Viola Davis has only one scene in the film version of John Patrick Shanley’s prize-winning play “Doubt,” directed by the author himself; but she’s made the most of it, winning critical accolades and an Oscar nomination. She plays the mother of the only black boy in a Catholic school in the Bronx of the 1960s, who’s called in for a talk with the principal, a hard-nosed nun who suspects a young parish priest might be taking an unhealthy interest in the boy. And she plays her virtuoso confrontation against no less than Meryl Streep (also Oscar-nominated).
“I had not seen the play, hadn’t read the play,” Davis recalled during a recent Dallas interview. “I didn’t know anything about it, except it won the Pulitzer, and one of the actors that played this role on Broadway the Tony. That’s all I knew, and it was enough for me to solicit myself for the role, to be an out-and-out whore for the role. Every black actress came out of the woodwork. In fact, I went to the first audition and I thought, maybe it’s me and Adriane Lenox [the Broadway Tony-winner]. I’m just by myself here. And I walked into Warner Brothers, and I ran into Marianne-Jean Baptiste. And she said, ‘Oh, I auditioned for that the other day!’ And I thought, okay—every black actress in America. Then I heard that Oprah came out. Then I was flown to New York with six other actresses in full costume, makeup, hair, and did a screen test in front of the producers, the director and a full crew, doing the whole scene. And I said, it will be divine intervention if I get this role. And it was divine intervention, because I got the role.
“And then my behind got tight, because a half-hour later, after I got the role, they said okay, you’ll be rehearsing with Meryl Streep tomorrow at one o’clock. Terrifying—absolutely terrifying, horrifying. I thought to myself, okay, this is either going to be a great, great failure, or a great success. Because she’s the five-hundred pound gorilla in the room. I mean, come on, she’s Meryl Streep—she’s not going to be bad. I never got over my nerves. I still don’t. And it’s totally self-generated—it doesn’t come from her. The woman is a great broad. She comes to the set, she’s funny, she’s generous, she makes you feel like you’re part of it, she’s normal. But you, you feel like you’re going to fall apart in front of her. I thought, she’s going to come on the set and tell me these long stories about ‘Sophie’s Choice’ and ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ and how to act and what to do and what not to do. I was ready for it, I felt like I’d have to get my notebook out. And she is so not that at all. She’s normal. She loves what she does, but she’s just a regular person. On the set she knits all the time. I was shocked.
“But ultimately she is the best acting partner to have, because she is for you a hundred percent. She’s gonna give a hundred percent, so it’s not like you’re going to have to overcompensate in the scenes for what you’re not getting—because sometimes you do have to do that with certain actors you work with, because they are not giving you anything—they’re too concerned with looking at themselves, you know?” There was one drawback to working with Streep, though, Davis remembered: “I gained, like, twenty pounds in the course of the film—not intentionally. Hanging out with Meryl Streep. When Meryl Streep offers you doughnuts and chocolates, you take doughnuts and chocolates!”
When asked whether she had any particular inspiration for playing her part, Davis nodded. “Yes,” she said. “My mother. Because in 1965 we moved from St. Matthew’, South Carolina, a farm—I was born in my grandmother’s house (as my mom tells it, the midwife was late so my grandmother had to deliver me), two months after I was born, to Central Falls, Rhode Island. A predominantly Catholic community—all Catholic churches—the only black family, and we weren’t Catholic. So we were on the periphery. And I watched how my mom throughout the years had to fight in extraordinary circumstances…neighbors who saw us as a bad influence only because we were black kids…. She had to fight teachers who didn’t see us as intelligent. Situations that wouldn’t normally come to you. When I picked up the script, I didn’t get her at first. I didn’t get her sacrifice. But as I began to search my memory, I remembered those situations from my mom.”
Davis recalled the actual filming with glee. “The first part of the scene is an interior shot that we shot at Mount St. Vincent’s College in the Bronx, and that was one day,” she said. “Two weeks later we shot the exterior part for a few days. Now Meryl and John have a different memory of all of this, but because I really had my behind on the line, I’m going to tell you the truth. They lie, but I’m going to tell you the truth! It took several days to shoot that exterior scene, all day—going over and over, dozens of times. Then I went back to Los Angeles and thought, okay, that was the height of my life—you know, framed my pictures of Meryl Streep. And John Patrick Shanley’s or the producer’s assistant called me again and said, ‘Viola, we want you to come back and do this one part of the scene over again.’ And I said okay. And then she said, ‘Then there’s this other part we need you to do again, too.’ Okay. ‘And then another part we need you to do again.’ And I said, ‘You want me to do the whole damned scene again.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, we need for you to do the whole scene again.’ And I had to go back and do it all over again, because John Patrick Shanley—and it was his fault, and you can write that down!—had us do the scene like I had to get to work, so I really was playing that I had to get to work. And he said he saw it in the dailies and it looked like I had just stolen someone’s purse—I was just running. And he said it was a better idea for us to walk and stroll. And so that’s why he had us do it again.”
Davis said that as director Shanley was “very protective” of the script. “He’s the writer, and he said, ‘I want you to do it word for word.’ Which is great, because they’re great words. I can’t replace them, I can’t write them any better. And I didn’t want to, because I was too tight to begin with. I didn’t want to rewrite anything, I just wanted to get through the scene as best I could, with as much grace, with Streep.”
And now the awards season has come, and the Oscar nomination. She was with her husband and publicist at a hotel waiting for the announcement, and recalled, “When my name was called, I grabbed my husband’s neck, and ran through the hallways of the Four Seasons jumping up and down like an animal. A dream come to fruition. How can you put that into words? I can’t. It’s an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.
“Discovered at 43,” Davis mused over the fact that she’s getting noticed as a “newcomer” though she’s won a Tony for her stage work and appeared in films like Denzel Washington’s “Antwone Fisher.” But, she said, “it’s better than never being discovered at all.”
And Davis reflected on how gratifying every part of her rise from humble beginnings had been. “I saw Cicely Tyson when I was six years old in ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,’” she recalled. “And I said, I want to do that. I was excited when I got accepted into theatre school at fourteen, fifteen, and I’d have to take the bus five hours a day, 2 ½ hours one way and 2 ½ the other. That was exciting for me. Being accepted at Juilliard—fifty thousand dollars in student loans, and I was just as excited about that as getting the Academy Award nomination, because I was in love with being an actor. All the other stuff—‘breakthrough’ and ‘newcomer,’ and ‘who’s hot and who’s not,’ and ‘how does she look in her dress’—I’m not concerned with that at all. I love doing what I do. Not a lot of people get to play out their dreams everyday.
“So I’m blessed.”