Viola Davis' journey to Triple Crown-winning actress

Viola Davis opens up to Jon Wertheim about her new role as Ma Rainey, her relationship with August Wilson's material, a bold scene on "How to Get Away with Murder" and her life growing up.

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The Triple Crown of horse racing is hard to come by. Same goes for the Triple Crown of Acting - that's an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony in an acting category. Of the 24 performers who have pulled off the feat, Viola Davis is currently the youngest and the first African American. On stage, or when the cameras roll, Davis will rip your heart out, but with a surgeon's touch. She doesn't overwhelm so much as she inhabits a role. Perhaps because of this classical approach to the craft, she didn't vault to A-list status, but rather worked her way up, letter by letter. Her next performance is Davis in full ascent: she headlines a Netflix movie, out later this month, adapted from August Wilson's canon of plays. At age 55, Davis put on weight and padding, put in gold teeth, and plays the irrepressible title character, in the film "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

Ma Rainey was the real-life "Mother of the Blues," whose cabaret-style tent shows in the 1920s South led her to a lucrative recording career.

Ma sang from her gut and proudly declared her bisexuality in her lyrics. Viola Davis swivels into the character, a diva with heft, a role she didn't see herself playing at first.

Viola Davis: No I did not. Here's the thing about acting. It's a weird Peter Pan syndrome that happens. So, I still saw myself as that 19-year-old girl going, "I can't play Ma Rainey. I'm too young. You gotta get a more formidable actress who's been out there for 40, 50 years," until I realize "Viola, you're actually a little bit older than what Ma Rainey is."

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Viola Davis

Davis has been out there, acting for three decades. First on stage, then in a string of films as the best friend, the junkie, the widow, the maid, but Ma is different. 

Take this scene: before recording tracks on a sweaty summer day, Ma demands that the White guys profiting from her music first bring her a Coke.

Jon Wertheim: Did you get all that Coke down in one take?

Viola Davis: Yes I did. 

Viola Davis: Yeah, I drank the whole Coke. Yes. 

Jon Wertheim: What's really going on in that scene?

Viola Davis: What's really going on is it's not about the Coke. It's about what I deserve. It's about what I've worked for, and what I've earned. 

If Ma Rainey was unapologetic about her worth, Viola Davis took a while to get there herself, nudged along by the late playwright August Wilson - the man who wrote her breakout stage role, Vera in the 1996 Broadway production of "Seven Guitars."

Fifteen years later, her layered portrayal of devoted wife Rose Maxson in another Wilson classic, "Fences," earned Davis first, a Tony Award and then, an Oscar in the film adaptation.

Jon Wertheim: What is it about August Wilson that clearly resonates so deeply with you?

Viola Davis: First of all, he creates real human beings. And he makes the most common Black man, Black woman, kings and queens. But I think that there is a common understanding that when you have playwrights and writers like Arthur Miller, and Eugene O'Neill, and Edward Albee, and Shakespeare, that they're writing a universal language, because they're white. I think that you could see yourself in an August Wilson play. I do. 

Jon Wertheim: You don't get to meet Shakespeare. You don't get to meet Tennessee Williams. You met August Wilson. What was the most memorable thing he ever said to you?

Viola Davis: That I was beautiful. It was during "Seven Guitars." She has a monologue that absolutely is like an aria. And he said he would always watch it, and he would always say, "Viola, you are just so beautiful." And-- I don't know. I never felt feminine. I never felt like I could fit into that sort of confines of what it meant, or the stereotypical ways of what being a woman was about until I did "Seven Guitars."

Viola Davis: All artists have “imposter syn... 03:07

For the last six years, Davis pushed the boundaries of femininity on the small screen, as criminal defense lawyer Annalise Keating in "How to Get Away with Murder," once famously removing her wig and makeup on camera.

Jon Wertheim: Did you know in advance of the role that that scene was coming?

Viola Davis: Yes, because I told them that they had to write it for me.

Jon Wertheim: They had to write that scene?

Viola Davis: Absolutely. 

Viola Davis: I wanted to humanize her as much as I could and I wanted to put my stamp on her as much as I could.

In her work, Davis will choose reality over vanity every time. She strips away any veneer in telling her own story too. She grew up in Central Falls, Rhode Island, one of six children in a family gripped by poverty. 

Viola Davis: There was one apartment that we lived in that was just infested with rats. They were everywhere. They were in the cabinets, they were in the walls, they were under our beds. And just never having any food.

Jon Wertheim: You speak very openly about growing up in poverty. 

Viola Davis: Yeah.

Jon Wertheim: Why do you do that?

Viola Davis: I do that because I think that there's a lot of shame involved with poverty. That you wouldn't be poor if you did the right thing. When you're poor what happens is it seeps through your mind. It's not just a financial state. It's an invisibility state. It's a worthlessness state. 

Why hard work has never scared Viola Davis 02:25

As a girl, she dealt with these feelings in part by creating alter-egos, an early exercise in slipping into character.

Jon Wertheim: Who were Jaji and Jaja?

Viola Davis: Jaja, Jagi darling. (LAUGH) They were our imaginary friends, (LAUGH) me and my sister Deloris, who were the closest in age. And we would play these, like, two rich white women from Beverly Hills. We would imagine all these fabulous dishes that we would be eating. And at the same time as a way to escape our lives into these sort of shadow characters who were everything that we weren't. 

By the time she got to high school, Davis was calling herself an actor and imagining herself on a professional stage.

Viola Davis: I needed something to catapult me out of this like a rocket booster. The dreams, they couldn't be casual dreams. 

Jon Wertheim: Did you know you had talent deep down?

Viola Davis: Oh yeah.

Jon Wertheim: You did?

Viola Davis: Abso-freakin-lutely.

Viola Davis on fighting for her worth 02:48

She studied theater in college and then got a scholarship to Juilliard, the exclusive performing arts conservatory in New York City.

Jon Wertheim: What was Juilliard like for you?

Viola Davis: Juilliard, I compared it to Mucinex. 

Jon Wertheim: Mucinex the drug?

Viola Davis: Mucinex, yeah, the cough syrup. Mucinex, it works. (LAUGHTER) But it tastes really bad going down. They critique your body, your personality, your speech, everything. 

Jon Wertheim: So, what is that like to hear? This isn't, "Viola, you're not a particularly good dentist," This is you.

Viola Davis: It's devastating. 

She came into her own on theater stages around the country. Scorching and illuminating were among the raves critics lavished on her early performances. 

Jon Wertheim: You played this house. 

Viola Davis: I sure did.

Despite recent foot surgery, Davis kept her date with us at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles where she performed in the 90s. 

Jon Wertheim: This is really cool. 

Viola Davis: Oh man. I know. 

The stage still fills her with awe. 

Jon Wertheim: What's the first thing that goes through your head when you're on a stage?

Viola Davis: Wow. It's that big rush of adrenaline. 

Jon Wertheim: This theatre's been dark for almost nine months now?

Viola Davis: Yeah.

Jon Wertheim: To what extent do you worry about the performing arts?

Viola Davis: I worry about the performing arts all the time, even before COVID. I know acting is not rocket science, I really do. But it's an art form and it has its place. We need people to feel. We need people to know that they're not alone. That's what the theatre does.

60 seconds with Viola Davis 01:01

The stage actress vaulted to Hollywood star when she stole a scene from Meryl Streep in the 2008 movie "Doubt."

Jon Wertheim: Was there added pressure playing alongside Meryl Streep?

Viola Davis: What do you think? And you know she's gonna bring her game. So, you have to match it. You just wanna look like you belong in the movie. (LAUGH)

The performance, remarkable as much for what it holds back as what it reveals, made such an impression that Streep lobbied for Davis by name at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Meryl Streep at the Screen Actors Guild Awards: Viola Davis. My God, somebody give her a movie!

Jon Wertheim: That must've knocked you over. I mean, that must've--

Viola Davis: Oh, my God. It was everything. 

As bigger roles came her way, Davis says she still felt stalled. She's been critical of Hollywood for providing too few opportunities to Black actors and for assuming movies with Black leads won't sell.

Viola Davis: And even after you so-called have "made it," it's still a fight every single day. And what we're fighting as African Americans, we're fighting the movie-making business that has already decided who you are and how you're marketable. I could deal with you if you're just a part of the story, but you're just a secondary part of the story, you're not the main focus.

Davis is, unmistakably, the main focus of her latest film. Even if the character she plays doesn't get top billing on history's call sheet.

Jon Wertheim: There wasn't a lot of material on this woman. There are not so many photographs. This is one, probably the best known one.

Viola Davis: Yeah, I love this one. I love this picture because I'm always wondering, "Who is she? Who is she really," beyond the gold teeth, beyond the sereneness you see in this?

Jon Wertheim: What do you think?

Viola Davis: She was a combination of a woman from her time period, which is right in that smack dab in Jim Crow, feeling worthless, but, at the same time, knowing who she was deep inside.

Viola Davis on Chadwick Boseman's final role 03:42

Ma Rainey also marks the final performance of Chadwick Boseman, who died of colon cancer last August.

Viola Davis: We were just watching a great artist absolutely give himself over to a role-- which is what you do. You give yourself. You sacrifice yourself.

Since the pandemic, Davis has repaired to her home in the San Fernando Valley which she shares with her 10-year-old daughter and her husband, Julius Tennon. An actor himself, Tennon appreciates the depths Davis can go in her work.

Julius Tennon: This woman's gettin' ready to do Ma Rainey, and she's showing me a fat suit. She's goin', "Honey! My fat suit!" she's excited about the transformation I mean, that's the epitome of an actor who really wants to disappear. And Viola disappears when she's working.

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Davis and her husband, Julius Tennon

Together, they run JuVee Productions, which pushes projects the studios might otherwise ignore. The latest movie in their pipeline: it's about a real-life all-female army in West Africa.

Jon Wertheim: Tell me about "The Woman King."

Julius Tennon: Oh, man.

Viola Davis: Whooo, whoo, whoo, whoo, whoo, whoo! I always wanted a Black female Braveheart. This is it.

The movie is set to start filming next year. This performer who toiled for decades, waiting for Hollywood to catch up to her talent, is now calling the shots.

Jon Wertheim: How do you take the measure of this journey you've been on?

Viola Davis: I have to say two things. Number one, I always have to tell myself that I'm not poor anymore, that I'm not that girl anymore. But at the same time, I have to honor that young girl. And allow her to squeal with delight at the 55-year-old she gets to become.

Jon Wertheim: That's an acknowledgment of the whole journey.

Viola Davis: Absolutely. 

Produced by Nathalie Sommer. Associate producer, Kaylee Tully. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Warren Lustig.