At Home with Viola

By Lang, Brent | Variety, September 4, 2018 | Go to article overview

At Home with Viola


Lang, Brent, Variety


IT WAS A FAMILIAR DILEMMA FOR VIOLA DAVIS. WHAT to do with her hair? ¶ The star of the upcoming film "Widows" needed to know what kind of wig or extensions she should wear to play Veronica Rawlins, the leader of an unlikely band of robbers scrambling to pull off a dangerous heist. Director Steve McQueen's answer shocked the Emmy-, Tony- and Oscar-winning actress. ¶ "I said, 'Your own hair is beautiful - just wear it that way,'" recalls McQueen. "Veronica is a wash-and-go kind of girl." ¶ For Davis, the decision to appear on-screen in close-cropped, curly hair was liberating and represented an important social statement. ¶ "You're always taught as a person of color to not like your hair," she says. "The kinkier it is, the so-called nappier it is, the uglier it is." ¶ McQueen stressed that he was interested in reflecting reality. More women looked like her, he told the actress, than like the artificial and idealized images of female beauty that Hollywood frequently projects. ¶ "We're into a Zeitgeist where people are fighting for their space to be seen," says Davis. "People have to know that there are different types of women of color. We're not all Foxy Brown. We're not all brown or light-skinned beauties with a big Afro. We have the girl next door. We have the older, dark-skinned, natural-haired woman."

"Widows," which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival and debuts in theaters on Nov. 16, represents other important firsts for Davis. It's a commercial action pic from a major studio (20th Century Fox) that rises or falls on her performance, as well as a chance for the 53-year old actress to solidify her position on the A-list. Julius Tennon, Davis' husband of 15 years and the co-founder of their production company JuVee, says the impact could be seismic.

"This could change the face of her career up to this point," he says. "It's a chance for Viola to be seen as the lead actor in a global movie."

If "Widows" succeeds, it can help ensure funding for several Davis-led passion projects, ranging from a biopic about Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan to a drama about an all-female military unit from the Kingdom of Dahomey. It will mean that an actress known for her volcanic intensity and commanding presence will finally get the roles she deserves. For too long, Tennon notes, his wife has had to make do with supporting turns, often playing maids or mothers, while ceding the limelight to white actresses. Davis may have scored raves and award nominations for "Doubt" and "Solaris," but often she had only a few minutes of screen time to create a fully fleshed-out performance.

"She specialized in taking a piece of chicken and turning it into filet mignon," says Tennon.

John Patrick Shanley, the writer and director of "Doubt," the 2008 film that put Davis on the map after years of character work, knows firsthand about the paucity of roles available to African-Americans. He says every black actress of a certain age was up for Davis' role because, though the part lasted only eight minutes, the aria of maternal love that the character was asked to deliver presented an important opportunity.

"It touched me with sorrow to realize that they were all chasing it because those roles just weren't there," says Shanley. "That remains true today."

Those days may be slowly ending. In the case of "Widows," the film was retrofitted to suit Davis. Her character, a middle-aged woman coping with the death of both her husband and her son, was originally written for a white actress.

"This kind of role isn't usually out there for a woman of color," says Davis. "Widows" is a femaledriven enterprise, offering up meaty roles for Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo and Elizabeth Debicki, who play the other members of a gang of widows who must pull off a heist in order to pay their husbands' debts to a drug dealer.

"People try to be too nice with women," suggests Davis. "They keep them pretty. They keep them likable. …

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