LOS ANGELES — A graduate of the prestigious Juilliard School, Viola Davis had great expectations when she set out on her acting adventure.
Davis immediately earned a Tony for her role in August Wilson’s King Hedley II in 2001, but then couldn’t quite get the traction she wanted for her career.
Finally, things changed quickly with a 2009 supporting actress Academy Award nomination for her mother role in Doubt opposite Meryl Streep’s nun and a subsequent best actress Oscar nod for her portrayal of the strong-willed maid Aibileen in The Help.
Now filmmakers are on the Viola Davis watch. For instance, writer-director Richard LaGravenese wanted her for his movie Beautiful Creatures. And he got her.
Opening on Feb. 14, the fantasy film based on a series of bestselling young adult books features Davis, who plays Amma, a small-town librarian and caregiver to Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich). He is a mortal American teen, who falls for a mysterious new girl in the town of Gatlin, S.C.
Her name is Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) and she’s about to become either a good or bad witch when she turns 16. Lena’s transition gets complicated when Ethan starts courting her. Lena’s warlock uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons) is uneasy about it even as Lena’s evil witch mother Sarafine (Emma Thompson) and her childhood friend Ridley (Emmy Rossum) show up with less than honourable intentions.
The special-effects movie is a change of pace for Davis. The 43-year-old sat down with Postmedia News in a Beverly Hills hotel to chat about that and her new attitude as a mother to her four-year-old adopted daughter.
Q: How were you persuaded to join the Beautiful Creatures cast?
A: Richard (LaGravenese) wooed me. He plied me with alcohol and a French dinner.
Q: Had the maid and librarian characters from the book been combined into one person for the movie already?
A: Yes. I thank Richard for that. In an interview, he said, ‘This is 2013 and black women don’t need to be maids.’
Q: As a seer, Amma knows the lore of Beautiful Creatures. Was that another attraction?
A: Yes. I thought that she was quietly fascinating. She wasn’t just a random black best friend. I love her depth.
Q: While filming in New Orleans, did you visit with psychics?
A: I went down to the French Quarter. Somebody told me that I needed to talk to Xander after eight o’clock at night. And I said I wasn’t coming back at eight o’clock at night. I am such a wimp. I went online.
Q: What language was your Amma speaking during the possession scene?
A: Richard wanted me to speak Gullah (a Creole dialect). I was not able to grasp it. So I choose Yoruba because most of the slaves from the slave trade came from Nigeria, and spoke Yoruba.
Q: Did you study Yoruba?
A: I connected with some linguists at a school in New Orleans and I learned some Yoruba and spoke it to my daughter. I would go around the house speaking to her and she’d say, ‘Mommy stop that.’
Q: Did referencing the supernatural in Beautiful Creatures make you uneasy?
A: I don’t see it as mysterious; I see it as ritualistic. I see it as a way of connecting to self and defining yourself in the world and within a community and within a tribe.
Q: Do you believe in the supernatural?
A: I’m a Christian, but I’m a believer in ritual. I’m a believer that people practice certain aspects of a ritual and they endow it with power.
Q: Don’t you have another big special-effects sci-fi movie coming out in November?
A: It’s Ender’s Game. I play Major Anderson, a psychologist. I work with Harrison Ford’s character to inject some type of humanity and lucidness into children who have returned from fighting an alien force threatening Earth.
Q: Did you enjoy working with Ford?
A: I love the exchange between our two characters. And it’s really functional and current.
Q: How so?
A: We’re learning from soldiers coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq that they don’t come back the same. But they have to integrate back into a life.
Q: Are Beautiful Creatures and Ender’s Game departures for you?
A: I guess. Sometimes it’s hard for me to decide on roles. Sometimes I’ll look at something and go, ‘I can’t do it.’ And then someone does it and it becomes a hit.
Q: Do you second-guess yourself?
A: You mean, Viola Hit-my-head-against-the-wall Davis? Yes, I do. I question my judgment, but I have to believe that God has put me on a very specific path.
Q: What path?
A: It’s the path of an actor and an artist. It’s not one of a celebrity.
Q: Are you picky?
A: No. Just give me roles that Julia Roberts would play or Halle Berry would play. I feel like I have to really be confident in that.
Q: Did the Oscar nominations help?
A: I’m in the beautiful position of being able to choose at this present moment
Q: Does your daughter impact decisions?
A: Yes. I think in terms of, ‘How long am I going to be away from her?’ I’m still very stressed about that. But Meryl Streep gave me great advice.
Q: What was that?
A: She said, ‘Take her with you. Don’t feel guilty. And always trust your instinct.’