(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WIDOWS")
VIOLA DAVIS: (As Veronica) My husband left me the plans for his next job. All I need is a crew to pull it off.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Here's the premise of "Widows," the action-packed heist thriller from director Steve McQueen. Masked men break into a private vault. Things go very, very wrong. Their four wives become four widows. And to save their own lives, they become professional criminals.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WIDOWS")
DAVIS: (As Veronica) We have three days to look and move like a team of men. The best thing we have going for us is being who we are.
ELIZABETH DEBICKI: (As Alice) Why?
DAVIS: (As Veronica) Because no one thinks we have the [expletive] to pull this off.
CORNISH: Viola Davis plays the lead widow Veronica.
DAVIS: She's lost her husband. She has no idea how she's going to pay her bills. She is sinking under the weight of depression. And this act of criminality - it's almost like a metaphor for her to take ownership of her life. But at the same time, it's a way to pay that rent. It's a way to survive.
CORNISH: Earlier this week, I sat down with Viola Davis in front of a live audience in New York City for a conversation that was intense at times and very frank.
CORNISH: She told me that her character had to be more than a Hollywood cliche.
DAVIS: The biggest issue I have with heist films is who would go to any act of criminality after they come from a seemingly normal life? Who just goes out and commits a crime? So I needed to answer the question why. If I approach any role like how Hollywood would want to look at it, like, OK, I know what the demographic of the audience is going to want to want.
DAVIS: They're going to want this babe next to Liam Neeson.
DAVIS: And she's got to be light and funny. I'm not the actress for that.
DAVIS: I really am not. I'm not the go-to actress for that. But Steve McQueen definitely wanted to approach it realistically. That's how I approached it. I approached her like a real woman.
CORNISH: You mentioned Steve McQueen, obviously the Oscar winner for "12 Years A Slave." And is there a way that your relationship was different than maybe you've had with other directors? I've read you say that there are times when you felt stifled or your ability to kind of have input in the creative process - that you didn't always feel that power. And was he different?
DAVIS: Yeah, he's different. He is a director that sees you. I always say that if I were not a celebrity, I would be invisible. It's a larger question about how black women are treated, how our femininity and beauty is appreciated, our mess, our complexity...
CORNISH: And whether we're allowed to reveal it.
DAVIS: Absolutely, even to ourselves. We get together. We out-strong each other, you know?
DAVIS: It's like, girl, I would never let this man beat my ass, and I would never let him do that. And it's like, listen; I know you're with a man that's, like, treating you like crap. Come on.
DAVIS: But that's because we haven't felt supported. And we have never felt adored. I felt that adoration from Steve McQueen. He saw all the things everyone else sees. I mean, I have a deep voice. I'm not a size 2. You know, people feel like I'm take-charge. That's how I come off. You know, I'm a leader, all of those things. That's what - how people see me. But then he sees my shyness. He sees the part of me that is very feminine and fragile.
CORNISH: We asked Steve McQueen about you, about your gifts as an actor and what makes you distinct. Given what you've said about how he sees you, thought you'd like to hear it.
STEVE MCQUEEN: Viola is almost like an iceberg. You know, there's a gravitas. You see something. As an audience, we look at her. We are going to identify with her because we see something in her which we see in ourselves. Now, that doesn't happen with every actor, only the greats. And often you think, actors - what's an actor? An actor, a great actor can translate humanity and show us ourselves raw, bare, naked. And that's what she does.
CORNISH: So that is his in-passing (laughter) description.
CORNISH: But I guess I want to ask about that rawness because I think in some of your best-celebrated roles, people have talked about scenes in which you are very vulnerable or you are crying or you are bringing such an intensity to the role. And you've said that each of your characters cost you.
DAVIS: Yeah, takes a chunk out of your soul. It should. I think if it's not costing you anything, you're not doing it right. My job is to create a human being. My job is as an observer and a thief. As an artist, you notice everything. You notice how people look when they're falling in love. You notice that little blink in someone's eye when they're thinking about what they're going to eat, the time their parent died. And what we do as artists is to create human beings so people can feel less alone. That's what I do. And it is the most awesome way to feel empathy for another human being, to literally sit with them and to see them.
CORNISH: Viola Davis has won a Primetime Emmy for her role in "How To Get Away With Murder," the Tony and the Oscar for her role in August Wilson's "Fences." Asked about whether a Grammy is next - and she jokes she can't sing. She now has her own production company called JuVee. So given the fact that she's essentially at the top of her game, I asked her what success means to her now.
DAVIS: You know, it's like you spend your whole life wanting to climb Mt. Everest. And then you get to the top, and then you say, and now what? Most people I know who are on the top are not as happy as you would like to believe. And it's not like they don't have fulfilling personal lives or whatever. It's just that they're disillusioned because the No. 1 thing that people feel is that you live to get to that ultimate level of success. And once you reach it, you've got the sweet elixir. You've gotten the answer, and you have it.
You crumble because you haven't thought of significance. Significance is something completely different. It's what are you going to do with your dash of time? My definition of success is legacy, is significance. And also, might I add, my authenticity is my rebellion. It's my F-you, per se. It helps when I think of it like that. I want something quite beautiful like Shirley Chisholm, you know? On her tombstone is unbought and unbossed (laughter).
CORNISH: Well, Viola Davis, thank you so much for sharing with us. This has been such an amazing conversation. I feel like I'm - we were in a revival or something. Like, I feel that...
DAVIS: Except there's no singing.
CORNISH: Yeah, I feel refreshed.
CORNISH: That's actress Viola Davis in front of a live audience in New York City. You can hear a full version of this conversation at npr.org. Her new film "Widows" opens today.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO HIGHER GROUND")
UNIDENTIFIED S INGERS: (Singing) Take me, oh, Lord, to higher ground. Help me to find some peace of mind in your love.
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