Fences: Viola Davis, Frontrunner, Supporting Actress Oscar–Part 1

Fences is the first play of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle to be made into a feature film. The film has been anticipated for 30 years, since the play won the Pulitzer Prize.

Paramount is releasing Fences, which is produced an directed by Denzel Washington, who also stars, on Christmas Day.

Viola Davis has chosen to be placed in the Supporting Actress Oscar category, even though she had won the Tony Award for female lead in the 2010 revival of the play.

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Interview with Viola Davis (Part 1)

Seeing Fences on Broadway?

Viola Davis: I never saw “Fences” when it was on Broadway in 1987. I was a poor student at Rhode Island College and I think it was just around the time I had even gotten wind of August Wilson’s existence. I was majoring in theater then at Rhode Island College and the only playwrights that were presented to me were Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams; those were the playwrights that I was immersed in. And other than Ntozake Shange, who did For Colored Girls, I didn’t know of any present-day, produced African-American playwrights until a teacher of mine, Elaine Perry, put Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in my hand and said, “Have you heard of August Wilson?” And that very day, I learned of August Wilson’s existence.

Discovering Wilson’s work

VD: It affected me the same way I was affected when I went to the Black Heritage Society in Rhode Island. I remember very clearly that it was 1981— Thursday, I believe. It was in the summer and the sun was shining, but inside the archive, I was looking at a microfiche of slaves who were abolitionists, who actually could write, who actually were intellectuals. And I remember that day because no one had ever told me that. I grew up in a predominantly white environment, and teachers just told me black people during slavery, they couldn’t read, write, nothing. They couldn’t do anything. And I believed those teachers because no one was telling me any differently. So when I found that out, the truth, it’s like my whole world opened. And that was the same reaction I had when my teacher handed me the play by August Wilson. It was just like an opening somewhere in my spirit of “Wow.”

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Rose Maxson in Fences, one of Wilson’s most memorable female characters

VD: I had played Attie in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Vera in Seven Guitars, Tonya in King Hedley II.  He said with Vera in Seven Guitars that he was writing about these men riffing in the backyard. And they were riffing and riffing and riffing and then suddenly, he said, “A woman walked in and said, ‘Listen, I got something to say.’” And he was surprised as a writer. He was, like, “Oh, okay, so what’s your name?” She said, “Vera.” And then that’s how that started.

I think that art in and of itself is a very vulnerable thing. Music, acting,
writing—they all are very vulnerable. When you write from your head, you can run into mistakes. But what August had, what made him brilliant, is that he had the spirit to allow people to enter him. Exactly who they were and where they were, he took you in. You felt that way when you were with him in person, that he saw you.

I see that in his roles. I see that with Vera. I see it with Mattie. There is an absolute understanding of what it means to be a woman, an absolute understanding of where womanhood is at. And that was his gift. He had a great gift of vulnerability and empathy.
Which women informed your portrayal of Rose?

VD: women who informed my portrayal of Rose are me, my mom, my publicist, my manager. Every woman that’s out there, black or white. Any woman that I had ever encountered who sacrificed, who gave, who, at any given time, felt like she gave up a piece of her life for the greater good. That is our power as women. I always quote Betty Friedan, a great feminist author, who said that women hid behind perfectly applied lipstick and waxed floors. They hid their pain. Rose absolutely encapsulates that. And, in that way, Rose is any woman. We’re taught to repress our dreams and our hopes and our voice. Even in 2016, when you finally get to the point where life gives you permission, something kicks that voice out of you. Just totally kicks it. And so you feel pain, the animalistic pain of being trapped in a corner. When it finally comes out, I can’t think of better words than what comes out of Rose’s mouth.

Mother’s involvement as civil rights activist

VD: My portrayal of Rose, my understanding of Rose, is way more simple than that. It’s marriage. It’s making that commitment to someone in marriage and dying to yourself.  I died to myself to a certain extent when I got married 13 years ago, but I’m in 2016. Rose is in 1957. So the dying of herself is something much greater. This is someone who has totally dedicated her life to building her family. The family is her identity. If you were to ask Rose what motivated her, what her greater need is in life, it probably would be the need to matter. And how she matters is by keeping that family together. Solid. That is her power. That’s where her joy is supposed to be. And so when that need and joy are taken away from her—those are the words that she uses—it’s way more intimate and personal than a political statement. It is a personal statement.

Choosing props and costumes?

VD: I wanted Rose to look like life had gotten to her, beating you over the head to make that point. So the grey in her hair, the cracks in her skin, the simplicity of her wardrobe. You probably thought that when she bought those clothes, they were probably crisp, pristine, but now they’re more weathered. I wanted to show the sacrifice before she even enters the frame. I thought that was very valuable.  So the gray in the wig was very important to me. I did not want her to look like she came out of The Brady Bunch. I know the film is set in the ‘50s, and in the Caucasian world particularly, ‘50s women were very put together, they were absolutely an extension of male fantasy. And I think Rose is way past that. She’s now farther along in her life. You’ve got to see that Rose is the woman she says she is by the end: “I gave up little pieces of myself to him.”
And Rose has put that home together piece by piece, bit by bit, because what other choice does she have? I find this to be a prevalent theme in all of August’s work. Everybody wants to be big in some way. Hedley wants to be a big man. Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, the bluesman in Seven Guitars, wants to be a big man. He even says it: “I want my work to go out there in the world. I want it to burst in the air and, and mean something to someone.” In Ma Rainey, Levee wants to be someone who his father wasn’t allowed to be. His father was lynched, hung from a tree. Herald Loomis in Joe Turner is absolutely the epitome of losing his soul: “Where am I?” he asks. “Where is my place in the world?”

Everybody wants to be somebody, and it’s no different for these women, who have the whole gender thing and the whole race thing put on them. So where do I fall in my life? Because I have to matter? So how Rose matters is with that house. It’s put together the way it is because it’s all that she’s got. Whatever way you look at it, that house is her dream. But it’s also her tomb.

True to blackness and speaking beyond blackness

VD: What makes Fences universal is that, as a black person, I’m still very human. I don’t feel so different from anyone else except for how society has informed my life and my past. The themes in Fences are about marriage, about identity, about parenthood, about father-son relationships. Fences is also about lost dreams. August created exactly what Arthur Miller did in Death of a Salesman.  Before Salesman, the hero was the god, was the king. Arthur Miller created the antihero, who is flawed. For Cory and Rose, Troy is their god. They feel, our existence, our balance in our lives, everything has been poured into him. And he is a man who is extraordinarily flawed but doing the best he can with what he knows. Who can’t relate to that at the end of the day?

The bad part of racism is the feeling that we’re so different that if you walk onto a screen or a stage that nothing inclusive is gonna transpire in this narrative. When, in fact, if I can relate to Death of A Salesman or A View from the Bridge or Long Day’s Journey Into Night, then you can relate to Troy or Rose or Cory’s story.

One of the things that I learned when I was a young actor—and I feel I’m kind of purist with this—is that the audience is a part of the collaboration. Some audiences may feel like, “Okay, once everything is done, we’ll come in and look at it.” But they have to know that they’re a part of the collaboration. They’ve got to come in locked and loaded.

Playing on Broadway and now on film?

VD: When you do any role on stage, you have to look at projecting in a Broadway house that has to be over a thousand seats. So you have to think about that. Other than that—and I realize that I’m almost remiss to say this—there really is no difference. Here’s the thing. People have a misunderstanding that when you’re acting for film, everything has got to be small. So if it’s not small, then it’s not honest. You’ve got to be understated. Understate. Everything is under.  August writes understated things. Vera in Seven Guitars is most definitely understated. But he writes some things that are very big. And just because a character’s big, or a speech is big, that doesn’t mean it’s not honest. The reason why I’m saying this is because when we rehearsed the movie before we actually started filming, we did that scene where I tell Troy, “I’m standing with you.” We did it in the rehearsal hall and I did everything small. Small, small.
If you know Denzel Washington, he’s very honest. Brutally honest, if need be. He was like, “That don’t work.” He said, “Do it big. Do whatever you think is too big.” And I said, “Oh, okay.” So I did it bigger, and he said, “You know, that’s not too big for me.” And then what clicked for me, what has always clicked for me because I am an actor, is that I observe. I observe in a way that you don’t observe. I see things that you don’t even see that may go past you, okay? Everything in life, I soak up like you wouldn’t believe. And so I know every moment in my life. The moment that I found out my boyfriend that I love dearly cheated on me. The moment that my dad took his last breath and the hospice nurse put the stethoscope on his chest. I remember what my reaction was. Every breath that came out of my mouth. What his body looked like, seeing my mom and her reaction. And it’s not always small. Life isn’t always small. So acting out real life is like playing an orchestrated piece of music.
No one small could have stood up to Troy as an equal. He wouldn’t want anyone small to be with him either. There are moments in Rose’s life when she is small. When she does make herself small because it makes her marriage work. And her marriage has gotta work for her to work. So there are moments when she just puts up with it. You can see it in one of the first scenes she has with Troy in the film. “He’s talking again. I know all about it, Troy. Yes, I know, but listen, Troy. Okay. I know. I know. Troy, come on, stop talking about sex like that. Come on.” She puts up with it until she can’t anymore. And when she can’t anymore, then it’s like I told you about the grey in her hair and her skin and her clothing and her body looking very middle-aged. Everything that she has repressed has got to come out. Because that’s what’s on the page. Something big is happening. Something big is happening and it’s not suppressed.