The Arlington Theatre was buzzing Friday night as folks waited for Academy Award nominee for Best Actress Viola Davis to take the stage for an evening devoted to celebrating her career. Film critic Anne Thompson took the podium first, giving a brief bio of Davis before introducing actress Octavia Spencer, Davis’s costar in The Help. Spencer, also a 2012 Academy Award nominee (Best Supporting Actress), was charming, saying that working with Viola “was the highlight of my career.”
Finally, Davis was introduced and walked onto the stage greeted by a standing ovation. Thompson then led Davis through a two-hour Q&A, interspersed with clips from the actor’s impressive film repertoire.
Insightful, articulate, and witty, Davis held the audience rapt as she answered questions about her life and work. On becoming an actor, Davis explained: “I grew up in Rhode Island. My mom had an eighth-grade education, my dad a fifth-grade. We lived in abject poverty … My 9-year-old sister said to me, ‘The only way to make it out of here is to have a big dream.’ Then I saw Cicely Tyson, and I saw a craftsperson. I saw magic, and I decided that’s what I want to do with my life.”
A self-labeled theater geek, Davis told of how, as a child, she and her sisters entered — and won — a local playwriting contest; that she started taking acting classes at age 14; and what it was like studying at the famed Julliard School (“It was hell. … You are in a classroom 13 hours a day that has no windows”). She spoke of working with director Steven Soderbergh, saying that what she learned from Soderbergh was how to relax. “In theater you do all these exercises and pump yourself up. But the thing about film and television is to just be. Soderbergh is so calm it makes you relax.”
Davis said that her favorite roles tend to be portraying complex characters, such as the crack-addicted mother in Antwone Fisher and the role of Mrs. Muller in Doubt. “It’s a pleasure to play someone who is messy,” she said. “I loved the character in Doubt. I loved Aibileen. It’s like any profession — after a while you need a challenge; you need something to wake you up. It’s a pleasure to create a human being who is nothing like me.”
At the end of the evening, Myrlie Evers-Williams, the wife of the late Civil Rights advocate Medgar Evers, presented Davis with the SBIFF award for Outstanding Performer of the Year. In her acceptance speech, Davis admitted that there’s always the question of “Do I deserve this?” flitting back and forth in her mind. She closed by saying, “I hope that I deserve this. I hope that I live up to it. Thank you.” Judging from the audiences’ response, I’d say she already has.