Photography by Danielle Levitt
Styling by Elizabeth Stewart
“Nice for What,” says Viola Davis with a barely audible rumble when photographer Danielle Levitt asks her what music she wants. Levitt’s assistant fumbles with the phone linked by Bluetooth to a speaker. The song comes on, and Davis claps and throws her elbows back.
Davis’s élan fills the room with a vibration, like it’s been shot with adrenaline. When the photos appear on the screen to which Levitt’s camera is linked, they crackle with life, as if that adrenaline has coursed out through Davis’s body, into her eyes and into the air around her.
They say that actors can turn something on, like a switch on an empathic conduit, that allows them to change personalities, energies, or entire worlds with just a twitch. That thing that Davis can turn on when she’s in front of a camera has obviously been activated now. Her barely audible rumble transforms into laughter that fills the room. And then, when the shoot is over, Davis is calm again, quiet, and she shakes the photo crew’s hands.
When Davis is on screen, her empathic conduit moments can be heavy and full of emotion. A hasty Google search turns up pages on pages of articles that have described Viola Davis as strong, or commanding, or intense. Here at the photo shoot, she is smiling and easy, but anyone that’s seen her act knows that her generous smile can be put away, more often than not replaced by that smoldering, penetrating power on which so many writers have opined.
She can wholly suck a scene in her direction, staring down and then cutting off a ranting Denzel Washington in Fences (2016) with a tear-filled outburst of her own—an Oscar-winning reprisal of her role in August Wilson’s play, which had earned her a Tony Award. Or she can cut cocky students down to size with a slicing retort as the law professor Annalise Keating, for which she’s won an Emmy, in the beloved TV show How to Get Away with Murder, now in its fifth season. Or she can slow burn through a somber, devastating story of a slain son in The Help (2011), which earned her another Academy Award nomination.
Now, she’s getting even more Oscar buzz for her part in Steve McQueen’s Widows as Veronica, the wife of slain criminal Harry (Liam Neeson), who bands together with the wives of three of Neeson’s dead associates to finish off their late husbands’ heist.
I catch up with Davis on Halloween a few days after the photo shoot on a phone call as she’s simultaneously getting her daughter into a unicorn costume and promoting the high-paced film.
“I mean, there's a heist in it, and I think that's the way it's being promoted,” she says. “But once you get in it, you see that Steve McQueen makes huge amounts of statements about race and class and politics. So, you're gonna see it as not just an action movie.”
But, she tells me, the filming process wasn’t devoid of sequences that were a bit more taxing than that of her usual dramatic fare.
“I mean, listen, I have to run in it,” she says with a laugh. “I had to run up a lot of stairs, and I had to do a lot of running in terms of picking up bags. But in terms of the approach, I still had to create a person within the structure of what was given to me, so there was no change in structure. There is no change in process other than I have to run in it. And I had to run like a 53-year-old woman. I didn't have to run like Lara Croft Tomb Raider. If I had to run like Lara Croft Tomb Raider, this would be a different conversation. By the time the heist comes in the movie, it comes as a part of the journey of what the characters have to get done in order to get their lives back. But it's certainly not Wonder Woman.”
Her voice comes crystal clear through the phone: It is a voice that commands attention, and it may be one of her most important acting weapons. On screen, it can be husky and forceful, like a boss that needs those files, like, yesterday. But when her voice dips to a punctuating whisper, even in an interview over the phone, you are captivated. Yet, she tells me with that searing whisper, this publicity part is not her favorite aspect of the process. In fact, it’s recently put her overall love of acting into question.
“I am in the season of being challenged by that question,” says Davis about maintaining a love of acting for over 20 years. “I'm sort of trying to find a way to fall back in love with it again in the midst of the responsibility of the other stuff, in promoting movies, in contractual obligation for publicity. All the things that are not about my work. I think that you have to really exercise the power of No.
“It's gonna happen,” she continues. “You're gonna lose your passion. You're gonna become disillusioned. But in the midst of it, you have to press the reset button, you do. And then you have to go back to something that challenges you. It doesn't have to be in movies, because not everyone has the opportunity to just say, ‘Oh, give me a great role in a movie, so I can be challenged.’ It could be theater, it could be writing a book. It could be just taking a break and doing nothing. But to have the courage to extract yourself from the mess and the noise and to press the reset button is the only way to find your passion again and to find the love again. But I'm in the midst of that right now.”
For such a decorated actor, it’s somewhat surprising to hear her struggle with maintaining an overall spark for the job. She tells me that she needs time away from the spotlight, whether it’s working on projects like her recently released children’s picture book Corduroy Takes a Bow or simply turning off the jets during an early morning Jacuzzi soak to listen to the hummingbirds.
“I approach it like a warrior,” she says of her busy schedule. Part of that busy schedule is running JuVee Productions with her husband Julius Tennon. JuVee supports work made by a diverse group of people making films, something in which Davis strongly believes (their current project is an ABC doc-series about failures in the American criminal justice system, The Last Defense). She links this to the importance of how her character in Widows was originally written for a white woman.
“I feel like our production company is the poster child of what it means to be inclusive with narrative in this business,” she says. “It is not just my hope for myself [to be cast in roles not specifically written for a black woman]; it's my hope for every person of color, and I don't just mean black—I mean Hispanic, I mean Asian. I mean for any person of color to be seen as not myopic. If we are committed to inclusion, then that same role that you're thinking for Sandra Bullock, or for Nicole Kidman, or for Saoirse Ronan, or for Anne Hathaway, can be thought of for Michelle Yeoh, or for myself, or for Taraji P. Henson, or for Catalina Sandino Moreno. That is my hope for the business: I don't always have to be in a Civil Rights movie. I don't always have to make a statement. I don't always have to save the world. Sometimes I just want to be a woman in a story.”
That the role is never explicitly moralizing is part of what feeds into her love for her ongoing role as Annalise Keating, the sharp-witted lawyer in How to Get Away with Murder.
“She's a whirling dervish of contradictions,” explains Davis. “What I love about it is every day Pete Nowalk starts with, ‘So, where can we go with Annalise this year? Who does she love? Who can she have sex with? Where does she live? Where is she in her life right now?’ So, you can't even put your finger on her before she morphs into something else.
“And by God, for a woman of a color, that, in my opinion, is a novelty, absolute novelty,” Davis continues. “First of all, you cannot even name 10 women of color—I probably could eke out five women of color—who are leading the pack on any TV show, who are number one on the call sheet, and who are not [in a role with] the same old tropes. As soon as you think that [Annalise] has parked her car into angry, she becomes this vulnerable puddle of piss. As soon as you feel like she's just asexual and hard, she's having sex with a man or a woman.”
It’s fitting for Davis, who is known for her range perhaps even more than her intensity. She can play a mother forced to make the choice to keep her child with an allegedly abusive priest in a prestigious Catholic school so that he can get into a better high school—her breakout film role in Doubt (2008), which earned her an an Oscar nomination—or she can play a complex villain like Amanda Waller in the mainstream action movie Suicide Squad (2016).
In fact, her next role is in a comedy, Troupe Zero, an Amazon-produced comedy written by Lucy Alibar (Beast of the Southern Wild) about a troop of Brownies who enter a competition in small town Louisiana.
I bring up something Davis said on a Q&A following a recent screening of Widows, in which she called actors “observers and thieves.” Perhaps that approach is part of Davis’s versatility?
“I was doing that yesterday with my mom, actually, on the phone,” she says. “I kept her on the phone for an hour and a half, because I started off just having a conversation with my mom and then it was so enjoyable and fun. It was just the best conversation. It was funny, and poignant, and heartbreaking. All of a sudden, I became an observer. And all of a sudden, I felt like I was stealing things from her. I wasn't just being a daughter listening to her, but an actor stealing little nuggets and jewels from her life, and her perspective, and her vocal tones, and that's what it means to be an actor.”
Davis is a rare actor, seemingly on every stage, on every TV screen, and in every theater. Those awards—the triple crown of acting (an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony), which has only been achieved by 24 people in history—are nice, but Davis is bigger than even that. She’s a cultural figure, doing things her way. Back at the shoot, I am making a behind-the-scenes skit for Instagram with Davis’s stylist Elizabeth Stewart, in which Stewart makes puns about Davis’s films. Davis overhears the skit, and I tell her what’s up.
“You’re making puns for all my roles?” she asks.
No, just the big ones.
“Good, because there’s too many for all of them,” and that big, happy laugh trails her all the way out of the door, bringing with her the sparkle of an actor whose energy gives us all life.
Makeup: Autumn Moultrie (The Wall Group)
Hair: Jamika Wilson (Epiphany Agency)
Manicure: Lisa Jachno (Aim Agency)
Production: Stephanie Porto (Danielle Levitt Studio)
Lighting: Phil Blair and Keith Schwalberg
Stylist Assistant: Jordan Grossman
Set Design: Lauren Machen (LaLaLand)
Location Manager: Percy Haverson
Catering: LOVE Catering