Viola Davis: 'Buzz makes me nervous'

Tonight she's the bookies' favourite to pip Meryl Streep to the Best Actress Oscar for her role in 'The Help'. Just don't expect Viola Davis to get over-excited before the ceremony. She tells James Mottram why she will never shake the 'paranoia'

Whatever happens tonight at Los Angeles's Kodak Theatre, Viola Davis can be proud. After Whoopi Goldberg, she is only the second black actress in history to be nominated for two Oscars. And – whisper it quietly – after winning the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award ahead of her friend and rival Meryl Streep, she has over the past couple of weeks become the bookmakers' frontrunner for the big prize for her role in The Help. Streep may be a masterful Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, but Davis is just as steely in her role as a black maid living in 1960s Mississippi.

Not that she's going to clear a space on the mantelpiece just yet. Davis has always maintained a healthy scepticism about the chatter surrounding awards season. "Buzz makes me nervous," she says. "When they start saying you might get an Academy Award nomination, you might even call your mom – and say, 'Mom, they think I might get an Academy Award nomination!' And she's like, 'Oh, girl. That's so good. Viola! Viola! That's so good.' Then you hang up the phone and go, 'I don't even have a job!' And that's the thing that knocks you on your behind and humbles you."

Still, the SAG award for The Help does suggest that she has the all-important support of her acting peers – who, after all, are the ones in charge of voting for the Best Actress Oscar. Factor in that Civil Rights issues have a bigger emotional pull in the US than the turbulent reign of Britain's only female Prime Minister, not to mention that The Help trounced The Iron Lady at the box office (it's $200m global gross more than three times what Streep's film took), and you can see why Davis might be about to pull off one of the biggest shocks at this year's Oscars.

No wonder she jokes that Streep "sends me personal threats" now; ironically, it's not the first time Davis has been in the Oscar race with her – though back in 2009, she was nominated alongside her, rather than against her, as Best Supporting Actress for Doubt, in which she shared scenes with a formidable Streep (who was up for Best Actress). Playing the mother of a boy at a Bronx Catholic school who may or may not have been abused by a priest, Davis sizzled in just 11 minutes of screen time – though ultimately lost out on the Academy Award to popular choice Penélope Cruz, who won for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Like most actors confronted by Streep's considerable aura, Davis spent most of her time in awe on Doubt.

She would sneak on set on her days off "because I wanted to stare" at the 17-time Oscar nominee. When she finally got to work with her, their conversation was both mundane and batty. They spent their time talking about cooking and, at Streep's insistence, the state of their feet. "At one point, she said, 'How are your feet by the way? Do you have good feet?' I said, 'My feet are pretty good. How are your feet?' And she said, 'Oh, my feet are terrible. Do you want some chocolate?' That was our conversation."

Back then, Davis was the Oscar dark horse, a virtual unknown despite a screen career that has seen her work with such luminous Hollywood directors as Steven Soderbergh (in Out of Sight and Traffic), Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) and Oliver Stone (World Trade Center). The roles were always small, as was the recognition. Most of the time, she'd be left standing in a grocery store getting "self-conscious" as passers-by stopped her, aware she was an actor but unable to place her face. "That drives me a little bit insane," she admits.

Even after Doubt, she was left with small roles – often professional women – in big movies. Never mind that she's won two Tony awards on Broadway, Davis was left to play medics in State of Play and It's Kind of a Funny Story; a mayor in Law Abiding Citizen and a CIA director in Tom Cruise vehicle Knight and Day – keeping those A-list ambitions in check. Yet when we first meet, at the Los Angeles' Four Seasons hotel, I am struck by just how even-tempered she is. "Maybe [it's] because it didn't come easy for me and maybe because I'm not a princess," she offers. "I've never been a princess."

Still, she's beginning to look like one. In London a fortnight ago for the Baftas, where Streep did pip her to Best Actress, Davis wowed the crowds in a salmon-pink Valentino gown (an "eco-fabric" made from recycled plastic bottles). If that wasn't enough, she was recently snapped sitting with her actor-husband Julius Tennon in the front row of Vera Wang's New York fashion show, in between the legendary Vogue editor Anna Wintour and the magazine's flamboyant contributing editor André Leon Talley – a vantage point most starlets would kill for.

Married since 2003, Tennon has been by Davis's side for more than a decade now. "I had one dream on my honeymoon of killing an ex-boyfriend," she laughs, "and I thought to myself, 'OK, that's perfect' – I've died to my past and I'm ready to embrace love." Having adopted a baby girl, Genesis, last October (Tennon already has two children from a previous relationship), Davis is thankful that her husband understands "the paranoia, the employment, the instability" of being an actor. "But he's more than just what he does," she adds. "He's a man of strong character."

You could say the same for her turn in The Help, playing Aibileen Clark, the resolute maid who bravely lays bare what it's like to serve white families in the racially segregated Deep South just as the Civil Rights movement was getting under way. Initially, when she was offered the role, she was uncertain whether to commit. "There was a lot of hesitancy," she says. "I remember playing a maid in Far From Heaven. And I remember telling some friends – and I'm glad they didn't hold me to this –'I'm never playing a maid again, ever!' But when I saw how multi-faceted and rich the role was, I thought it was a no-brainer." k

Certain moments brought it home to her just what it was like being raised in that environment. "One scene we shot for two weeks where I had no lines, I wasn't saying anything – just serving tea, picking up ashes all day and trying to pretend that I was invisible – because I was. Those are the things that are not documented in history books – the degradation. And I think that was the biggest surprise for me, that I somehow dismissed that in the past, and thought that if I were living in that time I would have overcome it. Or I wouldn't have felt that way, I would have spoken up."

If anything suggests why Davis related to The Help, it's her own background. The second-youngest of six children, she was born in South Carolina in 1965. Both her grandmother and her mother, Mae Alice, were maids. Shockingly, her grandmother had 18 children – seven didn't survive – but had to leave them to take care of other people's children, as the nature of her profession dictated. They worked at the Singleton Plantation in St Matthews, South Carolina, living in "little shanties with no running water, no electricity" behind a big white house. "My mom said she got paid $25 a week and she worked her fingers to the bone and she was treated like crap."

When Davis was just 12 months old, her family moved to Central Falls, Rhode Island – and she promptly got rickets. "I was sent to the hospital and put on tubes." According to her mother, "The doctor said that I was not going to develop correctly. I was going to have a 'water-bucket head' – this is what she describes – and a distended stomach. The doctor wanted to experiment; he wanted to break my legs to see how they would grow back." Her mother became convinced that the doctors were taking advantage of her own lack of education, and decided to take action. "She had to sneak into the hospital and take the tubes out and take me out of the hospital."

While her parents grew up Baptist in South Carolina, when they moved to Rhode Island they were surrounded by Catholics. It meant Davis never went to church – though she longed to. "I wanted to be a Catholic so bad! I swear to God! When I was growing up in Central Falls, I didn't have any religious background whatsoever. But everybody around me was Catholic. I grew up in an extremely Catholic community, and for me it was such a sense of community, such a sense of belonging, such a sense of family and tradition, and I wanted to be a part of that, because I felt like I was on the periphery."

Ultimately, it was acting that gave her that sense of belonging. When she was 15, Davis went to drama school in Massachusetts before she majored in theatre at Rhode Island College. From there, she went to the prestigious Juilliard performing-arts school in New York. "I imagined in my fantasy that every actor took that path, once they fell in love with the profession," she says. "I fell in love with being an actor and I fell in love with going to acting school. I thought, 'That was the path that you have to take.' I never thought of it any differently. Now it's become a dirty word, to go to acting school, to have a craft. You have to fly by the seat of your pants, be cute and young – everything but trained."

At 46, Davis doesn't trade on being "cute and young", if she ever has. "Listen," she says. "I got out of school when I was 28 years old. I'm a dark-skinned woman with a deep voice. I'm obviously not Halle Berry but I'm not Mammy! I'm not Big Mamma on the couch. I'm kinda quirky. I think in my life I feel I exude even a remote sensuality. I'm a lot of things. But there's no category for 'a lot of things'. The only category there is, is for a strong, authoritative Hoochie Mamma. If you exude anything else, you don't exist. There's no character for you. There is no type for you. You die. And then you try to grow into a type, and God forbid if you don't."

Yet as her recent role in Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close shows, Davis has evolved beyond a type. Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, the film focuses on a young boy named Oskar (Thomas Horn) and his attempts to make sense of the loss of his father (played by Tom Hanks) during the 11 September terrorist attacks. "I was really touched by it," she says. "Especially [by] the character of Oskar, who wasn't who I expected him to be. And I love that, when a character surprises me. He's a young boy who is kind of distant, not always connected to his emotional life, and lives in his head."

Davis plays Abby Black, a woman going through a painful divorce when Oskar comes into her life during his own emotional quest. Daldry first saw Davis in the 2010 Broadway production of Fences, which won her a second Tony award following 2001's abortion drama King Hedley II. "She gave an amazing performance," the director says. "So it was after that that I went up and asked her, 'Do you fancy doing this?' What she was aware of was that it wasn't written for a black woman. And she often gets parts that are [written specifically] for black women. She was interested in that."

She has found more "colour-blind" roles since. She recently completed Won't Back Down, in which she and Maggie Gyllenhaal play frustrated mothers who joinforces to transform an inner-city school, and she has just signed to Ender's Game opposite Harrison Ford – a science-fiction film set 70 years after a horrific alien invasion. Despite this, she remains uncertain that Hollywood is changing. "Think about it," she says. "Do you know the black equivalent of a Meryl Streep? Or the black equivalent of a Julia Roberts or a Nicole Kidman?" She might be right. But if she wins tonight, she'll take a great leap towards redressing that balance.

'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' (12A) is on general release now. 'The Help' (12) will be available to buy on DVD from 12 March

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