Masterclass with Viola Davis: Breaking Down “Fences.”

Golden Globe-winner Viola Davis talks about the passion and process behind her film, Fences in which she revives her role as Rose with and under the direction of Denzel Washington, who also starred with her in the Broadway production.  

INDULGE: Tell us what hooked you about Fences and the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson?

VIOLA DAVIS: What made August brilliant is the spirit to allow people to enter him, exactly who they were and where they were. He took you in.  You felt that way when you were with him in person, that he saw you.  I see that in Rose, I see that with Vera, I see that with Maddie, that there is an absolute understanding of what it means to be a woman and where womanhood is at. And I think that was his gift, a great gift of vulnerability and empathy.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in “Fences.”

INDULGE: Who informed your portrayal of Rose?

VIOLA DAVIS: The woman who informed my portrayal of Rose is me, my Mum, my Publicist, my Manager, every woman that’s out there, black or white, any woman whom I’ve ever encountered who sacrificed, who gave, who at any given time gave up a piece of their lives for the greater good. That is our power as women. They said in the 50’s that “women hid behind perfectly applied lipstick and wax floors.” They hid their pain and Rose absolutely encapsulates that, but that’s any woman. We are taught to repress our dreams and our voices, even in 2016. And when you finally get to the point where life gives you permission, something kicks that voice out of you, just totally kicks it — pain, animalistic, being trapped in a corner — when it finally comes out, I can’t think of better words than what comes out of Rose’s mouth.

Viola Davis as Rose in “Fences.”

INDULGE: How did you design the character of Rose?

VIOLA DAVIS: The one thing in the process of designing Rose is I wanted to look like life had gotten to her without beating you over the head. So the gray in her head, the cracks in her skin, the simplicity of her wardrobe…to show the sacrifice before she even enters the frame, I thought that was very valuable. So the gray in the wig was very apropos and important to me. I didn’t want her to look like she came out of the “Brady Bunch.” Because I know that in the 50’s and especially in the Caucasian world, women were very put together, they were absolutely an extension of male fantasy. I think she’s way past that, she’s now in her life where you gotta’ see that woman who she says she is by the end – “I gave up little pieces of myself to him.”

INDULGE: What makes Fences universally appealing?

VIOLA DAVIS: I feel like the themes in Fences are about marriage, identity, parenthood, father-son relationships, lost dreams. What August did is he created what Arthur Miller did in “Death of the Salesman.” Before that, the hero was the God, the King, but he created the everyman, the flawed anti-hero.

INDULGE: On playing the scenes, how did you decide whether to play them big or small?

VIOLA DAVIS: We rehearsed the movie before we actually started filming. I remember we did that scene where I tell Troy that I’m standing with you.  We did it in the rehearsal hall and I did everything small.  And if you know Denzel, he’s very honest, brutally honest and he’s like,  “That don’t work.’  He said, “Do it big. Do whatever you think is too big.” And so I did it bigger. And he said, “You know that’s not too big for me.” And then, what clicked for me, what has always clicked for me — because I am an actor so I observe in a way that you don’t observe, I see things that you don’t even see, that may go past you, everything in life I soak up like you wouldn’t believe, so i know every moment in my life — is the moment that i found out that my boyfriend, whom I loved dearly cheated on me, the moment that my Dad took his last breath and the hospice nurse put the stethoscope on his chest, and what my reaction was, every breath that came out of my mouth, what his body looked like, seeing my Mom and her reaction…And it’s not always small.  It’s just not.