DAVID GREENE, HOST:
I'm David Greene in Culver City, Calif., not far from where I met Viola Davis the other day. The actress was working on her ABC show "How To Get Away With Murder." It was an insanely busy day of shooting, and yet she found some time to stop at her trailer to scarf down a salad and also meet with us.
VIOLA DAVIS: Hi.
GREENE: Thank you for taking the time.
Viola Davis is known for movies like "Fences" and "The Help." She's won an Oscar, an Emmy, a couple Tonys for her stage performances. But we were here to talk about a time before all of that, when she was growing up in a condemned building in Rhode Island. She remembers sleeping on the top bunk with her sister to be safe from the rats on the floor. She did have a way to transport herself away from all that.
DAVIS: Reading was the escape. Reading was an escape into an imaginary world where none of those things existed, where I could I recreate myself and I could recreate a life where I played a better role. And it's that place, in reading, it was that place that sort of saved me - going to the library every day after school when I was kindergarten, so 5 years old.
GREENE: Who would take you every day?
DAVIS: By myself. I would walk from Broad Street School to the library right after school, and I would stay there until it got dark and I would walk home. At the Adams Library. And they had a children's section downstairs, but I would stay upstairs for about five minutes because the head librarian would always save half her lunch for me. And so I would eat the hell out of it, and then I'd go downstairs to the library where they had beanie bags and beautiful carpet and the smell of the books. I just remember it like it was yesterday.
GREENE: And that early love of reading has inspired a different kind of project for Viola Davis, this time off the screen. She's written a sequel to the children's book "Corduroy." Fifty years ago, the author and illustrator Don Freeman brought us that story of a stuffed bear searching for the button that was missing from his overalls. The book had something so many children's books lacked - diversity. Corduroy's friend, Lisa, is black. Viola Davis has always loved reading "Corduroy" to her 8-year-old daughter, Genesis.
DAVIS: I don't know what part she loved the best, the button on the overalls or Lisa and their friendship. She loved that. The night watchman in the department store. It was every step of the way. She was just in it.
GREENE: So this book played a much larger role for you as a mom reading to your daughter than it did...
GREENE: ...For you as a child.
DAVIS: And I guess because with my daughter, I make up stories with her, too, at night. And soon as I start a story, I'll say, Genesis, once upon a time. She said, put me in a story, Mommy. I want to be in the story. And I think that's why "Corduroy" and writing this book has played such a large role because I want her to be included in the story. I don't want her to have an experience like mine, which was I had to escape to be feeling like I was in the story. I want her to actually feel a sense of worthiness. That's what it is a sense of worthiness that's why I love "Corduroy." The fact that Lisa's African-American and her mom, it's her way of knowing that she's a part of something.
GREENE: I want to talk a little bit about the story. It's been, like, 50 years now since "Corduroy" first searched for the missing button, and so your book is called, "Corduroy Takes A Bow." Can you just tell our listeners where we find Corduroy now?
DAVIS: Corduroy gets lost in the theater. Corduroy goes to the theater with Lisa...
GREENE: The setting that's very meaningful to your life since you've done so much acting on stage.
DAVIS: Oh, my God. It was so much fun to write this book 'cause...
GREENE: You've probably been lost in theaters before (laughter).
DAVIS: But happily lost. Theater is a magical place. And he gets lost in the theater, and he just gets fascinated by it. (Laughter). Gets fascinated by the prop table, by the actors backstage getting in makeup and by the set, and then finds himself on the stage.
GREENE: Well, it makes me want you to read a page from the book that we kind of picked out.
GREENE: It's kind of Corduroys' moment.
DAVIS: (Reading) There was a tree with a basket in its branches in the wing off to one side of the stage. I would be able to see from there, Corduroy thought. And he climbed up the tree and into the basket. Well, thought Corduroy, this is more like it. Not too high, not too low. This is just right. He settled in and watched the "Mother Goose" performance. I love the theater, said Corduroy.
GREENE: After listening to you describe what it's like being in a theater, I hear yourself in those words.
DAVIS: Yeah. That was it. That was it for me. It was fun exploring it again to remind yourself what you fell in love with.
GREENE: The final scene of the book, Lisa has built this little miniature stage for Corduroy to watch plays.
GREENE: And she's playing with a little doll who looks exactly like her. That felt really powerful somehow. But what message should we take from that?
DAVIS: Well, what the message, first of all, is Lisa has created a world that is a reflection of her. I think that's the beauty of it, too. I never knew that that was even a choice when I was growing up. I always had white dolls, you know? Which, there's nothing wrong with that. I loved my dolls. But the fact that she has a doll that is a reflection of her, I just love when the imagination becomes reality. I love the journey and the attempt to take what is burgeoning in you that gives you so much joy in creating a life, you know, even if it's in your room, that's alive. That's what it meant to me.
GREENE: And there's real power, it seems like, in - I mean, Lisa and her mom are black, but there's no reason or significance or explanation given to that.
DAVIS: I love it. I mean, often times in my life, even sometimes when I do movies or even a TV show, it's like you've got to justify my presence. I sort of have to represent a social statement or an idea in order for people to say, that's why she's in it. No one really actually thinks about just sitting with me that I'm just a person. And that's what I loved about the book even when I first read it, that Lisa is just the character in the book. She just happens to be the character.
And that's what I want my daughter to feel, too. I want her humanity to be acknowledged. I tell her that all the time, even about her feelings. If you want to cry, you cry. Mommy understands. Sometimes Mommy wants to cry. Sometimes Mommy wants a bah-bah (ph), you know? (Laughter). You know, and you should love your hair. You should love your beauty. And then sometimes you're going to have challenges in that, you know? And I think that that's what books do, also. They give you permission to sort of be.
GREENE: That was the actress Viola Davis. Her new book is "Corduroy Takes A Bow," and it's out today.
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