In “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Viola Davis looks unlike any character we’ve ever seen her play. With thick makeup, gold teeth, heavy body pads and a period-accurate horsehair wig (which the actor says was unbelievably hot under the set lights), Davis embodies the famous titular blues singer, who was one of the most successful women in music recording in the 1920s.
When actors push and contort their physical appearance to unrecognizable limits, they often become favorites of the annual awards-season buzz machine. Prosthetics, heavy makeup (or no makeup at all), drastic weight gain or weight loss, and wigs all aid in this allure. If the sign of a great actor is their ability to disappear into a role, then these physical transformations, especially of actors whom we think of as glamorous (Halle Berry in “Monster’s Ball,” Charlize Theron in “Monster”), offer up a way to easily ascertain whether a performance is indeed “good” or “bad.”
But the quality of Davis’ performance goes far beyond appearances. Indeed, the physicality of the role — that is, her very presence on screen — is the driving force of this film adaptation of August Wilson’s play. In a movie that takes place mostly in two or three different rooms, Davis sweeps into scenes like a hurricane of singularity. Her costume and makeup is not the performance, but rather an extension of a fully realized entity — a woman who is funny, wistful, brash, opinionated, clever, girlish, motherly, fierce, wounded and free, all at once.
At this point, it’s absolutely no surprise when Davis is great in a role; greatness has become her calling card. What’s activating about her performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” isn’t simply that it’s good, but that it’s exciting.
In this interview, Davis talks about creating the look and feel of Ma Rainey, her doubts and fears about taking the role, and the worth of Black women.
I wanted to talk about the physicality of the role — not just the makeup and the teeth and the clothes, etc. — but how you got to the place of having the presence of Ma Rainey. And whether those things, the teeth and the hair and everything, helped?
Yeah, it does. For me, the physicality was probably the most important choice, because I feel that people have an idea of what a “big Black woman” walks like. And in my world, the “big women” or the so-called “big women” are highly sexual. You cannot tell them what clothes they can’t wear. You cannot tell them to cover their cleavage. They have a whole different relationship with their bodies than is oftentimes seen on screen. They’re my aunt Joyce. My aunt Joyce was — other than my mom, my mom was the first — but my aunt Joyce was the first beautiful woman I saw. And she must have been close to 300 pounds. But every time she had the most fashionable clothes, she would switch her hips. And so that’s how I found the physicality. I wasn’t working against the size, I was working with it. I was embodying it, because that’s who she is. When she walks into a room, everything stops. So that had to go into her physicality. I did not want her to be apologetic with it.
I even told someone that I walked better in heels as Ma than I do as Viola. [laughs] I walk terrible in heels. And the part of me that it brought out with all of it, with the gold teeth — because they say that she had a mouth full of gold teeth — having makeup on that looked caked, and baby-doll eyelashes, and her makeup under the lights in the tent looked like greasepaint that was just melting off of her face, and all of that. What happened with all of that was that I found it freeing.
All of those things, in my mind, can or would feel constricting, or I feel like there would be an over-awareness of them. When you were playing the role, how are you able to sort of let go of the physical reality of this character and embody everything that those physicalities represented?
Well, I find as an actor, if all those things are in place, but they have nothing to do with the character, it probably does weigh you down more.
But because it’s a part of the character, it’s freeing, it’s illuminating, because then you have to deal with it. And then dealing with it, it’s not a weight weighing down, it’s dealing with “there are gold teeth in your mouth.” If you’re playing a character with braces, you got to deal with the braces. And the big thing is, does it affect your voice? Maybe it does, but she’s got gold teeth in her mouth. Are the wigs hot? Are all those things hot? Yes. But the oppressiveness of the heat does help with the character. Cause it can weigh you down. Heat does weigh you down, the sweat can weigh you down. But it makes me really want that damn Coca-Cola. It really does piss me off when Irvin [Ma’s manager, played by Jeremy Shamos] is not doing what he needs to do. So it informs your behavior, rather than weighs you down, because it’s a part of who you are.
If you had to play a character that had physical challenges, then it’s not a “weighing down,” it’s learning how to work within that. So it’s the same thing with everything. And even the padding had weight to it.
How involved were you with that process of putting on this physicality?
Well, when you start a movie, you do the fitting of the dresses. You do the fitting of the wigs, you do the makeup or whatever. And then, absolutely, you give your opinion. With me, whatever works with me — this is just an opinion — is whatever is really honest and authentic. So the wigs back in that day were made of horsehair. That means they are heavy. They are really thick and they’re hot. So when I put that on, Viola began to slowly disappear. And then at first the makeup was really, really pretty, but that’s not how it’s written in anything that you read about what people say about Ma Rainey. The makeup was not pretty until she did it herself. See, pretty makeup is just for the audience to feel comfortable.
Right, it’s more palatable.
Exactly. If you were doing your makeup, and it’s that heavy-duty makeup from 1927, that is thick greasepaint. What is it going to look like? And then you’re under the lights; she’s known for doing “coon-face shows.” Now, as insulting as people may think that is, that was the only entertainment available to Black people, that and Chitlin’ Circuit shows. So you would go there, dressed in white caked-up makeup, and do all these minstrel, funny things to make the audience laugh. And that’s what her and her first husband, or her only husband, was known for — Pa Rainey — for these coon-face shows. That thick makeup. So we messed up the makeup after the first makeup session. And then that with the sweat, because she’s known to sweat all the time. She was always sweating. I’m going to be honest with you, here was my fear. My fear is when people look at a Ma Rainey and they just want her to be big, fat, Black and funny.
And not see the duality or complexity in her.
Yes. That would’ve sent me to an early grave. I wanted to be her. I wanted to honor her. All of her complexity. I’m not saying that there’s not moments where she didn’t say anything that was funny because she was just being art ― in the same way all people can be funny, but they don’t even mean to be? But there was much more to her. You know, that I didn’t want to play the archetype. And so all of those specific choices helped me to not do that.
Was there any part of you that felt daunted in playing, not only this real life person, but also this character in a very iconic play?
Every single role I have, I have that. It follows me. It was a huge fear in failure. Even though it’s such a huge part of life. Even though, even if you get accolades, you still sort of feel this burning thing inside of you that says, “I could have done it better.” But what you’re also armed with as an actor — I know I have it, I know Chadwick had it and Colman [Domingo], Michael Potts and Glynn Turman and Dusan Brown and Taylour Paige, all of us, Jeremy Shamos, Jonny [Coyne] — is courage. And that’s the courage and the bravery to just step out on faith and make bold choices. And let me tell you something, when you have a great writer, he does 90% of the work for you. Because it’s harder to do bad work. [laughs] Let me just tell you, it’s harder to do bad work. And so I knew that there was no place to go, but just to leap.
And go for it.
And go for it.
I think this is one of the most exciting performances I’ve seen this year. I feel like your performance and Chadwick Boseman’s performance form the yin and yang in the film. Chadwick Boseman’s character [Levee] is someone who is striving to get to a place that Ma Rainey is at, but then we’re also seeing not only what it takes for her to get to that place, but also maintain it. Can you talk a little bit about that juxtaposition between your two characters and those two performances?
Yes, I can only because I know August Wilson, so I can answer this. He always has two characters that represent the material world and the spiritual world. Always. Berniece and Boy Willie in “Piano Lesson.” You know, Bynum and Herald Loomis in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” where one character’s answer is, “Get as much money as you can to show these white people how you live and, you know, just, you know, hit it big, you know, dreams and all of that.” And then there’s the other side of Bynum, who is like, “You have to know who you are in the world. You have to explore who you are. You have to love God and blah, blah, blah.” And I would say that Levee probably represents more of the physical world.
His value is in his shoes. His value is in his music. He doesn’t understand how the past, and that trauma, and not dealing with it, is going to be the source of what brings him down. Now Ma, on the other hand, Ma listens to her heart, Ma listens to the voice inside of her. That’s all that counts with Ma. “Cause I don’t like it up here, no ways. I can go back down South.” Ma is telling the truth of what’s in her soul. OK. And listen, “I know that this music is the music of the future, whatever, but I don’t want to do that.”
“I want to do what I want right now. Or I’m going to go back and live with my mom in Columbus, Georgia.” So it’s always that tug and pull as to what are the answers to release us as Black people? It’s W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, right? So, that’s what exists in all of August’s plays. And in the end, it’s like, who wins out? Is it the material or the spiritual world?
And what’s the true sort of path to freedom? Because something about Ma Rainey’s character that I really came away with is that she represents pure freedom. This is someone who is determined to be free no matter who is trying to dictate what that looks like for her. What’s your main hope for people to take away from this performance and from this movie and from the story?
I’m terrible at that, because I think people are going to take away whatever they’re going to take away from it. But if I were to dictate it, I would want them to understand the extent to which we, as Black people, have to go in order to get our value and our worth. How hard we have to fight. And in the end, what it cost us. That’s what I would want them to get. Because we are not the leftovers... That’s what I would want them to get from it, because that’s my big pet peeve that always, you know ― I, me and every person of color, especially Black women, we’re worthy. We’re worthy.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” streams on Netflix on Friday.