Viola Davis on playing Rose in Fences: ‘It’s rare to come across a character so complete’
She has been working steadily on stage and screen for more than two decades, but it was not until her early 40s that Viola Davis started to receive widespread attention.
This was thanks in no small part to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for the 2008 film Doubt, alongside fellow nominees Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams.
Her success has continued, with movies including The Help, Get On Up and Suicide Squad, plus a starring role in the hit TV show How To Get Away With Murder, which was last week renewed for a fourth season.
This week she stars in Fences, directed by and co-starring Denzel Washington, a big-screen adaptation of a play about Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh binman whose bitterness slowly tears his family apart.
Davis plays Rose, the long-suffering wife desperately trying to hold things together.
She first played the role on stage in 2010 as part of a sell-out Broadway production, for which she won a Tony.
Many actors would be wary of returning to the same part years later, but Davis had no hesitation.
“It’s a wonderful character to play,” she says. “The things she sacrifices, personally, during the film become a very powerful symbol of the role of women, particularly at that time.
“A lot of the themes that surround Rose’s journey in this story are still true for a lot of women to this day. It’s rare to come across a character so complete.”
The film has been lauded for its authenticity, which Davis puts down to the fact it was shot in Pittsburgh.
“This was the neighbourhood these characters existed in, this was the place this story, and so many like it, came from,” she says. “There were people living there that could have been [Rose’s] neighbours years ago. Filming there gave us the authenticity we needed to do these characters justice.”
It is hard to believe she could be unsatisfied with her stage performance, which won her so much acclaim, but the move from stage to filming on location allowed her to make some changes.
“There were little things [about my performance] in the play that I wanted to put right in this film,” she says with a slight wince.
“Part of it came from becoming a mother, and seeing a greater perspective. But it also came from being in such an immersive environment. You couldn’t help but be inspired.”
Another inspiration was Denzel Washington, who was directing a film for the first time since 2007’s The Great Debaters. They previously worked together in his directorial debut, Antwone Fisher, in 2002.
“There’s a lot of trust between us,” says Davis.
“He would allow me to take Rose wherever I felt she needed to go, but at the same time would have no qualms about telling me what was on his mind.”
Davis found fame relatively late in life and while things are perhaps improving, slowly, it is still the case that quality roles for women over 40 are fairly thin on the ground – yet the 51-year-old is busier than ever.
She credits the experience she has gained with age as exactly what she believes set her apart.
“I attribute [success] to growing as a person, learning about what I have to offer as an artist,” she says.
“Then there’s the many generous actors and filmmakers who have given me the chance to play those characters in a way that felt right to me, and the writers who created them. “We’ve also seen a change in the industry, with a greater diversity of roles.”
Fences is nominated for four Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress for Davis, who has already won a Golden Globe and Bafta for her performance.
While remaining diplomatic about how she feels about awards, she betrays her excitement with a wide grin.
“They’re great. It’s wonderful to be recognised by your peers, it really is,” she says.
“I try not to focus on it too much because it’s beyond my control, but any recognition I get is also a reflection of this beautiful character, August Wilson’s script, and Denzel’s direction.”
With How To Get Away With Murder going strong, the awards success is likely to mean she is even more in demand for film roles – not that Davis is complaining about hard work.
“I feel blessed to have had the journey I’ve said this far, and to have had the experience as a person to appreciate it,” she says.
• Fences is in cinemas from Thursday, February 16
Updated: February 14, 2017 04:00 AM