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August 2006
An Interview with Viola Davis

An Interview with Viola Davis

By Wilson Morales

August 18, 2006

If there was an actress who can make the most of her performance, it’s Viola Davis. From her collaboration with Steven Soderberg on four of his films (Traffic, Out of Sight, Solaris, and Syriana) to her work in “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” and “Antoine Fisher”, Davis has created a lasting impression for the characters she plays. This is no surprise to many who first saw her on stage and knew she could do justice with her role if given the opportunity, and when it was there she just ran with it and made it shine. Having worked on numerous productions of August Wilson’s play, Davis won the Tony Award for her role in Wilson’s King Hedley II. In her biggest role, in terms of screen time, Davis is playing the role of Diane Barrino, Fantasia’s mother in the Lifetime TV film, “The Fantasia Barrino Story: Life is Not a Fairy Tale”. The story follows Fantasia through her struggles with poverty, low self-esteem, and teenage pregnancy and abuse before rising to national fame as the winner of American Idol. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Davis talks about playing a real life person as well as the role she plays in the Oliver Stone film, World Trade Center, which has many people buzzing about her performance.

Can you talk about playing the role of Diane Barrino

Viola Davis: It’s a wonderful experience to be able to play a character that has a full journey and a full life and really a character that’s fully realized. I had a great time working with Fantasia, working with Debbie Allen and working in New Orleans, which was quite an experience. It was great to play someone who is a real living person too. It was a great mixture of creating a character and using my imagination and also sticking to but also sticking to facts. It’s a really a great acting job as some actors would say. Some acting jobs are just jobs and some are great gigs.

Had you talked to Diana to go over some of the scenes as it played out in real-life?

VD: No. None of us got a chance to meet the real family because we started so late in the game. Our biggest source of information was Fantasia herself and the book and she was constantly giving us advice and information and then certain creative licenses had to be taken in order to create the movie, in order to create something that was more dramatic. For instance, the scene where Diane finds out Fantasia’s pregnant, some creative license was taken in terms of that because the reactions were really devastating and those weren’t exactly the words, but basically it was was played out, but in order to make that dramatic and the defining moment of her life that catapulted her into wanting to do better and wanting to make something of herself, it had to be more dramatized on the screen. While we took some licenses, we got most of the information from Fantasia herself.

Are you a fan of her music?

VD: Absolutely. I have her CD. I saw her win “American Idol”.

So, you’re a fan of “American Idol” as well.

VD: You know what. I’m not a big fan. I don’t watch it all the time. I just watched the last episodes and when she won. I’m one of those people who just jump on the train when it’s about to come to the stop.

When you look at your career and you’re an actress and you see Fantasia is an singer/ actress, and you’re playing a woman who never got that far but her daughter did, did you and Fantasia discuss what was it like for her mother?

VD: Oh yeah, absolutely. The film was parallel of all of the women’s lives, the grandmother, her mom, and herself, and what you realized is that the function in all of it is difficult. You realize that the mom has unfulfilled dreams. She wanted to be a musician. She got pregnant early in life. Her dreams were never realized. The scenes with the grandmother and they see Fantasia making the same mistakes. I have a lot of parallels in my life in terms of the struggles I’ve had in my own life and watching Fantasia at 21 in my opinion, probably getting it more so than I did at her age. What you basically see in all of it is that you are not defined by your mistake in life. You saw what she did. She learned from the mistakes of her mom and her grandmother and she was able to pick up the pieces and actually reclaim her life.

While folks are seeing you in this TV film, you also give an incredible performance in “World Trade Center”. In most of the reviews I read, your performance, which is less than 5 minutes, is mentioned as one of the highlights of the film. While the film is based on the two individuals and the families, your character basically represents the rest of those who waited and lost others on that day. How did it feel to play that role?

VD: It was fantastic. What Oliver Stone said to me was that he wrote the role for me and I have since learned that he wrote the role based on a true character, based on a true exchange, but what so wonderful about it is that he didn’t really have to any real work, that’s how well it was written. All of the emotion and the entire journey of the character were easy to think because the writing was so fluid and so honest. At the same time, he’s an actor’s director and he takes all of the obstacles out of your way in the shooting of the movie so that you can do your best work. You’re not struggling to get to that point. For instance, you rehearse the scene for hours. How can we best play this scene? By the time the camera’s ready, you’re ready. There’s nothing in your way. Usually you never get that in acting. It really was like a dream situation; perfect director, great writing, great actors working with you, great movie. What else can you say?

One of the things that I hear about you as an actress is that you find a way to make the character you play stand out, however big or small the role is.

VD: Thank you. To me, that’s always a nice compliment, because of course, you never see them as small roles. You see them as opportunity. You see them as people who play a role in the whole picture and so you, as an actor, when you come on the screen, it’s like Uda Hagen says, “There are no small roles, just small actors” and to a certain extent, that’s true. I’m just happy that people feel that way.

You started out in theater and did a number of August Wilson’s play. With Wilson having passed away, what do make of Ruben Santiago-Hudson keeping his legacy alive by taking over the director’s chair?

VD: I think it’s fantastic. How I feel about the American theater is that there’s such a deficiency in terms of African American stories being told in the theater. August Wilson took that baton and took that awesome responsibility and there needs to be someone to pick the baton up because what’s happening is that all those stories are going to die and people will not see the necessity of it. The necessity of it is that we are part of the fabric of American culture, American history and that we do have stories, human stories that can be told. We need to influence the younger generation of people and encourage them that they can create art; that art is possible, and whatever stories that they have to tell are important and poignant as much as David Mamet stories are poignant, as much as Arthur Miller stories are poignant, or Sam Shephard. If that baton is dropped, then who’s going to pick it up? Who’s writing stories like August Wilson did? No one. I did a play in New York a year and a half ago called “Intimate Apparel” and it won a lot of awards, broke box office records in New York and here in LA. Lynn Nottage wrote the script. It was like no script I had read or experienced and when it had a chance to go to Broadway, the response was that they can not do it on Broadway because they didn’t think that a play driven by a black female could be successful on Broadway. That’s the kind of mentality that we have out there that needs to be influenced and that needs to be changed. If we don’t change it, no one else will.

At the end of the day, most producers are thinks dollars and cents and they wonder if a black actress can sell a show on Broadway?

VD: My response to that is yes you can. You have to trust people that they will spend their money on something that is good; because ultimately at the end of the day when people go to the theater, and people go to the movies, and people watch television, what they really want to see is a part of themselves; a part of their own human experiences, Black, White, whatever. If you can portray that, then you have to trust that they could have spent their money on it. People do it all the time. Producers sit at the table and say things like, “This ain’t gonna make any money, and this will make money” and how many films that they said would make money but didn’t. You just have to trust it.

When’s the next time we will see you on Broadway?

VD: I don’t know. The next time that is something fabulous.

What film are you appearing after World Trade Center?

VD: Right now I’m shooting a television show, The Traveler, so I’ll busy with that for the next five months. The show is by ABC and I’m shooting about 12 episodes in Vancouver. I play the FBI agent who is after these two men who have been wrongfully accused of a crime. I’m the only female on the show and I get to play a character that probably, for the most part, wouldn’t had to gone to black female actress in terms of playing this role. I get to run, do a con and do a little action here and there. It’s smart, well done and it feels great. I go where the wonderful work take me.

6The Fantasia Barrino Story: Life is Not a Fairy Tale airs on Lifetime TV starting on August 19th at 9pm


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