Viola Davis gave an award-winning performance as housemaid Aibileen Clark in the 2011 drama The Help. But if the actress were offered the same role today, she might turn it down.
In a recent Q&A with The New York Times, Davis revealed she has "passed on a lot of roles" over the years, but few she lamented. "There have been one or two that I regretted for maybe a minute, and then I let it go," said the actress, who next stars in the drama Widows. "As I'm growing older, I pass on roles because of my experience of knowing once the movie's out, I'm going to have to promote it. And I don't want to promote anything that I don't believe in."
"Almost a better question is, have I ever done roles that I've regretted? I have, and The Help is on that list," she said, perhaps surprising its fans. "But not in terms of the experience and the people involved because they were all great. The friendships that I formed are ones that I'm going to have for the rest of my life. I had a great experience with these other actresses, who are extraordinary human beings. And I could not ask for a better collaborator than Tate Taylor."
It's true that Davis has remained close with co-stars Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Octavia Spencer and Emma Stone. Just last year, in fact, Spencer said she had spent the morning of the Golden Globes soaking in Davis' hot tub before hitting the red carpet. So, why does Davis regret her role in The Help, adapted from Kathryn Stockett's novel of the same name? "I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn't the voices of the maids that were heard. I know Aibileen. I know Minny. They're my grandma. They're my mom," the 53-year-old Academy Award winner said. "And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie."
Davis has voiced similar concerns before.
At a British Academy of Film and Television Arts event last year, Davis explained why she did the film. "I knew it was a best-selling book, and I knew it would change my career. That's what I knew," she recalled. "I thought it was an important story, but I had a lot of issues with The Help."
For example, the actress loved that Stone's character wanted to write a story from the maids' perspective of what it feels like to work for white women. "I don't feel like it was from our perspective. That's the problem I had with it," she said. "And I had it from the very beginning."
For one thing, she said, "The anger, the vitriol, and the hatred that they would have towards these white women would have been vocalized. You didn't see none of that! You saw Minny putting the s--t in the pie, but that was comedic in nature, so it's an easier pill to swallow. These black women would hate these women. But I think one of the reasons this film was so successful is because a lot of people were brought up with these co-mothers, these maids. I think they weren't shown as messy because nobody wants to stain that memory of that black woman who loved them—probably more than their mothers loved them. They want to keep them pure." Too many important scenes were cut from the final film, she claimed, which would have done the characters justice. "By the time it makes it to the screen, the truth is so filtered down, and then it's given to you to make you feel very comfortable," she said. As storytellers, "It's not our job to make you feel comfortable. It really isn't," she said. "If you feel comfortable, then that is your journey and your cross to bear. That is the beauty of art. The beauty of art is that we throw it to you, you receive it—and if you shift in some way, then we've done our job."