Viola Davis talks Steven Soderbergh, Tyler Perry, Meryl Streep and humanizing her characters

Posted by · 12:46 am · January 28th, 2012

SANTA BARBARA – The tributes at this year’s Santa Barbara Film Festival kicked off with a bang tonight as Viola Davis took the stage at the Arlington Theatre to be fluffed up for her Outstanding Performer of the Year Award. And in my four or five years of attending the festival, it was one of the better productions I’ve seen.

After Davis’s “The Help” co-star Octavia Spencer introduced the actress, my Oscar Talk colleague Anne Thompson served as moderator for the evening — her first stint in this format, and she did a great job. But Davis also makes it very easy with her organic and incredibly thoughtful responses. Truly, she commands this kind of setting so well, offering up authentic, specific insights into her process as an actress, and not in a sound byte way, but with a kind of matter-of-fact poignancy that really is exceptional. She’s “on” in ways other stars only hope to be in such a scenario.

Davis first went back to the beginning of her crazy dream of being an actress, recalling the first time she saw Cicely Tyson in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” in the 1970s. “I saw a craftsperson,” she said of the seminal moment. “I saw magic.”

Some time was spent on her Julliard training, which she chose in a bout of “eenie, meenie, miny, moe” and candidly described as “bad-tasting medicine” that nevertheless worked. But then there were the questions that drove out her philosophy on the work.

Indeed, “job” was a word thrown around a lot by Davis this evening, as the importance of having a gig and sustaining a presence as an actress, staying in creative shape, if you will, was specifically highlighted. And for Davis, it has been a long line of co-starring and supporting roles that led to her first major part in 2011’s “The Help.” She’s grateful for the experience of paying those dues, however, and found it quite formative.

“Your job is to get material, good or bad, and make something of it,” she said. “If we all waited for ‘Sophie’s Choice,’ we’d be waiting a long time.”

She noted that, so often, her function as a character actor has been “to facilitate the emotional journey of the lead character, which is often caucasian. It’s about how you take a role that serves a function and humanize it.”

She spoke frequently along these lines, referring to roles as the “clay” for her to “mold” into something beyond what might be on the page. That commitment to digging something unexpected out of her various appearances in films like “Out of Sight,” “Antwone Fisher” and “Doubt,” to name but a few, is what has made her stand out.

And watching the various clip packages throughout the night, it became clear why Davis is bound to win an Oscar next month: she has worked with EVERYONE, and they’e all rooting for her. George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Oliver Stone, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, the list is long and substantial.

One of her early breaks came from director Steven Soderbergh, who cast her in “Out of Sight,” “Traffic” and “Solaris” and was a big champion of hers from the start. “What I learned from him is to relax and to just be,” she said, indicating that coming from the stage, where projecting character outwardly is so important, it can be difficult to dial things down and let the camera pick up the nuance. “It’s that seamlessness that happens in life,” she continued. “He’s always so calm that it makes you relax.”

And then, of course, there’s Meryl Streep. Davis got giddy when she recalled working with her 2011 Best Actress competition on 2008’s “Doubt,” which saw four months of preparation for eight minutes of screen time. “It was awesome,” she said of the centerpiece scene of the film, which pitted her in a one-on-one with Streep. “Just the highlight of my life.” She basically admitted to stalking the veteran actress on the set, gleaning what she could. “I know I was aggravating her,” she joked. “Every time she’d leave, I’d come up with a question to bring her back to me.”

She talked briefly about Tyler Perry, who she worked with on “Madea Goes to Jail.” Thompson asked a bit of a prodding question — “Do you approve of Tyler Perry?” — to which Davis expertly shifted to the point of his employment practices, putting a number of African Americans to work both above and below the line, which is important to Davis.

Then it was on to the presentation of the award, which was a special moment unto itself as Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain activist Medgar Evers, was on hand to dedicate it. The death of Medgar Evers is what sends the characters of “The Help” on the journey of conveying their story, so the synergy was wonderful.

“Abilene and the characters of ‘The Help’ remind us that when we speak, if only in a whisper, momentous things can happen,” Evers-Williams said. And when Davis accepted the award, she noted again her time as a character actor, and offered up her gratitude that, through it all, she stuck out enough to be where she finds herself today.

I spoke to Davis briefly at a Montecito after party, particularly to ask her what it feels like to be in two Best Picture nominees this year (the other being “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” which wasn’t even referenced during the evening outside of a clip). Like many, Davis was stunned to hear the film’s title called on Tuesday and thought the time had come and gone.

Spencer, Evers-Williams, Samuel L. Jackson and “The Help” writer/director Tate Taylor were all on hand to toast the actress’s big evening at the soiree. And it’s sure to be just one of many as the season pushes forward. Next up is the SAG Awards on Sunday, which could easily see Davis take the lead actress prize. And, soon enough, the Oscars.

Davis, by the way, is only the third performer to be honored a second time by the festival after Annette Bening and Kate Winslet.

Tomorrow night the tributes continue as “Beginners” star Christopher Plummer will be handed the festival’s highest honor: the Modern Master Award.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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