Viola Davis On 'Widows'; Race And Power in Hollywood : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders It's Tuesday: 'All Things Considered' host Audie Cornish joins Sam to share her conversation with Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis, recorded on stage at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Audie and Viola talk about her new film, 'Widows,' and the harsh reality of being a black leading woman in Hollywood.
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Viola Davis On 'Widows'; Race And Power in Hollywood

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Viola Davis On 'Widows'; Race And Power in Hollywood

Viola Davis On 'Widows'; Race And Power in Hollywood

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SAM SANDERS, HOST:

Hey y'all. Sam Sanders here, currently in downtown Culver City, about to get lunch, but a lot of times, I will bring my own lunch to NPR West in some Tupperware or something of the sort. And a thing that always pisses me off in the office is when my co-workers leave dirty dishes around and don't wash them. You've seen it. It happens in your office, too. Bob from HR never washes his mug. Listener, giving money to your local NPR station is journalism equivalent of washing your dirty dish that's in the sink. Everyone has to do their part, or otherwise, the dishes never get washed. So go to donate.npr.org/sam and wash a few dishes right now. Your donation will help support the local station of your choosing. And it will also help to keep this audio kitchen clean. Thank you - donate.npr.org/sam.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Hey y'all. From NPR, I'm Sam Sanders. IT'S BEEN A MINUTE, here with a friend of the show and friend of mine who I have not talked to in a minute.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Uh-oh.

SANDERS: Audie Cornish, how are you?

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Hey there, Sam Sanders.

SANDERS: So your job as one of the hosts of NPR's All Things Considered...

CORNISH: Yes.

SANDERS: ...Keeps you very busy. I feel like the last time you were here on this show, it was well over a year ago. How have you been? Where have you been?

CORNISH: It was. Well, it turns out, I've been busy doing a ton of really intense interviews.

SANDERS: Yes.

CORNISH: But I miss you. I hope to be on the show again soon.

SANDERS: Well, you're going to be on today in a special way. I'm bringing you on and this conversation on because I've been basically jealous of you all year in these amazing interviews you've been getting for this series of live shows that you've been doing in D.C. and in New York. And you have this one that came out - what? - like two or three weeks ago where you talked with - on stage in front of a live audience for like an hour - the Viola Davis.

CORNISH: Yes, she is incredible. She has the Triple Crown of Acting, I think - like an Emmy and an Oscar. She has a Tony. I think she has two Tonys. And we were at the 92nd Street Y. And she was in the middle of promoting "Widows," her big film with Steve McQueen who had directed "12 Years A Slave." And we really thought we were going to have kind of like a fun Viola Davis, you know...

SANDERS: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...Like in her "Heist" film kind of interview. And it turned into something else - something much richer, something that felt real...

SANDERS: Very real.

CORNISH: ...And something that gave me more than a keyhole view into how Hollywood works.

SANDERS: Totally, and, like, she spilt the tea on her problems with the plotline of "The Help." She talked about how she wasn't even the first pick for "How To Get Away With Murder" - I mean, this iconic show from Shondaland...

CORNISH: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...In which she plays the lawyer and killer Annalise Keating. She talked about what really goes into making a blockbuster happen with a black woman at the lead. Like, she really spilled the tea.

CORNISH: She did. And I think one thing that was different in how I approached the interview is that so many people have talked to her in terms of saying, Viola Davis, where did you come from? - you know, like a comet, you know? Or Viola Davis, tell us about your dark backstory. You know, she's a very - she grew up poor and talks about how poverty affected her life. I approached this as, you are A-list, baby. And what's it like at the top? Because I know the air gets thin.

SANDERS: Yes - exactly.

CORNISH: And let's talk about what that's like for you and how you move through that world...

SANDERS: Exactly.

CORNISH: ...Because if you have been a person of color where you are the only one or one of a few, it is - it's complex.

SANDERS: Yeah.

CORNISH: And she, I think, really engaged on some of those ideas and even took it to places I didn't expect.

SANDERS: I totally enjoyed it. I'm so glad to give it to our listeners. We're going to toss to it now. You can do the honors. Make the official toss to your interview with Viola.

CORNISH: OK, everyone, please enjoy our conversation with the actress Viola Davis.

SANDERS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

CORNISH: Thank you for agreeing to sit down with us...

VIOLA DAVIS: Absolutely - my pleasure.

CORNISH: ...And to talk about the film. It's really - it packs a lot of ideas into a fun package. What it is not is a kind of heist film where there's a hacker and a safecracker and a sassy person who makes wisecracks at the - it's like, what would happen if one of us actually thought we could pull off a heist...

DAVIS: Yes.

CORNISH: ...And we had never done it before.

DAVIS: Yeah, absolutely.

CORNISH: How did you think about this role? She's the leader of this little pack.

DAVIS: Well, I thought about the role in terms of 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? And so how I had to approach it is the character, when you meet her, has suffered a tremendous loss - tremendous - where she is now - she now has nothing. Economically, she has nothing. Emotionally, she has nothing.

CORNISH: And it was, in some ways, kept in the dark about...

DAVIS: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...Her life - right?

DAVIS: Exactly, exactly.

CORNISH: Like, she doesn't even know she doesn't own her apartment. I mean, that's not unusual, I think, for some women.

DAVIS: Exactly, which I believe that that's what sort of catapults us into criminality a lot of times. I mean, yeah, I know that some people probably really like it. You know, it gives them some thrills. But I feel that as Michelle Rodriguez says so beautifully, economic subterfuge - you know, feeling like you have no choice, feeling desperate, having to put food on the table, having to pay your rent - it's a "Sophie's Choice." So that's how I approached it. If I approached it - 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. They're going to want this babe next to Liam Neeson.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: And she's got to be light and funny. I'm not the actress for that.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

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 mention Steve McQueen - obviously, Oscar winner for "12 Years A Slave." And is there a way that he - 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. Was he different?

DAVIS: Yeah, he's different. I mean, a lot of time - I mean, to digress a little bit - most of the time, you don't have a choice. You just don't.

CORNISH: Right.

DAVIS: I mean, most people don't understand what it is that we do. They just don't. You know, a lot of people who want to be actors say, OK, I'm not going to be typecast. I'm not going to let Hollywood put me in a box. It's like, OK, you have to get a job first.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: And getting that job is the equivalent of winning the Powerball.

CORNISH: Right. And directors have so much power. I mean, we learned that talking about Time's Up and the #MeToo movement.

DAVIS: Directors have power.

CORNISH: Yeah, it's their medium.

DAVIS: Hollywood has power. People who have the greenlight vote have power. It's - I mean, not to...

CORNISH: No, no.

DAVIS: I'll get back to your question, but it is a business that until you're on my level and even at my level, your power and your choices are limited. That's just the truth. If anyone says anything else, they're lying to you. It's, like, we tell people bull [expletive] because we want to build ourselves up.

CORNISH: Yeah.

DAVIS: And we get off on you kind of standing up when I come to the stage. So...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: ...I'll say what you want to hear so you can keep adoring me. But, really, as much as I appreciate the adoration, I'm not going to sell you a bill of goods. It is a business about money. It's like Denzel says, it should be called business show. But - and that leads me to Steve McQueen because he is a director that sees you. And most people - 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.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: You know, it's like, girl, I would never let this man beat my aaa (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: And I would never let him do that. And it's like, listen; I know you with a man that's, like, treating you like crap.

CORNISH: Yeah.

DAVIS: Come on.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: But that's because we haven't felt supported. And we have never felt adored. I felt that adoration from Steve McQueen. I felt that he saw all the things everyone else sees. I mean, I have a deep voice. I'm not a size two. 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 how people see me. But then he sees my shyness. He sees the part of me that is very feminine and fragile. And he's one of those people where the feminine, the masculine sort of - it exists in him in such a beautiful way because he wants you to bring it all into the character. And he celebrates it. I mean, the prime example is that our first conversation is - once again, it's the main conversation. When you're a sister and you get a role, what are you going to do with your hair?

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

DAVIS: What are you going to do with your hair? And what are you going to - now, if you were to ask me what should I do with my hair, I could probably answer that. But then, what comes in is, what do people want to see? What are they going to accept? Are they going to feel that I'm pretty? Bah, bah, bah, bah - and then it confuses me.

CORNISH: So this is all even going in your own head. You're not saying this is like...

DAVIS: Absolutely.

CORNISH: ...A costume designer sitting down with you and being like, we're not going to go ethnic here. Like this is...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Which is how I picture it happening anyway (laughter).

DAVIS: Yeah, really. That's it, you know.

CORNISH: Yeah, so you're doing this all to yourself.

DAVIS: All to myself.

CORNISH: Which I think we all do, right? I mean, I know...

DAVIS: We do it to ourselves, but...

CORNISH: ...Like, I'm in radio and I still do it.

DAVIS: Yeah.

CORNISH: You know, as soon as I appear in public, I'm like, should I have straight hair? Is that betraying our people?

DAVIS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: What does that mean?

DAVIS: But then, you know, in our defense, I understand it.

CORNISH: Yeah.

DAVIS: You know what comes at us. And so, (laughter) I had, like, a 20-minute monologue to Steve McQueen about my five or six wig changes in "Widows." And he listened really nicely to me and hung up. He has a tendency to hang up, by the way - abruptly, but not because of rudeness. I think sometimes maybe the phone slips out of his hand.

CORNISH: Yeah, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: But - so hangs up - two minutes later, he calls me back. And he's like why can't you wear your hair, you know? And I said, well, Steve, that's a larger question. You - this is American cinema.

CORNISH: Yeah. Let's get into it.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: And you're talking about me being in bed with Liam Neeson, you know, who's supposed to be my husband. He's not my pimp. And...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: He said, but your hair is beautiful, Viola. And I said, I appreciate that. I really do. And then he said, you know, and you and Lupita, you've changed your game. I said, now, Steve...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Look. There - no, no.

DAVIS: I'm 53.

CORNISH: But there are not that many black directors...

DAVIS: I know.

CORNISH: ...Who are Oscar winners. And I love that you're arguing with him. Like...

DAVIS: I know.

CORNISH: He's trying to change the game. Let him.

DAVIS: He is, I know. But at the same time, the complexity of that is my fear...

CORNISH: Right.

DAVIS: ...Of wearing my hair is me not sort of accepting the beauty in myself, you know? And I hated the fact that now, like you said, I'm having this conversation with him instead of just accepting it, you know? But, you know, once again, it's the dragons that you have to slay within yourself. And I had to say, well, you know, it's different when you're an American negro as opposed to an international negro. They see you differently. Now all of a sudden, we're having these complicated...

CORNISH: Yeah, transatlantic.

DAVIS: And he's like, I don't want to hear it, Viola, he screamed. He said, this woman exists. I see her all the time in airports. She's walking with her handsome, Irish husband who just loves her. And she just hasn't been in the American cinema. And it's about time we introduced her. And he tripped over the phone again, and he hung up.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: So - but to answer your question - that was a long answer. I'm so sorry about that.

CORNISH: No, no. This is great.

DAVIS: I love the fact that he wanted to start with my palate and that he offered me a lead role that really was written for a Caucasian woman. So that was everything for me. He is truly a director, a teacher and, really, a muse.

CORNISH: I will say it certainly doesn't feel like that. I have heard you talk about the idea that, you know, would it be a white actress if it wasn't you? But then after seeing the movie, I just could not picture who that would be, frankly, which, obviously, is a testament to your skill. And at the heart of this story is a love story as well.

DAVIS: Yeah.

CORNISH: And he really - as we have the bedroom scene here - you know, in the first 30 seconds of the film, you are in the center of that marriage in bed. Now, I watch you on "How To Get Away With Murder." So - and I know some of y'all probably have as well.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: So to me, I have seen you, like, in a love scene, so to speak. This still felt striking.

SANDERS: With men and women, right?

CORNISH: Yeah, with men and women. So to me, I didn't feel like it was such a surprise. Why do you feel like it was a significant moment?

DAVIS: It is a lot being in Hollywood. In my life, it is not a lot.

CORNISH: Yeah.

DAVIS: It's almost like it's you and your life and then your - it's - you compartmentalize who you are. So it's who you are in Hollywood and images that - and then it's you at home. And I remember a manager saying it to me years ago. I said, I don't have any problems with, you know - I know who I am. No one could tell me that I'm not cute or dadadadada (ph). And she said, yeah, Viola. But it's a matter of keeping that up. It's a matter of the world not sort of beating you down. And, you know, being in Hollywood and being in that business, a lot of times, what happens is you really have to fight against a 50-foot tidal wave of perceptions to keep a sense of self. You just do. It's difficult being your authentic self.

And so - yeah. And I haven't been offered roles like this. Listen. Annalise Keating was not written for a black woman. They wanted me to read for that role. And they were going to offer it to two other white women - just offer it to them. So if I didn't take it, it would have gone to a white woman.

CORNISH: And you had to read for it.

DAVIS: I did not read for it. I refused to read for it. I did - I said, you have to offer me that role. But...

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

DAVIS: But you get into - when you look at roles on the page, you can already guess who's going to be cast, how it's going to be seen. You can already guess that. It gets in your head. And so when I saw this role - yeah, absolutely. No, I didn't - it's not like I didn't see myself. I don't have that imagination. I didn't think that anyone else could see me that way. And let's be honest. We don't have a lot of images like that. So why would I believe it, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: All right, time for a quick break. When we come back, more of Audie Cornish talking to the legendary Viola Davis all about the challenges of being a leading black woman in Hollywood that we don't see. All right, BRB.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

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: She just makes the ordinary extraordinary. So once, as an audience, we look at her, we can 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? 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 description.

(APPLAUSE)

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, that I look at life every day. People may be walking by every - by someone every day on the train, on the street, and not notice little details. That's what you're supposed to do. The audience is a part of the collaboration process. I can't be an actor in my room, I can't. I need the director. I need the script, all of those artists working to create the whole. But the other part that I need is the audience to come locked and loaded with all their thoughts, with all their memories and to be able to look at the person that I'm creating on the stage and see themselves, not a fantasy of themselves, not an extension, but themselves. So that's what I do. The other is more difficult, to just create images, which - that's a hard one. That's a whole other conversation.

CORNISH: What do you mean create images?

DAVIS: Because sometimes - and I have to say especially with us as African-Americans because we so rarely see positive images of ourselves. I mean, let's face it. We - I played drug-addicted moms a lot. I play drug-addicted moms so much that if someone called me tomorrow and said, Viola, I got a lead role for you to play a crackhead in a movie. And it's the lead. You have about 50 scenes, so get ready. We have no prep time. I would say, you know what? I got it. I got it. I can do it.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: But I played, you know, so many maids, so many best friends. And I played doctors and lawyers. It's very interesting. If I play a doctor and a lawyer or a scientist, nope. That is not explored at all on screen. People don't have problems with that because I'm a doctor or a lawyer, because image and message, especially in my community, our community, is more important sometimes than truth.

CORNISH: Although, it occurs to me as you describe these roles and thinking back to the past that in a way, when they're supporting roles, they're all variants of, quote-unquote, "the help," right?

DAVIS: Yeah.

CORNISH: You're always a supporting - even if you're...

DAVIS: Absolutely.

CORNISH: ...A doctor or a lawyer, you're there to help along the protagonist.

DAVIS: And - absolutely. And that's a larger question. That's a business decision because a lot of the international, domestic box office - because once again, that's the one color Hollywood loves is green. They love the green. So a lot of those actors who are spearheading those movies that make money are white. For instance - and I don't want to lose track of me not answering your question. But for instance, if I gain any semblance of power, which I have. I have my own production company, which is, by the way, fricking (ph) awesome.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: It's JuVee Productions, yeah.

DAVIS: I mean, in every way, but - so I'll just invent something. So I see a great role. I say, I want to play - I don't know - just a fantastic role. And I read a book. Maybe it's in a book. And I say, I'm going to get the rights to the book. So I get the rights to the book. First of all, getting rights to the book is not so easy because it may be me, Gabrielle Union, Octavia Spencer, Taraji. We're all vying, maybe, for rights. So then, you know, you haggle it out. Say I win the rights to the book. Then I got to write it. Who's going to write it? OK. Shaniqua Watkins (ph) may be awesome - just out of Yale University, just out of SUNY Purchase, who's the most fabulous writer out there. But guess what? Tony Kushner is on top of the game. It's going to be Tony. And I'm just making something up, OK? Tony Kushner is going to get the job. OK, so that's the second hurdle.

So now I have the lead role in a movie where most of the secondary characters are Caucasian. So who's going to do it? What Caucasian man is going to play secondary to me? Who's it going to be when that budget of that movie - if I've never spearheaded a movie, so that means it's not going to be a budget of $70 million, $80 million because I've never made that kind of international box office. So say it's a $5 million budget movie, which is a lead white actor's per diem, he's used to being on top. So then I've got to get him in order to get more money.

So then you look at the Caucasian women. So who's going to play opposite of me? Who can bring in more than the $5 million when that Caucasian woman is fighting for a lead role in her own movie? So she's going to play secondary to me in two scenes in a movie that I'm lead in - I'm not saying that it's not possible. I'm just telling you those are the hurdles that you don't see.

CORNISH: Right.

DAVIS: That's how we're working behind the scenes.

CORNISH: And it's...

DAVIS: It's all of...

CORNISH: ...Interesting to hear that breakdown because I have been hearing, you know, Michael B. Jordan, or you mentioned Lupita - people are being more aggressive about starting production companies, about trying to find opportunities for themselves.

DAVIS: Yes.

CORNISH: But frankly, we don't know just how many obstacles there are...

DAVIS: You...

CORNISH: ...Between you creating that company and getting something on screen.

DAVIS: And I'll tell you, the biggest obstacle is getting to the Lupita-Viola-Taraji-Octavia level to be able to make those choices. And then you get to that point, and that's the fight. And then, what are those movies going to be? OK, Hollywood - somebody still has got to finance it. So say you want to be - you want to do "Silence" like Martin Scorsese did, which is - what? - about a Catholic priest. So you want to do a movie like that. So you're not in the hood. It's not a comedy, whether it's romantic or not. It's not a thriller. I'm just naming all the genres...

CORNISH: Right.

DAVIS: ...That we are an acceptable presence in. OK. Say it's - you want to do something totally different. OK. So who is going to take a chance? It's not a business about imagination and chances. I'm not saying those people aren't out there, but finding them is a fight. It is. So then that's another hurdle. And I just want to impress that upon people so that when you are critical of the movies that really extraordinary artists - really, the Lupitas, the Tarajis, Octavia, Gabrielle, Kerry Washington, Halle Berry - that that's our fight, you know? And when the critiques come, even within our community, and people are not plopping down money to see these movies, you have to understand what you're not supporting. I mean, we're on the front lines here. I mean...

CORNISH: Do you feel that sometimes? I mean, I think we're also used to a culture of critique, especially with pop art and movies and things like that. And I think the voices of people of color and women of color are much stronger in that respect. But has the flip side been a kind of scrutiny that you have found frustrating at times?

DAVIS: Yes. Absolutely. I mean, listen; I say that, and - listen; I've gotten scrutiny from - I'm not being hard on my people because that's why I created my production company. But what I'm saying is that if I were Caucasian - just if - and I don't mean to place race in it, but I pray that you know and understand what I'm talking about - that all I would have to worry about is finding great material. That would be the only obstacle. And maybe it would be about - I don't know, finding the money. But I'm saying that, as a black woman, now I have to worry about, will they accept me in the role? Are black people not going to like it? Are they going to just come up against me? What is it going to mean for black women? Oh, man, I'm going to have to talk to the African-American journalists and just da-da-da-da-da-da-da (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: And...

CORNISH: I'm fine with that. Yeah.

DAVIS: ...Bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah. And you have to think about all these hurdles...

CORNISH: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...That you...

CORNISH: But that goes back to Baldwin, right - this idea of - as an artist, representing yourself versus your - that burden. I mean, a whole bunch of artists fled to Paris for that reason.

DAVIS: Absolutely.

CORNISH: So it's not - I guess it's not completely a surprise to hear that someone is still feeling that today even at your level.

DAVIS: I am not a fan of the comment that you have to be twice as good. I hate that comment. As a matter of fact, I will never use that for my daughter. I think it's hard enough just to be me. I've got to be twice as good as me. Are you kidding me?

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Yeah (laughter).

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: I mean, that would be really good (laughter) so...

DAVIS: I mean - and, listen; I can't work any harder than I'm...

CORNISH: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...Working now. I literally can't put anything else on my plate except for the three pieces of bread that I ate before I got here.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: But I really can't. I can only - what I can handle is being my authentic self. And, by God, that should be enough. I'm also not a fan of didactic. I don't always feel like all of our movies have to have a message. If it has a message, that's beautiful. I'm not denying that. August Wilson has a message, but it's not at the expense of our humanity. You know, it's, like...

CORNISH: Yes - being a character and not being...

DAVIS: I'll give you an example.

CORNISH: ...A teachable moment, basically (laughter).

DAVIS: Well, a perfect example is when a friend of mine read "The Help" - read the book "The Help." And I remember - she's African-American - she put it down, and she was, like, Viola, oh. I was, like, what? And she said, well, it was the whole - when Skeeter goes into the the maids' homes, and she offers them $38 in exchange for telling their story, and she's going to their homes at night. And these women are living in abject poverty. I mean, in the book, Aibileen doesn't even have food. She's basically eating canned goods that her friend gives her who's next door. And so - but in the book, Skeeter is offering all these maids money in exchange for their stories which could kill them if they tell these stories. And none of them take the money.

And my friend threw the book down. And she was, like, Viola, they would take the money. But the reason why they didn't take the money and the reason, in my honest opinion, with great respect to the writer, Kathryn Stockett, is because it was a romanticized view of black women. It's a romanticized view of our - I mean, it was so moddered (ph). And all the black women who raised these white children are so good that I would risk my life even - I don't need any money. I don't care if I'm starving. I'll just tell my story.

CORNISH: Because you asked nicely.

DAVIS: Yeah.

CORNISH: Yeah.

DAVIS: And that's bull [expletive].

CORNISH: Yeah.

(APPLAUSE)

DAVIS: They would take the money. But I'm using that as an example that when you make specific choices like that in narratives, then what you're exchanging for a fabulous message is your humanity.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: One more break here. When we come back, what playing powerful women has taught Viola Davis about being a powerful woman herself. Also, how she runs her production company, JuVee. BRB.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

CORNISH: I think this is a good moment to talk about how expressive you are, obviously...

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: ...In real life. And also, because you are a little bit of an Internet meme, and at times...

DAVIS: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...When I want to express displeasure or joy - there's a great one of you, like, toasting. But my favorite is the one in which you search unimpressed. This one is from...

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: Unimpressed is, like...

DAVIS: With that bad wig (laughter). That wig was so jacked up that season.

CORNISH: Oh.

DAVIS: Oh, man.

CORNISH: I use this one about once a week...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...In a meeting. I just send this to someone else across the room - like, did you see...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: That's all you need to know about this moment. Have you ever used a GIF of yourself? I feel like...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: No.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: It's interesting - if you think about, like, the language of the Internet, and if you think about the actor and their body and physicality as an instrument, you've given us a lot of language, you know (laughter)?

DAVIS: Well, yeah. OK. You're welcome.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: A lot of it comes from "How To Get Away With Murder" - a lot of these. And your character, Annalise Keating, is this very fierce and flawed attorney. And she has a very grand sense of self. She also has a very keen way of handling bullies. Here's a sample.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER")

TIMOTHY HUTTON: (As Emmett Crawford) Yeah, so I got off my plane from London to a message from an old Hotchkiss classmate, whose wife works for the governor.

DAVIS: (As Annalise Keating) I had no clue why she wanted to see me until I got there.

HUTTON: (As Emmett Crawford) So you turned her down. What is this about? Do you want more money? Do you enjoy humiliating me?

DAVIS: (As Annalise Keating) Lower your voice.

HUTTON: (As Emmett Crawford) No. You signed a contract, and I will sue your ass if you leave.

DAVIS: (As Annalise Keating) And I'll sue you back for verbal abuse in the workplace. And it looks like I have a few witnesses here, too. You think the board wants to hear that you've committed more misconduct?

HUTTON: (As Emmett Crawford) This is the same governor I've been protecting you from since we hired you.

DAVIS: (As Annalise Keating) I took this job for the sole purpose to reform the dumpster fire that is our public defense system. And, yes, maybe you've put your ass on the line for me. But I am no man's savior. I've worked too long and too hard to get an ounce of power in this world. And you're as sure as hell not going to decide what's right for me. I'll let you know when I've made my decision.

CORNISH: Get out of here, dude...

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: ...Out of the office. I feel like there are so many ideas kind of smuggled into this drama. And I picked that clip because it felt like a good example of something I see routinely on the show, which is, like, a very big idea about women in power just kind of placed...

DAVIS: Yes.

CORNISH: ...You know, in a scene. And what has this character - or "Widows" - what have these roles kind of taught you about power and how to wield it?

DAVIS: It's taught me several things because, you know, I'm one of those people that doesn't always feel powerful. And...

CORNISH: And most of us don't have the quips at the ready the way that (laughter)...

DAVIS: Yeah, I don't.

CORNISH: ...You know, you do on TV. Yeah.

DAVIS: I never have the comeback. I usually just use an expletive. But...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: But what I've learned about power is that courage is fear said with prayers, it really is. It just - it's not the absence of fear. That's what it's taught me with even Annalise. That's why in private, she is so vulnerable. You always take you with you. I do, anyway. It's - I don't know how to not take my memories as Viola growing up in Central Falls and poor. I don't know how to leave that little girl behind when I go to, you know, set every day. I don't know how to do that. And so I just have to know that the fear is always going to be there - the fear and the vulnerability and the feeling that, am I right? But the importance of listening to that inner voice, that inner voice - everyone always says, yeah, but I don't know what I want. I don't know what I want. Yeah, you do.

CORNISH: You're just afraid to say it.

DAVIS: You're afraid to say it. You're afraid to listen to it or whatever. But I always know that in the listening to it, it's always going to pay a price. But I got to keep doing it. And every time I do it, I'll feel better and better. And Annalise is a perfect example of that. I mean, she just - when she is in the courtroom, when she is fighting the bullies, she's there. And then sometimes, she's not. She's not there with her husband. She's not there with her girlfriend. She certainly, you know, fell apart after the baby. She's an alcoholic. And I feel that those two things always mutually coexist in any person's life. But it doesn't mean that you can't step into your power.

CORNISH: We have a question from the audience. And this one is from Ronald. And he asks, through your life - adversities, setbacks and kind of industry challenges - what kept you pressing forward?

DAVIS: People say that - ask me that all the time.

CORNISH: Oh, really?

DAVIS: Yeah. And I realize that that's a hard question. I don't know why.

CORNISH: Well, let me ask it another way then.

DAVIS: No, you don't have to ask another way...

CORNISH: (Laughter).

DAVIS: ...Because it's always going to be hard, even in another way. But...

CORNISH: Well, no, no. I am curious about - can you describe or remember a moment when you thought, I'm not going to do this anymore? Like, I can't keep pushing this.

DAVIS: Now.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: No. But yeah, seriously, now - but no. I fell in love with acting just like I've fallen in love with my husband. And then I got married. And I took that covenant that I made with marriage seriously because I understood commitment, which I always say with marriage, it's when - I said your marriage always starts when you look over at your partner and you want to kill them. And you're looking at them going, oh, my God. I want to kill you. And this was a mistake, in, like, one moment. And the next moment, you're like, OK. But I'm going to stick it out anyway. And that's when your marriage starts. And it's the same thing with acting. It's like that moment that you get a bad review and the moment that you even fail, like, you get, like, a lot of crappy work - at Juilliard, I did so much crappy work.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: You know? But the feeling that I was still - I still wanted to do it. That commitment to the process, to wanting to be better and everything that I learned with each role, that's what keeps me in it. The commitment, the love - it's a huge part of who I am. It's not everything - my husband, my daughter, my God. But acting is a huge part of who I am. It's sort of saved my life. And I always was successful at it, even when I was working at the Guthrie Theater. People always say, yeah. People do theater for the love of it. I did it for the money, even...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: I mean, that $650 a week, which was equity minimum back in the day, was good money...

CORNISH: Yeah. That's a lot of money.

DAVIS: ...For a 28-year-old. And when you worked for 10 weeks, you qualified for unemployment. You got your health insurance. I was an actor. I was doing it. But I have to be honest. With the celebritydom (ph), sometimes, you're like, oh, my God. That's when you want to jump ship. It really is. It's a lot because then you're not - it's doing what you do, and then there's all the other stuff. There's the interviews. There's the makeup. There's, you know, the working out and the weight. There's...

CORNISH: Yeah, it's everything but the acting.

DAVIS: And then after a while, you do that - the celebritydom more than your acting. And then you begin to think that's what you do. I literally had someone come to my house, who - and I told - and I was telling this person. I said, oh, my God. The paparazzi caught me at Target. I was with my daughter. And I - let me tell you something. When I go out, I wrap my head with my rag. I put my clothes on. I'm just me.

CORNISH: How else do you dress for Tarjay (ph)?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: Well, yeah. That's it.

CORNISH: Wrap it. Run it.

DAVIS: Well, once again...

CORNISH: (Laughter).

DAVIS: But, girl, in Los Angeles, people - you can't do that.

CORNISH: Right, right.

DAVIS: Me and Genesis, we love going to Target. And when I say love, I mean, it's like going to the playground.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

DAVIS: She's jumping. She's with her puff puffs. I mean, we just - and in the picture, that's what it looks like. We're having the best time. And I remember this person at my house, she was like, I want to see that picture. I was like, oh, it's jacked up.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

DAVIS: And so I showed her the picture. And she was like, oh, my God. So what did you learn from this?

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Cautionary tale.

DAVIS: Yeah.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

DAVIS: I said, I don't know, that I maybe should have worn my rag instead of the hat. But that's what it becomes. And then you begin to feed that monster. And that monster doesn't give you anything back. That monster - all it gives are the Internet trolls, are the people and, you know, TMZ following you at the...

CORNISH: Right.

DAVIS: You know, that's what it gives you. And it's the exhaustion of feeding that, the hours that it takes, the time that it takes away from your creativity and your love of creating. That's when you feel like, oh.

CORNISH: Yeah.

DAVIS: But it's interesting is when you reach that point, that's when people are like, oh, no, girl. Yeah. You can't give up that. Then you got the golden goose. When, in fact - when I was doing theater is when I probably felt way more passion - a lot more passion.

CORNISH: I want to get to one last image. And this is of you accepting your award for the Emmy...

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: ...In 2015.

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: So Emmy, Tonys, Oscar...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Triple Crown.

DAVIS: (Laughter).

CORNISH: OK. Now, please tell me you can sing so we can just wrap this EGOT sitch (ph) up.

DAVIS: Well, I want to - you know what? I really would love to make you happy tonight.

CORNISH: Audiobook.

DAVIS: Audiobook.

CORNISH: Let's do it (laughter).

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: But now that you have reached this point - and I know - I'm not saying this is an end destination in any way. Like, what is your definition of success? - especially after hearing you talk about, you know, what it means to be a modern celebrity - right? - that there's a beast that needs to be fed.

DAVIS: Yeah.

CORNISH: How do you think of success now?

DAVIS: Oh, I'll tell you how I think of it. You know, it's like you spend your whole life wanting to climb Mount 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 number one 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 haven't. You crumble because you haven't thought of significance. Significance is something completely different. It's what you're going to do with your dash of time that you have on the Earth because we all have an expiration date - not to be glim (ph), but it's true.

That - what are you going to do with your dash of time? You know, you are only dead when the last person who has a memory of you dies. And that's why I created JuVee. I did. I created it because that's what I wanted to leave, even for my daughter. You know, I don't want her to feel like just because black people are 20 percent of the population that they only deserve 20 piece of the pie. Like, you should be happy with your 20 percent (laughter). I want her to feel like she can have it all. My definition of success is legacy. If I can go to my grave feeling like - you know, it's like Lorraine Toussaint said. She said the reason why she adopted her child is because she didn't want series regular to be on her tombstone.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: And yeah. I want something quite beautiful, like Shirley Chisholm, you know? On her tombstone is unbought and unbossed (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Thanks again to Audie Cornish, friend of the show and friend of mine, also host of NPR's All Things Considered. She brought us that chat that she had with Viola Davis. Her film "Widows" is out now. Fun fact - me and Aunt Betty saw it Thanksgiving night once the kitchen was cleaned. It's a v good movie. Betty liked it, too. All right. Thanks to the team at All Things Considered, who originally produced that conversation and helped to share it with you.

Listeners, we are back in your feeds on Friday with our usual wrap on the news and culture of the week. Do not forget; between now and then, share with me the best thing that happened to you all week. Send me a voice memo, an audio file of some sort to samsanders@npr.org - samsanders@npr.org. Also, send whatever you want - pictures of your dogs. We got some photos of '64 Impalas last week. That was real nice. Keep it coming. OK. Until Friday, thank you, Viola Davis, for being Viola Davis. And thank you for listening. Talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

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