5 Basic Facts About Viola Davis
Davis is the first black actor to achieve the Triple Crown in Acting
(by Jim Webb)
(Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder)
Viola Davis is one of the most accomplished African American actors ever. In fact, she’s the very first black actor to achieve the so-called Triple Crown of Acting: winning a Tony Award, Emmy Award and an Academy Award.
Here are five basic facts about Viola Davis:
#1. Davis Began Her Acting Career in the Theatre
Davis, a native of St. Matthews, South Carolina, began her acting career in Rhode Island, where her family moved shortly after she was born. Like many actors, Davis first got her feet wet in the theatre scene, performing roles in local theatre productions and at Rhode Island College, where she majored in theatre.
She received her equity card from her stage debut in 1988, in August Wilson’s play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
#2. Davis Studied at Julliard
In the early 1990s, Viola Davis began attending one of the most prestigious acting schools in the world, The Julliard School in New York City, where she trained for four years.
Her career took off soon after graduating from Julliard in 1993. She won an Obie Award in 1999 for her portrayal of Ruby McCollum in Everybody’s Ruby.
Davis followed that up with a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her role as Tonya in August Wilson’s King Hedley II in 2001.
#3. Davis’ Big Break Came in Doubt
With all the success she had achieved up to that point, Davis still had not had the breakthrough moment that would make her a household name and familiar face. That moment would come when she was cast to play Mrs. Miller in Doubt, alongside Meryl Streep.
Davis’ performance earned her a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, even though she only had one scene in the film.
Doubt led to The Help (2011), which was also a breakthrough of sorts for the emerging actress. Her portrayal of a maid named Aibileen Clark in The Help allowed her to channel her mother, who had also worked as a maid, and produce a memorable portrayal. Her performance landed her a second Academy Award nomination.
#4. Davis Was the First Black Actor to Achieve the Triple Crown in Acting
There have been many wildly successful black actors throughout the history of American cinema: Sydney Portier, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Halle Berry…
But it was Viola Davis who was the first black actor to achieve the so-called Triple Crown in Acting: earning a Tony Award, Emmy Award and an Academy Award.
Her Tony Award nominations include:
*Seven Guitars (1996)
*King Hedley II (2001) – she won
*Fences (2011) – she won
Her Emmy nominations include:
*How to Get Away with Murder: 2015 – she
won, 2016, 2017, 2019
*Scandal – 2018
Her Academy Award nominations include:
*The Help (2011)
*Fences (2016) – she won
#5. Davis’ Acting Philosophy Involves Heavy Preparation
Viola Davis, in the past, has gone into detail about the amount of preparation she puts into every role she takes on. She pays special attention to the backstory she develops for her characters.
As she explained, in an interview with BAFTRA:
“I read [the script] over and over and over again. Just to find out…the given circumstances; who you are, what people say about you? And then I write a bio of the character. I try to fill it up as much as possible. What are her memories? Does she have brothers and sisters? What secrets does she have? What’s her favorite color? I do all of that work first.”
But she cautions actors not to over-prepare to the point that their preparation constrains them from the spontaneous moments that they must have with their scene partners:
“I have a process…hopefully other people do, too….but one of the things that I do when I collaborate is, whatever the [other] actor gives me, I use. I don’t go home and prepare a performance, and then come to the set, and use that performance that I prepared at home. Whatever I work with at home, I only take it to a certain extent. And then when I go on stage, I prepare myself for the fact that the other actor may give me something completely different.”
“Because, what has happened in the past, and I see with other actors…they’ll tell another actor how to act. And the reason why they do that is because they’ve already planned what they want to do. And that other actor, whatever they’re giving them, is interfering with that. That’s not how it works! You gotta say “yes” to your partner. If they’re giving you a line in a certain way, guess what? You gotta get up off your “A-Double-snakes” and use that. That’s my process of collaboration.”
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