Viola Davis makes the mundane majestic. Whether portraying an aggrieved mother in 2008’s Doubt or beleaguered housemaid Aibileen in 2011’s The Help – both of which earned her Oscar nominations – she brings an aching humanity to her roles, one that transcends their familiarity. This year the How to Get Away With Murder star, 51, is revisiting a part that won her a Tony in 2010, one that could finally take her from Oscar nominee to Oscar winner.
In August Wilson’s tragedy Fences (which opened in limited release last weekend and will expand wide on Christmas Day), Davis plays the ultimate put-upon wife, Rose, who has abdicated her own future. “She’s a woman who sacrificed a huge part of her dreams, her needs, and her desires to make her family work,” Davis says. “And when everything comes crashing down, her response, her fight, is every woman’s fight. There’s nothing that she does in this piece that is not relatable.”
Davis stars opposite Denzel Washington, who directed the film and reprises his own Tony award-winning role as Rose’s husband, Troy. Together, the two characters grapple with life in the 1950s segregated Pittsburgh, where Troy’s lingering obsession with his failed dreams of the past, including becoming a professional baseball player, overwhelm his current commitments as a father and husband.
For Davis, the challenge was how to adapt her role to the screen without reducing the magnitude of her character’s emotions. “There are huge moments in this [story] that are just big, just lifelike, and those moments can’t be underplayed,” she says. “That was the hardest thing to navigate. Whenever people feel like you’re speaking above a whisper, they feel like you are being too big or chewing up the -scenery. But [the moments] have to be out there, as out there as they were on the stage. That doesn’t mean they aren’t honest.”
Washington, who also directed Davis in his directorial debut, Antwone Fisher, mostly stayed out of Davis’ way. “I learned to leave her alone,” Washington says. “She killed it on Broadway. She won the Tony. So what do you say? ‘Yeah, more of that, but do it in the kitchen instead of the yard.’”
The film, however, wasn’t exactly easy for Davis. The actress had struggled during the Broadway run of Fences with the final scene of the play, a poignant moment that requires Rose to explain forgiveness to her grown son. It took Davis becoming a mother in 2011 and then performing the scenes again—this time with cameras—for that final monologue to click for her. “I just didn’t hit it [until then],” she says. “Forgiveness is such an abstract emotion, but it’s something that has to be done. Somehow August Wilson manages to encapsulate it in his speech. I only got it now, because now I’ve lived.”
And if she gets it now, it’s likely we will too.