In a recent interview with VogueContributing Editor Andre Leon Talley, Viola Davis revealed that she had an abundance of real-life experience to draw on for her role in the Oscar-nominated drama The Help.
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The Help details the hardships of a maid, played by Viola Davis, working in the South during the civil rights movement. As a young African-American girl growing up in the tumultuous 1960s, Viola was very familiar with some of the plights laid bare in the script.
"I have stories of being spit on," admitted Viola, who was born in South Carolina but grew up in Rhode Island. "You have to realize I was in a predominantly white culture ... And third grade was the worst because every day after school I would wait at the door and the bell would ring. And as soon as the bell rang I ran as fast as I could from the front door to my house, which was at least a mile away, because I would have eight to nine boys with sticks, bricks, anything they could find, who were ready to kill me."
When her teachers wouldn't help her, Viola went to her parents for advice on how to handle her bully problem.
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"I finally told my mother," said Viola. "She said, 'Viola, I want you to take my crochet and needle and you put it in your pocket and if they stop you again you tell them you're gonna [stab] 'em.'" Viola's bullies backed off after she took her mother's advice.
Andre and Viola, who were both born in the South, bonded over having similar grandmothers, who were influential figures in their lives.
Viola's grandmother literally had a hand in raising her from birth, as she delivered baby Viola when the midwife was late. Both of their matriarchs worked as domestic maids.
"I didn't think we were poor," said Andre, who was raised by his grandmother. "We didn't have everything, but we did have the luxury of food, and a lot of it, [and] the luxury of going to church every Sunday."
Andre admitted that Viola is one of two women that he looks up to. The other is Michelle Obama.
"Absolutely, if I thought it was relevant and correct," Viola said when asked if she would ever consider playing the First Lady in a film. "I always like stories where you see human beings in struggle."
Viola has used her own struggle to have a positive effect on her attitude and career, saying, "Having it hard made me build so much character ... You have to actually say, 'Is the world going to define me or am I going to define myself.'"
For more from Andre, please visit Vogue.com.