FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
An actor's actor, that's the term used to describe someone who is well respected in the acting world. It is also a good way to describe Tony Award winner Viola Davis. She is playing a key role in the new movie "Doubt," based on the play of the same name. It's a story about recriminations and allegations at an all-white Catholic school in the Bronx in the 1960s. Davis plays the mother of Donald Miller, the first black student at the school. Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius, a nun who is concerned about Donald's relationship with a parish priest.
(Soundbite from "Doubt")
Ms. VIOLA DAVIS (Actress): (As Mrs. Miller) I don't care why. My son needs some man to care about him and to see him through the way he wants to go. I thank God this educated man with some kindness in him wants to do just that.
Ms. MERYL STREEP (Actress): (As Sister Aloysius) This will not do.
Ms. DAVIS: (AS Mrs. Miller): It's just till June.
Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius): I will throw your son out of this school.
Ms. DAVIS: (As Mrs. Miller) And why would you do that if it didn't start with him?
Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius) Because I will stop this!
CHIDEYA: Viola Davis has been getting plenty of buzz for the role, and says she's was drawn to the character of a woman who is torn between imperfect options for her son.
Ms. DAVIS: The fact that it's imperfect. The fact that's she's complicated and she has duality and contradictions. Because I usually play the metaphor, and I usually play the archetype and the function to bring about some emotional change to or for the lead character. And I was attracted to the fact that this is a fully-realized human being. That's what you're trained to do in acting school, is to play a three-dimensional human being, and it was very attractive to me.
CHIDEYA: You were the one of the lynchpins of this drama centering around different levels of belief.
Ms. DAVIS: Yes.
CHIDEYA: How did you grow up in terms of looking at belief? You know, as a child, did you have a belief system that was either based on religion or your own heart, and how do you think that's evolved over time?
Ms. DAVIS: I did not grow up with any religion, because I was born in St. Matthew, South Carolina on a plantation in my grandmother's house. My grandmother delivered me, and of course they have a lot of religion there. But once we moved to Central Falls, Rhode Island, being the only black family in 1965, it was a huge Catholic community. And we were on the periphery. And we lived in abject poverty and dysfunction, which is a horrific combination. And feeling like you are the only one being black, being on the periphery, belief system becomes almost imperative. You just have a general belief in God and prayer, because there is no tangible evidence of dreams and goals. And so the only thing you have is to put your hands together and get on your knees, which we did often. And to be inspired, to rely on inspiration. People sometimes downplay the power of inspiration. I don't.
CHIDEYA: At what moment did you say, I can do this, despite the fact that, as you've already said, there is not a lot of room for black actresses to flex their wings? What made you head in this direction?
Ms. DAVIS: Well, a combination of all the things I told you, the faith, the prayer, looking for the inspirations. But also, it's the one thing that they say makes marriages work, and relationships work, is you do what you have to do to get it done. I made the commitment knowing that it always wasn't going to be a smooth ride. But I felt like my only two choices was to either make it or not. And the not wasn't an option.
CHIDEYA: Right. I'm assuming when you say doing the work, it means that you probably spent some time in theaters where there weren't always a lot of people in there, and you still had to deliver a performance anyway.
Ms. DAVIS: Well, I not only did theater where there wasn't a lot of people. I remember I did one one-woman show where there was actually one person in the audience. I have been attacked by dogs while I've been performing. I have done it all. You know what, when you fall in love with something, you understand the commitment to it. And that's a really strong word. Because with commitment comes the knowledge that it is the journey that you're in it for. And the journey isn't always going to be nice and smooth. And so I think it's the fact that I fell in love with the work that got me through, too, and not the celebrity. If I fell in love with the celebrity and the bank, I'd be pretty miserable even right about now, because I've been unemployed for quite a few months. But I wanted to master something and do it well. I thought that that would make me somebody for some reason. I felt that from a very young age.
CHIDEYA: All right. I have to ask you about the attacked-by-dogs story. What was that about, in what context and you know, what happened?
Ms. DAVIS: Well, someone had the weird idea of giving me a chance to do this one-woman show about sister Etta Jones that I toured throughout the state of Rhode Island. And I was very bad with the singing, by the way. But the acting I said, I think I can get through it if I do the acting. And one of the places I have to perform was a basketball court. And by the way, they never stopped playing basketball while I was performing. The one-hour one-woman show, in a full silk gown, by the way.
Ms. DAVIS: And so it was while I was in the middle of screeching one song that the dog kind of appeared on the basketball court and was very, very intrigued by my long blue silk dress. But I thought to myself, you know what, if I could get through this, nothing else is going to phase me, you know? I could get through anything.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: I know that you were in Providence and not New York, but it's reminding me of that song, If I can make it there I can make it anywhere. If you can make it on a basketball court with a dog trying to rip your dress off, then you can probably make it anywhere.
Ms. DAVIS: Once again, it's back to the commitment, right? You know, it's the same thing in relationships. You know you're going to have bad patches, but you're in it for the long haul. You see the full journey, so yeah. You have the dog, a very interesting moment.
CHIDEYA: Let's go back to this movie, "Doubt." You've have pivotal scene with Meryl Streep. And she does some amazing things with her face in this movie, where - this is not giving anything away - but her basic unhappiness with life and the situation she's found herself in play out over the canvas of her face. And you also brought a specific face to the scene.
(Soundbite of "Doubt")
Ms. DAVIS: (As Mrs. Miller) My boy came to your school because they were going to kill him in a 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.
CHIDEYA: How would you describe your face in that scene?
Ms. DAVIS: I think that I had the face of a mother who loved her son above all else. And I felt like I had the face of someone who was loving someone against tremendous obstacles. I would hope that that's what people see.
CHIDEYA: You've got a great buzz for this movie, and how much does it matter to you that you're getting recognition for this role?
Ms. DAVIS: It means everything and nothing. It means everything because it's like August Wilson said in one of his characters in "Seven Guitars," who was an artist, a blues musician. And he has a line that says, you know, he didn't know if he could make his music work for him. He didn't know if he could put it out there in the world and have it burst in the air and have it mean something to somebody. That's what every artist wants. I don't care what they say. The bottom line is, they want to do something that moves people, that affects them in some way, or else, what you do is kind of meaningless. So when you get all the buzz and the reaction, you know it's hitting someone.
The part that means nothing is the part that hasn't translated into anything tangible. Buzz doesn't pay the mortgage. Buzz doesn't - you know, buzz is buzz. And it's also what you don't really do the project for. I always kind of feel, you know, it's just me. It's once again, they going to find me out. They're building me up just to knock me down. You know, that 's the part that doesn't mean anything, because you what, at the end of the day, you got to keep working. I am a theater-trained actress. I am not fluke. I'm not a body, I'm not a face, I'm an actor. I want to be able to do what Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, all of them are doing. That is my dream.
CHIDEYA: Viola, it has been fabulous and inspirational to talk to you. Thank you.
Ms. DAVIS: Well, thank you, Farai.
CHIDEYA: Tony Award-winning actress Viola Davis. She plays Mrs. Miller in the new film "Doubt." The movie opens this Friday, December 12th. You can watch video of this interview at our website, nprnewsandviews.org.