"I had an image of what I wanted to be as an actor, and I never saw my sex or my race as an obstacle in seeing those dreams come to fruition."
Perhaps that seems easy for Viola Davis to say now, but the 47-year-old actress has earned every shiny bit of her success, through years at Juilliard, a distinguished stage career and scores of film and television credits. Today, she has two Tony and three Drama Desk awards on her mantel, as well as two Oscar nominations ("Doubt," "The Help"). Time magazine included her on its 2012 list of 100 Most Influential People in the World - with the accompanying glowing tribute written by one of her idols, Cicely Tyson.
"Oh, it's very, very heavy stuff," she says of Tyson's words. But, speaking by phone to promote her new film, "Won't Back Down," Davis adds, "I don't take it too seriously, because I don't find myself to be that extraordinarily influential. I'm trying to convince my daughter to eat her pasta.
"But when I go back to Central Falls (R.I.), which is my hometown, which is bankrupt, which is a struggling town, a fabulous town, I'm aware that young people look at everything I do. I really am. And whether I choose to pick up the baton or not, I am a role model. And I have the power to plant some seed in them. I'm aware of that."
Davis' influence now extends to producing: Her nascent company has a number of projects in gestation, including a biopic on Houston's Barbara Jordan - civil rights leader, congresswoman, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and flag-planter of many significant firsts in American politics.
"It's a chance for me to transform, to create someone who was such a public, heroic figure, who at the end of the day, had a lot of secrets and was very human. To present a character on a really large scale, to use my craft. We're just in the process of making all that happen. But it will happen, as well as other stories I've always wanted to see," she says.
Taking matters into her own hands is a theme in the actress' career and filmography.
"Various times in my career, I wanted to scream out, 'This is not all I do!' But that's what's out there for you," she says. "And sometimes, not to be too 'Kumbaya' or quote anything from ('Won't Back Down') or Gandhi, but sometimes you do have to be the instrument of change. You really do."
The new film finds Davis portraying Nona, a teacher who teams with a desperate single mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) to take over a failing Pittsburgh school. "Won't Back Down" is presented as a "fictional story inspired by actual events," although what's on the screen strays quite far from its narrative source (attempted takeovers of two California schools). Still, it's a hot-button issue in which audiences are deeply invested.
'Coming to life'
"People are very on fire about education, so it raises the stakes with any character you play within that context," Davis says. "But I also felt that (director and co-writer) Daniel Barnz wrote a person. She goes on a journey. You feel like you're peeling away at every layer, the idea that slowly, she's coming to life. I love the idea of a person who has lost her passion, who had great ideas of who she was going to be as a mother, as a wife, as a teacher. … When you meet her, all of that's been shot to hell.
"She's presented with a challenge, and I think that's the way it happens in life. Something challenges you that wakes you up. And you rediscover what had turned you on, what made you who you were and what got you up in the morning. I love that about that character. And nowhere in there have I said 'African-American.' I said 'character.' "
And therein lies perhaps the greatest benefit of having worked her way up for so many years and through so many roles: Her name and reputation now allow her a wider range of opportunities - to a degree.
"Listen, whenever I wake up in the morning and I take my daughter to the park or whatever, of course when I look in the mirror, I'm aware that I'm a woman of color of a certain age. Of a certain size. You are aware of who you are. And of course that informs what you do and how people treat you. That's not good or bad, that's just the way it is," she says.
"But I don't think it was a factor in Nona. I don't think the race was bigger than who she was as a teacher and a mother and a wife. I don't think that's the first thing that walked into the room when we saw her. As much as she wore a necklace or earrings, it's just who she was: a black woman."
Michael Ordoña is a freelance writer.