Troop Zero is so personal to Viola Davis she cried during filming: 'It’s very, very, very rare'
Costars Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan, and Mckenna Grace also open up to EW about dealing with bullies.
Whether it’s 1977 or 2020, everyone has to deal with bullies at some point in their life. So even though the heartwarming, sweet Troop Zero is set in rural Georgia in the late ’70s, its empowering message is universally relevant.
The film from Amazon Studios — directed by duo Bert & Bertie and penned by Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s Oscar-nominated screenwriter Lucy Alibar — follows a young outcast girl named Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace). When she’s turned away from the local Birdie Scout troop for being different, she forms her own misfit scouting troop of fellow fringe kids to fight for their chance to win the Birdie Scout talent competition and get to record a message on NASA’s Golden Record, a time-capsule to be launched into space for alien life to learn about Earth. And while they deal with their fair share of mean girls in the form of the other, more traditional scout troops and adults who dismiss them, it’s also Christmas’ mentor-turned-troop-mother Miss Rayleen (Viola Davis) who also struggles with her own mean girl bully in judgmental Miss Massey (Allison Janney), the leader of the town’s existing Birdie Troop.
Watching both the kid and adult characters come together to overcome their bullies results in an emotional and ultimately inspiring watch — which is why it debuted to positive reviews at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival,. And it’s exactly why Davis knew she had to be part of the cast.
“It reminded me of me. That’s what got me,” Davis tells EW. “There were real poignant moments in filming it and reading it where I cried because I felt like I did not fit in. I felt like I was a square peg in a round hole, that sort of everything about me was wrong. I did not see that the very same reasons I thought that I was an outsider were the very reasons I was so extraordinary.”
While Davis has since become more confident in herself, she remembers how when she was younger, it was a much different story. “Just like Christmas, I was a bed wetter when I was that age,” she says. “It was a secret that I hid, I just swept it under the rug and I really, really felt a lot of shame because of that. A lot of it was nerves, trauma, all of that. To see a main character that somehow even in this fun upbeat movie where I could recognize me, it was everything. That’s what you live for as an artist. It’s very, very, very rare to see you in that way, and that’s how I felt with this — I saw me.”
Troop Zero‘s young star Grace hates how bullying has evolved with the internet. “Everyone gets bullied and now with Instagram, people get cyber bullied too. It’s horrible,” she says. “It’s really sad that that’s the world we live in where everyone is getting bullied constantly. I have a few friends that are currently dealing with bullies and they call me coming home from school to talk about it and how to get through it. I don’t know what would motivate somebody to want to hurt someone and say things like that but it’s really sad. Everybody should be kind to each other no matter what.”
Bullying has been a constant in Davis’ life, and filming Troop Zero brought up a lot of those difficult memories for her. “I was bullied as a kid. A lot,” she says. “I wish I had someone to defend me. I wish I had my posse like Christmas Flint does.”
Watching Christmas evolve from a loner with no friends to a happy kid with a whole group of people who loved her for her was what Janney loves most about Troop Zero. “I love the message and the girl power-ness of it all and finding strength in your differences and rising above and reaching for something and not being told that you can’t because you’re from the wrong side of the tracks or you’re too this or you’re not this,” she says. “It’s a beautifully told story. It resonates today and it will resonate for years to come, the messages of being who you are and going after your dreams and never giving up.”
Davis hopes that anyone watching Troop Zero can see themselves like she did, and take away an important lesson.
“Listen, you’re going to be bullied your entire life. I’m bullied now,” Davis says. “We have the internet. I believed everything a bully said about me. I did. But sometimes people lash out because they can’t express things that are going on within themselves. You cannot take whatever the bully says or does as truth. You cannot give it weight and you can’t validate it. At the end of the day, it’s more about them than it is about you. That’s what I say but that’s a hard thing to say to a 10-year-old. That’s my advice from the front lines of being bullied that I wish someone had said to me time and time again. You’re worth it. And you’re not what they say about you.”
Jim Gaffigan, who plays Christmas’ well-meaning but inept father Ramsey, loves how Troop Zero exposes how every bully has their own reasons for acting a certain way — which of course doesn’t excuse awful behavior, but helps shine a light on how they might be bullied themselves, like with Miss Massey.
“This movie shows that bullying has always been there, particularly with Allison Janney’s character,” he says. “We learn that someone we think is a bad person is really also the victim of the same kind of thing. Everyone’s dealing with their own stuff and it’s how we justify our bad behavior which is really the problem.”
Janney echoes that sentiment, adding, “I would tell someone if I knew they were being bullied, I would make them realize that a person who bullies is a sad person, a fearful person. And you should just fully ignore it and know that it comes from a place of they’re damaged in some way and to wish them well and pray for them, pray that they will find love or be loved in a way that they are not. It’s understanding why someone behaves that way that helps you not take it personally. I didn’t have kids so I’ve never had to deal with that but I think that’s what I’d do, although I would have to fight the urge to not want to go bully them back, but you can’t do that.”
As for the advice the stars would give to anyone currently being bullied? “The hard and rough times, they will pass eventually,” Grace says. “Just hold on and keep going through the difficulties because they will end eventually. Never give up hope and just keep going. It’s okay to be yourself. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like, where you’re from, what religion you are, you can be yourself and there will be someone out there that will love you for who you are. You’ll find your troop and it’s okay to be different. You’ll find your best friend.”
When it comes to social media, Davis stresses how it’s “become its own entity where no one is screened, everyone has a voice no matter how cruel, no matter how insensitive, no matter how smart.”
“It’s a world that we’ve given a lot of power to, to likes and friends,” she adds. “And we have to know that at the end of the day it is absolutely meaningless and your imagination, who you are inside, the people and the relationships you invest in, the love around you, is far more valuable. That’s how I live now, instead of giving power to some cheap comments someone makes about my body.”
Troop Zero is now streaming on Amazon Prime.