When the Golden Globe nominations were announced last week, nobody was surprised to hear the names of Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams chosen for their performances in the highly anticipated screen adaptation of the Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning play Doubt. Joining this cadre of nominees was a lesser-known actress from the movie, Viola Davis, who deservedly was recognized with a nomination for best supporting actress. Her onscreen time amounts to only 12 minutes spent arguing with Meryl Streep, but it’s volcanic tour de force acting-and one helluva confrontation. Set in 1964, Doubt focuses on a nun (Streep) who confronts a priest (Hoffman) after suspecting him of abusing a black student. I sat down with Davis, who plays the student’s mother, to discuss her work.
Were you aware of the play when it came out? Yes, I was aware of the play, but I had not seen it. I had not read it. I think I had the script for four months before I even auditioned. That’s how confused I was about the role.
Were you daunted by the fact that Adrienne Lenox, the actress who originated your role on Broadway, won the Tony Award for her performance? Yes, it terrified me. It absolutely terrified me. You never want to be compared to another actor, ever. You just don’t. You know, we’re egotistical. We’re really into ourselves even when we’re not. So you want to be fabulous on your own. This character is one of those roles that just works, though. It just works. They always say in acting there are 50 million choices you can make, but not all of them are good choices. This is a kind of scene and the kind of role that you can put so many good actors who can make 50 million choices and they all work in their own way. You have to just trust it, you know? And I think that’s sort of what I had to tell myself to do before I walked into it.
There aren’t many actresses who can stand up to Meryl Streep onscreen, but there you are, mano-a-mano with her, and it’s pretty amazing. I don’t think I slept for days before shooting. I thought to myself, “What did I get myself into?” Because you know she’s not going to suck, right? And you know Philip Seymour Hoffman isn’t going to suck. Or Amy Adams isn’t either, so that just leaves me. And so, I’m telling you, I was terrified because I grew up in Central Falls, Rhode Island. I was one of those kids who just dreamed of doing this. I dreamed the biggest dream I could dream and had no idea how to bring it to fruition. The two actresses who inspired me were Cicely Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, because she aged from 15 to 105. She was fantastic and she looked like my mom, so I thought, “I can do that.” And the other actress is Meryl Streep. And here I am acting opposite Meryl Streep. And I have to tell you, you go into it with all that fear because she’s an icon. What ends up happening is the fact that she’s a fantastic actress is what makes it easy. Because when you’re acting opposite someone fantastic, you have the support. She’s going to give you what you want and need.
There’s no vanity in your performance. You’re crying; you have snot running down your face. Were you aware of this? I’m one of those actresses who is never satisfied. I always feel like someone is going to find me out. The day is going to come when people realize I suck. And so I go to loop the scene, and I see part of that scene and I see those snots coming out of my nose, and I took to my bed. I was depressed for two weeks! I thought to myself, “Why did I do this?!” See, I couldn’t see Meryl Streep’s performance. I wasn’t looking at her. I was just focused on the snot. Because I thought to myself, “Why didn’t I wipe my nose?” I’m sorry to talk about the snot, but I knew that when I played the scene, that it wasn’t about vanity, of course. It’s a scene about mother love. It’s a Sophie’s Choice mother love. It’s an infanticide mother love. It’s like Beloved-the women in slavery who would kill their babies, their children, as opposed to letting them lead a life in slavery. It’s that kind of love. If it came down to me and my child taking a bullet, I would take the bullet for my child. If you ever got to that point, would you? So I know that more so than the boogers and the way I looked and whatever, that me bleeding and being the advocate for my child was more important than anything else.
It’s by far one of the most remarkable scenes we’ve seen this year in cinema.
Doubt is now playing in Santa Barbara theaters.