she does not care what anyone thinks.
‘I didn’t want to play an archetype because if I were to be so bold, so many white people often see big, overweight black women, like Ma Rainey and they automatically feel like she’s got to be funny,’ says Davis.
‘She’s more than just comedic relief. And that’s what I tried to channel: the woman who could be at an orgy on Thursday, which is the case by the way…she could be in an orgy on Thursday with a bunch of women and get arrested. And on Sunday, she was at church.’
It’s another remarkable performance from Davis, who is surely now one of the leading actresses of her generation, thanks to roles in Doubt, The Help and, recently, Steve McQueen’s Widows.
Even so, you’ve never seen her like this: gaining weight (she got close to 200lbs) and wearing prosthetics, she commands the room. She even had her fat suit made to the measurements of soul singer Aretha Franklin. ‘I wanted that body,’ she says. ‘I felt very sexy with that fat suit.’
As brilliant as Davis is – she’s currently the bookies’ favourite to take home a best actress Oscar – it’s her co-star that may yet get all the attention. Ma Rainey’s features Chadwick Boseman’s last performance before he tragically died, earlier this year, aged 43, after losing his battle with colon cancer.
The Black Panther star is sensational in Ma Rainey’s as Levee, a trumpet player with big dreams. Does Davis feel his work deserves a posthumous Oscar?
‘Ah, absolutely, it merits an Oscar,’ she says. ‘But even if it doesn’t get an Oscar, it does not minimise it as being an absolutely bravura, fantastic performance. Working with him is like working with a true artist.
‘I always say that Chadwick Boseman was a character actor in a leading man’s body. He was not a person who was interested in Chadwick coming into the role. He was interested in leaving Chadwick at the door.’
Davis, who was born on her grandma’s farm in South Carolina and raised in Rhode Island, where her father worked as a horse trainer, is almost the opposite of most actors now.
She trained for nine years, including at the prestigious Julliard drama school.
‘Now it’s become a dirty word, to go to acting school, to have a craft,’ she says. ‘You have to fly by the seat of your pants, be cute and young – everything but trained. A lot of times people don’t care!’
Nevertheless, it’s served her well, right back to when she graduated and started working in theatre. ‘I’ve collected unemployment [benefit] in the past – when I’ve done my stage work,’ she grins. ‘An occupational hazard!’
Married for 18 years to actor Julius Tennon – they have one daughter, Genesis – Davis is no longer, thankfully, having to queue up at the dole office. ‘I’m really blessed in that way.’
Next year, she’ll be back as Amanda Waller in sequel The Suicide Squad and there’s an intriguing-sounding project on her books with Sandra Bullock as an ex-jail bird.
She’s also developing films through JuVee, the production company she formed with her husband. Finally, it seems, she’s getting that variety that she craves.
‘At this age – at the beautiful young age of 55 – I’m finding those roles,’ she says. ‘That’s what I want in my career.’
Viola Davis may be hugely successful but she still struggles every day, she says, for her work to be valued.
‘You know what it is in the business? It’s constant fighting, just like with Ma Rainey.
‘Every single day you’re fighting; you’re fighting for people to understand that you’re capable; that you can act; that you do have ability. You’re fighting for your worth. You’re fighting to get paid the same salary as someone who’s equal to you. You’re just always fighting for something.’
It’s why she fell for Ma Rainey, who always bravely argued her worth to the men running the music business. ‘I appreciate it because it whittled into my life. And I certainly can use a whole lot of that in 2020, just in this business alone!’
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available on Netflix from December 18.
Credit: Original article published here.