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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Viola Davis, is nominated for an Oscar for her performance in "The Help." One of the actresses she's competing with is Meryl Streep, with whom she shared a scene in the 2008 film "Doubt," a scene that earned Davis her first Oscar nomination. She won a Tony for her performance in August Wilson's play "Fences."

In "The Help," which is set in the 1960s, Davis plays a maid named Aibileen who has spent her life working in white people's homes, raising her children. The woman she works for has a friend named Skeeter who wants to be a writer. Skeeter decides to tell a story that she thinks has not been told before, the story of maids in the South.

In this scene, after convincing a reluctant Aibileen to share her story, Skeeter has gone to Aibileen's home. Skeeter learns Aibileen has an idea of her own.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HELP")

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Aibileen) I thought I might write my stories down and read them to you. Ain't no different than writing down my prayers.

EMMA STONE: (As Skeeter) OK, sure.

DAVIS: (As Aibileen) I don't say my prayers out loud, but I can get my point across a lot better writing them down. I write an hour, sometimes two every night, and after my prayers last night, I got some stories down, too.

STONE: (As Skeeter) Go ahead.

DAVIS: (As Aibileen) My first white baby to ever look after was named Alton Carrington Speers. It was 1925, and I'd just turned 14. I dropped out of school to help mama with the bills. Alton's mama died of lung disease. I loved that baby, and he loved me. That's when I learned I could make children feel proud of themselves.

(As Aibileen) Alton used to always be asking me how come I was black. It just ate him up. And one time, I told him it's because I drank too much coffee.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: (As Aibileen) You should've seen his face.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's my guest Viola Davis, with Emma Stone in a scene from "The Help." Viola Davis, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your Oscar nomination.

DAVIS: Thank you very much. Happy to be here.

GROSS: So I feel like I should start on this note, you know, that "The Help" is, in its own way, a very controversial film. I'll just paraphrase Melissa Harris-Perry, who's a regular commentator on MSNBC and a professor of political science at Tulane and the author of a new book about stereotypes of black women.

She said what kills me is that in 2011, Viola Davis is reduced to playing a maid. She's a big fan of yours. And even Tate Taylor, who wrote and directed "The Help," said the role of Aibileen, your role, with the wrong actress could turn into a cliche. Did you see the role as something that you were reduced to or something that was a cliché?

DAVIS: Absolutely not, or else I wouldn't have done it. You're only reduced to a cliche if you don't humanize a character. A character can't be a stereotype based on the character's occupation. Now I have, in the past, when I was starting my career, have played some pretty one-dimensional characters on page. They have had more upstanding occupations, so there hasn't been as much controversy surrounding them, but absolutely, their humanity was not explored.

You - you know, you didn't know who they were on the page. A lot of times, they did not have a name. But for me, I did not see that with Aibileen. I saw her going on a journey. I saw her having humor and heart and intelligence. I saw her as being - as having duality. And that's what I look for above anything else, because usually, that is what's missing. It's beyond the occupation.

GROSS: So did you imagine a life for her beyond what was written?

DAVIS: Oh, absolutely, because that's my job as an artist. You know, when you go into the theater, whether it be to watch a film, whether you're watching television or whether you are watching live theater, people want to have a human event. You know, they want to see a human being on the screen or on the stage.

And so the life that I imagined for her really was rooted in her education. She has a sixth-grade education, and when she was in the sixth grade, her teacher told her she was smart. And she had to drop out of school to help her mother with the bills.

And the teacher told her: You know, you're my best student. So in order to keep your mind alive and awake, you need to write every day. And so ever since Aibileen was 12 - she's 51 when you meet her in the script - she's been writing.

So because I know what that feels like, I just imagined that she wanted to be a writer. I really do. And then her son absolutely did want to be a writer. He was writing a book about what it meant to be a black man growing up in Mississippi in 1963. So I think she felt that her writing was really potent, which is why she wrote down all of her prayers, even, that she felt like every time she wrote them down, they came true.

And as far as her love life, it's in the book. She really liked those kind of roundabout men, I think that's what they call them. She liked the renegade. She didn't like the men who you met at church who were kind of, you know, righteous and good.

Aibileen, although she enjoyed a very conservative life, had a side to her that liked to bust out and...

GROSS: Is that why you play her so held in, because there's something to hold in?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: Oh, absolutely. And if you've read the book, one thing that you noticed about Aibileen is that 98 percent of who she was took place in internal dialogue. She absolutely was not the gregarious, demonstrative person, not like Minnie, not like Skeeter, not like even Celia, not like any of the other characters. She absolutely was more repressed.

And so therefore, (technical difficulties) create a really, really rich emotional life for her, because that's where she lived.

GROSS: Now, there were women in your family who worked as maids. Who were they?

DAVIS: Yes. They were my mom. They were my grandmother - my grandmother who had 18 children, 11 survived.

GROSS: Wow.

DAVIS: My mom, they were both born in St. Matthews, South Carolina, in Singleton Plantation, which is where I was born, at my grandmother's house. She delivered me. But my grandmom, she worked as a maid for most of her life, and she worked in the tobacco and the cotton fields at the same time, anything - any work she could get.

And she would make $25 a week, and my mom would always say that she had employers who treated her very bad, just made her work from sunup to sundown, taking care of their children, as well as cleaning their homes.

GROSS: Your mother was talking about your grandmother when she was saying this?

DAVIS: Yes. She was talking about my grandmother when she was saying this, because my mom worked as a maid, but she did not have as much cruelty, she said, when she was working as a maid.

And - but one thing my mom did say was that the one highlight for my grandmother was the kids, that those kids remembered my grandmother throughout their entire lives. You know, you just do. If someone comes into your life and acts as a mother in replace for a mother who is absentee, how can you not remember them? And how could you, even as a woman, not have some kind of feelings towards children who absolutely are innocent?

That's what she said a lot, too. She said: My mom always loved the kids, Viola. Despite the cruelty of the employers, she always loved the kids.

GROSS: OK. I'm thinking your grandmother had 18 children, 11 survived, and of course, she's spending her days taking care of other people's children. Did she talk about what it was like to have so many children at home and be with somebody else's children?

DAVIS: You know what? I did not get to talk to my grandmother about that because, you know, she died 12 years ago. I talked to my mom about it. It's really hard for them to answer that question. My mom just never really answered it. And I think it's because they never quite thought about it.

GROSS: You mean it's kind of that's the way it is, that's what you do?

DAVIS: That's just the way it is, and that's just what you do. I would talk to her all the time just about her life, because one of the things I learned about women who lived in that time period is they had hard lives - all of them, hard. And I have to say that it takes years sometimes of constantly asking her the same question that I could finally get her to a place of comfort where she can even reveal a little - some secrets to me, talking about horrible abuses that she suffered, whether they were sexual, emotional or physical, horrible memories of just working on the plantation.

She recently just told me that she really never - could never really get into pork that much, and she eats everything else. So I always - I said, well, why? And she said that, you know, they used to slaughter the pigs on the farm, the plantation.

And she said one day, that she said she saw a pig, and he was - they put him in a huge pot of scalding hot oil, and the pig was still alive. And she remembers the screaming of the pig. And she started telling the story, and she couldn't finish. She said she could not get those screams out of her head.

And that is the case with many memories of women that lived in that time period, that you just sucked it in. It's part of our history as African-Americans. It's one of the reasons why I loved Aibileen because I saw all of that life in her, all those repressed memories that she couldn't verbalize or - she couldn't put into words, but they were there, you know, they just sat on her.

GROSS: I'm wondering if your mother or grandmother ever told you about physical pain, like parts of their bodies that hurt as a result of the work that they did as a maid, and if you used that in the performance in the way you carried yourself.

DAVIS: Oh absolutely, absolutely. My mom just had a hip replacement, which she probably could have had 10, 12 years ago. But she has severe sciatica, nerve damage. She has disc issues. And she says it all the time: It's due to years and years of working in the tobacco and cotton fields growing up.

And this is a woman who worked - she took care of kids since she was four or five. She was taking care of kids, all of her siblings, cousins. And she was very young, very, very young when she began to work in the tobacco and cotton fields. And I kind of have that walk that she has, too. I have a little bit of that in my body. But she's always lived with a lot of pain.

And, by the way, let me tell you something: Women, all of the women I know, the African-American women I know, born in that time period, Deep South, they never, ever, ever talk about their pain.

GROSS: Why? What would be wrong with talking about your pain?

DAVIS: I think it's an understanding that you just have to live with it. There is no alternative to life. It is a different mentality. It's not a 21st-century, so-called liberated-woman mentality. It's a mentality born out of knowing one's place, knowing what one has to do in order to get by and get over.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Viola Davis, and she's nominated for an Oscar for her performance in "The Help." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more, OK? This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Viola Davis. She's nominated for an Oscar for her role in "The Help." Now, you were nominated for an Oscar for your role in "Doubt" a few years ago. And in this movie, Meryl Streep played a very dominant and repressive nun who's the principal of a Catholic elementary school.

And you played the mother of a 12-year-old boy, a boy who the nun suspects is having a, quote, "improper relationship" with a popular priest at the school. And so she's asked you to meet with her, and you're walking along the school grounds in this scene. I'm going to play a scene. And she's expecting you to be shocked by this news she's about to give you about, you know, your son's relationship to this priest.

And she's baffled by your reaction, because you say that you think his father has beaten him because he thinks the boy is gay. And so you speak first in this clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DOUBT")

DAVIS: (As Mrs. Miller) I'm talking about the boy's nature now, not anything he's done. You can't hold a child responsible for what God gave him to be.

MERYL STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) I'm only interested in actions, Mrs. Miller.

DAVIS: (As Mrs. Miller) But them is the boy's nature.

STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius) Leave that out of it.

DAVIS: (As Mrs. Miller) Forget it, then. You go on, forcing people to say things. My boy came to your school because they were going to kill him in the public school. His father don't like him. He come to your school, kids don't like him. One man is good to him, this priest. Then does a man have his reasons? Yes, everybody does. You have your reasons. But do I ask the man why he's good to my son? No. I don't care why.

(As Mrs. Miller) My son needs some man to care about him and to see him through the way he wants to go. And thank God this educated man with some kindness in him wants to do just that.

STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius) This will not do.

DAVIS: (As Mrs. Miller) It's just until June.

STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius) I'll throw your son out of this school.

DAVIS: (As Mrs. Miller) And why would you do that if it didn't start with him?

STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius) Because I will stop this.

DAVIS: (As Mrs. Miller) You'd hurt my son to get your way?

STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius) It won't end with your son.

DAVIS: (As Mrs. Miller) Throw the priest out, then.

STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius) I am trying to do just that.

DAVIS: (As Mrs. Miller) Then what do you want from me?

GROSS: That's my guest Viola Davis, with Meryl Streep in a scene from "Doubt." When I saw you in that scene, I'd seen you in other movies, but I hadn't kind of put together who you were. When I saw you in that scene, I thought, like, whoa, who is that?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So I read that this was not the take that you wanted to use because, you know, you're kind of crying in that scene, and your nose is dripping. It's kind of dripping into your mouth.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And you saw that, and, like, you were just, like, so upset for days. But it's so effective. I mean, that's what happens when we cry. So tell me about what you - what made you uncomfortable about that.

DAVIS: You know, when you're watching yourself on screen, it's different from acting the scene. When you're watching yourself, it's about vanity. It's all about how you look, what's not looking right: the lips, the lighting, how big you look in that coat, you know, how you're holding the umbrella. It's, like, everything.

When I first saw the cut, I remember I went back to my house, and I just laid in bed for two weeks until my husband finally said: V, you've got to get up. But no, I - you know, doing that scene, it's such two people in absolute conflict that you're not so aware of what you look like until the scene is done. It's just two kind of pit bulls, you know, just in conflict with each other.

So - and also, when I cry, my nose runs. So there you go.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You can cry onscreen. I know that's one of the questions actors are so often asked, like: How do you cry? But you do it very effectively. Like, how do you do it?

DAVIS: Well, I don't think about doing it. I mean, I always get the emotional characters, I have to say. But, you know, it's just doing one's work and doing what is true to the role, you know, and with me, for "Doubt," when she begins to talk about her son and how he probably is homosexual, I - for some reason when I read the play, when I read the play, I did not get this character.

And the only thing that made sense to me is that by the time you get to that point in the dialogue with Sister Aloysius is I see that part as a confession. I didn't see that as willing information. I think that, really, she just kind of expected to walk into the scene and say can you just give my kid a break until June, and can you just overlook this incident? You're trying to see too much into the situation. And then I was going to go off to work.

I don't think that this was a part of her life that she wanted to reveal. And once I made that decision, the stakes began to get higher. Hence, the emotional life was higher, too.

GROSS: Viola Davis will be back in the second half of the show. She's nominated for an Oscar for her performance in "The Help." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Viola Davis. She's nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal as a maid in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s. She was also nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the 2008 film "Doubt."

In the two movies that you're best known for, which would be "Doubt" and "The Help," you know, you play women who - well, in "The Help" you're poor and in "Doubt" I'd say you're close to it or poor...

DAVIS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You know, and in both movies you're in powerless positions.

DAVIS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You're wearing, you know, clothes that are far from the finest.

DAVIS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You seemed very, you know, beleaguered and weighed down in both roles. So it was so nice to see you in some glamour shots.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I'm not big into glamour shots, you know, but it was just so much fun to see you be beautiful in - was it Vogue? And, you know, the cover of Entertainment...

DAVIS: Oh, LA magazine.

GROSS: LA magazine.

DAVIS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: OK. LA magazine. Yeah, on the cover of Entertainment Weekly.

DAVIS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And you're wearing these like stylish clothes and like these great hairdos and I was like oh, good. She can do that too. That's great.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: Well, you know, that's - that is another conversation in and of itself. You know, that...

GROSS: What's the conversation?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: Well, the conversation is how people see me. I can go into an audition, which I have, with my makeup on and my hair and my lashes and come out with these roles that you say I have. Which goes into the area of perception, and how people perceive black women of a certain hue, and when I say certain hue, I mean black women who are darker than a paper bag. And I'm a dark-skinned black woman who is 46 years old. And I don't know about you, but when I go to see movies, I don't see a lot of women like me in glamorous roles. Not in any mainstream movies, I don't see them. And inevitably when I say that, people always mention one person.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: They could always kind of think of one person, but usually just one. But I don't see a lot of narratives written in roles where a woman who looks like me gets to be beautiful and sexualized and, I don't know, upwardly mobile, middle-class, funny, quirky. No, it...

GROSS: Are you getting any more of that now or do you think those roles just don't exist?

DAVIS: I'm seeking them out. I'm seeking out expansive roles. Not so much glamorous roles. Because just because a role is glamorous doesn't mean it's good.

GROSS: Oh, no, no. absolutely. Yeah.

DAVIS: I know. And I know that's not what you meant. But I'm looking for more expansive storylines, that's for sure.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

DAVIS: And there may be a role or two in there that makes me look more attractive, per se, but it is up to me to seek those out myself. They are not necessarily roles that mainstream Hollywood would necessarily just finance and produce themselves. They wouldn't. You have to be the instigator. You have to be the catalyst of change. You just do.

GROSS: So I'd like to hear a little bit more about your life. Would you describe the neighborhood that you grew up in in Rhode Island?

DAVIS: My neighborhood, Central Falls, Rhode Island, a square mile city, over 18,000 people and I moved there when I was three months old. We were the only black family in Central Falls at the time. Now it's very racially diverse. So, and the income level is definitely middle-class to very poor. I had a rough childhood, I would say. Grew up in abject poverty. Grew up with parents who - my father had a fifth grade education. I really don't believe he made it past second grade, but he says fifth grade. And my mom had eighth grade education. So the combination of all those things, you don't grow up having a huge, huge - you don't have great self-esteem.

And then on top of that, to be on the periphery as being different, being the only black family, so we were teased a lot, picked on a lot. But mixed with that were a lot of great and fond memories. And only because we had big dreams, my sisters and I, and my brother, we had very, very, very big dreams and we were very ambitious. And so we made a decision very early on in life, which is a longer conversation, that we wanted to be somebody that we wanted to be bigger than our circumstances.

GROSS: So what was your first opportunity to actually act? And I don't mean in a major production. I just mean like in school or talent show or whatever.

DAVIS: I started when I was eight. We - my first opportunity really, I always say when I was eight and my sisters and I, there was a local skit contest at the local park - Jenks Park. So we decided to write a skit because we wanted to win this contest. It was a big deal in the city. We were always kind of teased and picked on, of course, so we said we're going to really create the best, best skit. So we literally - and I'm serious - I was eight, so I was the youngest at the time, and I think my sister Dianne, 11 or 12, and we literally wrote a skit. And I was the writer, producer. My sister Deloris was the director, actor. My sister Dianne, producer. Like literally, we gave each other roles. We had rehearsals. We had rewrites.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's great.

DAVIS: We even created - we even created a budget for wardrobe and costumes. And we bought our costumes at Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul. And we won the skit contest. But I just thought that it was genius the way we pulled it off, you know, the way we sat down every night for hours. And I would literally do rewrites in the closet, where the rats were, and I would say, there's rats in the closet. But my sister said, but we would need a really great last line, Viola.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: Everything in this skit is working but not the last line.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's really funny. So you're 46 now? Do I have that right?

DAVIS: I am 46 years old. Yup.

GROSS: So we are all noticing you now. I mean you won, like a few years ago, you won a Tony for "Fences," the August Wilson show.

DAVIS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You were nominated for an Oscar for "Doubt." Nominated for an Oscar now for "The Help," so I mean you're up there now. But it took you years to get to that point.

DAVIS: Yes.

GROSS: So in the years prior to getting to that point, what were some of the typical roles that you got?

DAVIS: You know, on stage they've been different than movies. You know, on stage I, you know, played Ruby McCollum in "Everybody's Ruby," first black woman to be sentenced to death for killing a white man who was a senator, a well-known senator. Did a role in Lynn Nottage play. In a lot of films I've done, really, most of the roles - three, four scenes if I'm lucky, maybe five or six. Guest star roles. I played a lot of drug addicts.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: I played a lot of drug addicts. Yeah, I've played nurses. I've played lawyers I've played everything. I've always been the character actress that you see in four scenes in a movie and maybe some guest star roles in television shows and, you know, that pretty much sums up my career.

GROSS: Now forgive me for ending on a note about clothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: OK.

GROSS: But OK. So I read that you tried to sell on eBay the gown that you wore...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...to the Oscars for "Doubt." And I thought why would you want to sell it on eBay?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: Well, hey, listen, if I were more savvy and I had other options in my mind, I would've tried to sell it elsewhere. But at the time, the only thing I knew was eBay. You know...

GROSS: But did you want to sell it?

DAVIS: Because I didn't see the need to keep it. I'm not going to wear it again. I'm not that type of woman. So I said maybe if I sell it then I could take the money and my - the city that I grew up in - Central Falls, Rhode Island - is in dire need. It recently went bankrupt. They had closed the library and community center. And my sister Deloris is a teacher in the Central Falls Junior-Senior High School system, and she has an acting program she teaches there. So I thought this is a chance to maybe raise money for programs. And I thought of it as a noble act. It's better than just keeping the dress in the closet and me never looking at it, which I wouldn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: I just wouldn't do that. So I thought, you know, let's sell it, which I didn't get a dime for any of the dresses, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So they're still in your closet?

DAVIS: I actually gave it to my sister, Deloris. I donated it to her to raise money for her Shakespeare acting class at Central Falls High School, which she's having enormous success with. So I gave it to her and she's having success with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So this is the sister that you used to write sketches with when you were a child?

DAVIS: Yeah. She's one of them.

GROSS: That's great.

DAVIS: She's one of them. Yes, she's one of them. She's the sister who is closest in age to me, so.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Very nice. All right. Well, good luck at the Oscars.

DAVIS: Thank you very much.

GROSS: And thank you so much for talking with us.

DAVIS: Thank you.

GROSS: Viola Davis is nominated for an Oscar for her performance as a maid in the film "The Help." You can watch three scenes from the film on our website freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, the story behind one of the songs nominated for an Oscar. We talk with Bret McKenzie about writing "Man or Muppet" for the movie "The Muppets." He's half of the satirical music duo Flight of the Conchords.

This is FRESH AIR.

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