Viola Davis is nothing like any of her characters, at least when she's talking. But she listens the way they do: intently, actively, letting you know all the things she's thinking. By communicating as much through her silences as her dialogue, she's able to create hard-ass characters in brutal situations whom you don't pity but instead understand. She used that skill as the steely mother in 2008's Doubt, turning one scene opposite Meryl Streep into an Oscar nomination. She did it on Broadway last year as the reticent wife in August Wilson's Fences, winning a Tony and outshining her co-star Denzel Washington. And she does it in her latest movie, The Help (based on Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel), as Aibileen, one of a group of maids in Jim Crow era Mississippi who agree to tell a journalist (played by Emma Stone) what it's really like to work for mean, racist white ladies; it's Gone with the Wind with Mammy's point of view.
Davis, who turns 46 this month, gives Aibileen the quiet of someone who's never been allowed to talk but has been Emily Dickinson ing her thoughts in a secret journal all along. Her performance is sassy, soulful and dignified. "The words people use to describe my characters are always sassy, soulful and dignified," says Davis, sipping iced tea in the living room of her modern five-bedroom home in the hills of the quiet northern end of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. "I know I put a little bit more into it than sassiness, soulfulness and dignity." Meryl Streep would agree. When Streep won a Screen Actors Guild award for Doubt, she shouted from the podium, "The gigantically gifted Viola Davis my God, somebody give her a movie!"
Yet Davis is a leading actress stuck in supporting roles: onscreen, she keeps playing intense, downtrodden, decidedly unsexy characters. She gained weight for both Doubt and The Help and didn't spend much time in makeup. In real life, she works out six days a week in her garage with her college-linebacker-turned-actor husband Julius Tennon. "I wondered how they were going to make her look plump and matronly, because her body is rock hard," says Stockett, who based Aibileen on her family's housekeeper, Demetrie. But in front of the camera, Stockett says, "Viola walked and moved exactly the way Demetrie walked and moved."
"You can give her a very small technical note, and she gets what you're going for emotionally, instantly," says Daniel Barnz, the writer-director of next year's Steel Town, in which Davis plays a teacher trying to fix a broken school, alongside a mom played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. "She brings a complexity to every moment. When you watch her listening to Maggie, there's 10,000 things going on in her face that you can understand."
Davis is not only able to transform her walk, her look and her voice; she's able to completely hide the fact that she's a bit of a nerd. In conversation, she refers to Camille Paglia, quotes Arthur Miller twice and reveals that she watches an awful lot of Discovery Channel. "The digestive system of a cow I could watch it for five hours," she says. She's shy and self-effacing. She describes herself as a homebody and a "sloth." Years ago, before her second date with Tennon, she stared at her phone for a half-hour, agonizing over whether to tell him that she had to meet Phylicia Rashad for a drink the same day. "I was afraid of sounding L.A.," she says. This is not something that would upset Tennon. He frames all her magazine articles and hangs them in the house, until she tells him to get rid of them. Then they go into the garage. Until she sees them there.
Davis used to prepare for roles by closing the blinds and sitting in a room for five-hour stretches, reading the script over and over and taking notes. Her binder for her Doubt character who's onscreen for about 11 minutes ran to more than 100 typed pages. "I'm starting to get looser about it because it's too anal," she says, proud that she now works at her kitchen table with natural light.