Ask Viola Davis if she was able to sleep the night before filming her intensely dramatic scene with Meryl Streep in Doubt, and the 43-year-old actress throws her head back and laughs. "I did not sleep one wink," she says. "I got up. I looked at the script. I paced, lay back down, got up, paced some more. You can't suck with Meryl Streep. If you do, she'll eat you alive. Not intentionally — she's a beautiful person — but she's going to come at the top of her game. No, you don't sleep."
Davis definitely does not suck in Doubt, writer-director John Patrick Shanley's movie version of his Pulitzer Prize–winning play. Davis is in only one scene in the entire film — technically, two scenes that play out together in one long sequence — yet her performance affects audiences so deeply that she may soon be getting as much attention as her Oscar-winning co-star.
In the film, which is set in 1964, Davis plays Mrs. Miller, whose son, Donald, is the first African-American student at a Bronx Catholic school. She enters the drama when the school's formidable headmistress, Sister Aloysius (Streep), summons the nervous parent to her office to inform her that she suspects the school priest (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) of molesting 12-year-old Donald.
By contemporary societal standards, Miller's pragmatic response to the nun's announcement is alarming, but it's also breathtakingly complex. "Life is not easy," Davis notes in defense of her character's decision about her son's future. "There are no easy choices, especially in 1964. As an actor, you can't judge it. You just play it."
Davis discusses her character in the first person, as if she hasn't quite let go of her. "My life started long before I walked into Sister Aloysius' office. There's a whole relationship with my husband and my child, there's my relationship toward God and Catholicism. I'm bringing that history with me to the sister's office. An actor has to figure all that out. And then the scene starts."
Stealing the show has become standard procedure for Davis, whose performance in the 1999 Public Theater production Everybody's Ruby is legendary in theater circles. Two years later, she won a Tony for August Wilson's King Hedley II, which, in turn, helped her to land a role in Denzel Washington's directorial debut, Antwone Fisher. Playing the title character's drug-addicted mother, Davis appears in one scene near the film's end. She has no dialogue, yet the look of pain on her face as she listens to Fisher condemn and then forgive her for a life of neglect speaks volumes.
In both Antwone Fisher and Doubt, Davis manages to suggest the entirety of a woman's life in mere minutes of screen time, an alchemy the South Carolina native credits to "craft," learned at Rhode Island College and later at Juilliard. "Craft has become a dirty word," she says. "Acting isn't brain surgery, but there is a specific way of doing it. Craft gets you to the moment of transformation."
"Transformation" is another important word for Davis, particularly when talking about her hardscrabble childhood and the fantasy role-playing she and her sister used to do, which often found them dressing up in their mother's Salvation Army furs and pretending to be rich socialites — "rich white socialites," Davis adds. "Our world was very tense — we lived in abject poverty. Those fantasy games were our way of escaping, of releasing — and my way, maybe, of expressing that I didn't want to be who I was. That was my first tip that I loved living in imaginary worlds. It was comforting to me, that transformation."
When I ask Davis if she has a sense of the Oscar buzz building around her, she smiles and lets out a joyous "Yes!" (Davis strikes me as a very happy woman.) "They're making a fuss," she says. "It feels fabulous. Mostly, it makes me feel like I did my job. I was so nervous going in, but now it's like I won the lottery. I feel blessed. I couldn't have imagined anything like this growing up."
She seems to reflect for a moment on the long journey from there to here, then adds, "Everybody wants to go to the Oscars. We'll see. Buzz is happening, but you can't touch buzz. You can't pay your bills with buzz."