Viola Davis and Edie Falco Talk Race Sex and Life Before Stardom
The actesses talk over drinks about the struggles in their early years – waiting tables and eating Spam – and what success means to them today.
“It takes 20 years to make an overnight success,” as Eddie Cantor, the old vaudevillian, put it. And judging by the acclaimed careers of Viola Davis and Edie Falco, he wasn’t far off. Interestingly, neither of the actresses would have had it any other way.
Ms. Davis, a Juilliard graduate, was in her mid-30s by the time she won her first of two Tony Awards in plays by August Wilson. Seven years later, she was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actress for a single, intense scene opposite Meryl Streep in “Doubt.” Three years later, she was nominated for a best actress Oscar for “The Help.”
And this year, at 50, Ms. Davis became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy Award for lead actress in a drama series for her performance as a steely, manipulative and wounded defense lawyer in “How to Get Away With Murder.” This week, she was nominated for a Golden Globe for that performance.
Ms. Falco, 52, followed a similar path of building slowly on each success. She had a small speaking part in Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway” in 1994. Three years later, she played a beleaguered prison guard on the HBO show “Oz,” before landing her breakthrough role as Carmela Soprano on “The Sopranos.”
She followed that critically acclaimed performance with the role of Jackie Peyton, a pill-popping nurse on “Nurse Jackie,” which ended its seven-season run on Showtime this year. For her work as Carmela and Jackie, Ms. Falco won four Emmys, two Golden Globes and five Screen Actors Guild awards. She is one of only four actresses ever to have won one of each in one season.
Over afternoon drinks at Ai Fiori in the Langham Place Hotel (red wine for Ms. Davis and sparkling water for Ms. Falco), the two discussed acting as a tonic for their harsh childhoods, how their slow ascent prepared them for success, the pleasure of playing “difficult” characters and the plight of women, particularly women of color, in film and TV.
Philip Galanes: Thanks to celebrity magazines, I know that you … Oh, look! You both grimaced simultaneously.
Edie Falco: Celebrities are just famous people.
PG: You’d rather be struggling still?
Viola Davis: I look back on those early days in the theater like the beginning of a love affair, when you’re totally in love with the work, and that’s all there is. None of the outside effects, no celebrity or interviews — no offense …
EF: And the ones who really wanted to act were doing theater.
PG: So you came to New York and auditioned like crazy?
EF: If you were lucky enough to get an audition. For years, I didn’t have an agent, so I was looking through show business magazines.
James Gandolfini and Ms. Falco in “The Sopranos.”
VD: I had an agent, but there weren’t a lot of roles that fit my type. So I didn’t even audition much.
PG: Sounds grim. Why didn’t you quit?
EF: I had nothing else to do. No Plan B for that.
VD: I’m glad she said it. Whenever I’m in the room with another actor, I think: Maybe she could have been an astrophysicist, but I had no choice. Jane Fonda once told me she stopped working for 15 years because she was depressed. She said, “Can you work when you’re depressed?” Sure, there have been times when I’ve been depressed: A guy dumps me, no money to eat. But I worked because I had to.
EF: I have so much fondness for that kid I was. It wasn’t just the rejections. People said horrible things about my body and the way I looked, which seemed within the realm of acceptable because I was an actor. But I got up and went out to another audition the next day. I had a fortitude then I don’t have now.
VD: A passion that outweighed the failure. I didn’t see the roaches. I didn’t see the mice.
PG: You worked as waiters?
EF: For a million years.
VD: And ate Spam. But all the bad plays I did, all the terrible jobs, they taught me the kind of actor I wanted to be. They cemented my passion.
‘Hold up a paper bag to your face. If your skin is lighter than that, you’re all the good things: smarter, prettier, more successful. If you’re darker, you’re ugly.’ – Viola Davis Credit Hilary Swift for The New York Times
PG: You both had rough childhoods. Viola lived in extreme poverty, and Edie’s parents kept marrying and divorcing, lots of family instability. Why choose careers that put you right back in that place?
EF: It seems cuckoo, doesn’t it? I haven’t seen Robert [Iler], who played my son on “The Sopranos” since the show wrapped. We come together so intimately as actors, then break apart, which was the exact narrative I grew up in.
VD: I stumbled onto the best profession to heal my childhood. The only one that lets you release and express whatever is ugly and messy and beautiful about your life. We’re in the business of creating human beings. The more we spew, and the more honestly we do it, the better. Try that on Wall Street. It’s why they throw all the kids with bad behavior into drama. We don’t care how screwed up you are. We actors love it. You can use it.
PG: You felt that release as kids?
VD: No, I just wanted out. As much as I loved my parents, I wanted an escape.
EF: Same here. My parents did the best they could. But I grew up with so much craziness and turmoil at home, and I was in charge of fixing all of it. Being at school, or in plays, was a relief to me. I had such responsibility beyond my years at home.
VD: I was bullied at school. The black girl in Central Falls, Rhode Island, in 1973. There’d be 8 or 10 boys, I would count them as I was running. They’d pick up stones and sticks from the side of the road and yell, “Ugly black nigger!” Always those three words: “ugly black nigger.” Will Smith said: “There’s always one incident that defines you. I will always be the kid whose girlfriend broke up with him when I was 15.” And I am always that 8-year-old girl, running and running and running. I wore a mask because I didn’t want to show them that they hurt me. And I still do. I feel like the voice for all women of color sometimes. I don’t want to let them down. Let them see I don’t always feel attractive or strong.
EF: The freedom of acting was not having to be in my own life.
PG: Your expression “wear the mask” reminds me of a killer scene in your show when your character sits at her vanity, wiping off her makeup like war paint.
From left, Octavia Spencer, Tate Taylor, Ms. Davis and George Clooney at the Oscars. Credit Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
VD: So many women characters are extensions of male fantasy. They’re all coming out of the same factory, but I don’t recognize them from my life: skinny, young, cute. They drink like fish, have sex with 10 men in one day, but they’ve never been sexually abused or had any obstacles. So, when they gave me a character whose adjectives were hard, manipulative, sexualized, it said something to me about trauma. It said: When she walks out the door, she has to have her hair and makeup perfect. She has to be three times better than anyone else. But I needed a moment when she wasn’t those things, when she takes it off. That’s what makes people lean in. They can see themselves putting a retainer in their mouth at night to keep from grinding their teeth …
EF: This woman knows my life.
VD: Listen, we have sex like that, too. We look terrible when we’re having sex, right? I needed to show that woman because I’m never going to be the first kind.
PG: Such a truthful moment, which brings me to “Nurse Jackie,” the best liar on TV.
EF: In real life, when you’re lying, you are really trying to convince everyone that it’s true. But in most acting, the actors do an awful version of trying to convince people, like they’re signaling the lie.
PG: You two are on the front line of new women on TV: leading characters with terrible flaws.
VD: Who doesn’t have a flaw? If they were men, we’d just call them interesting human beings. You know what I’m saying? Being likable is way overrated. If that’s your main goal in creating a character, you’re just building a Mr. Potato Head. Who’s going to be interested in that?
EF: I’d rather be interesting than likable.
VD: Any day.
‘I’ve never gotten a single job because of the way I look or my age. It’s never had anything to do with it.’ – Edie Falco Credit Hilary Swift for The New York Times
PG: You’re both so direct. I’m having a hard time believing a story I read. Before your show goes into production, Shonda Rhimes, the executive producer, says: “You’re going to have a lot of weight on your shoulders, Viola. Make a list of things we can give you to make your life easier.” And you couldn’t come up with a list. Why?
VD: What do I need? I’m getting a very good salary. I can take care of myself.
EF: But there’s always that, “What dressing room do you want?” “What stuff do you want in it?” P.A.’s running around. It creeps me out. Not to mention that I’m the same person who, 15 years ago, couldn’t get an audition. They’re trying to make you think you’re something you’re not. That’s what I worry about when kids get success early on.
VD: I was just going to say that.
EF: When they start to assume: This must be because I really am hot stuff. When, in fact, they haven’t put in the time, they don’t recognize themselves as just another struggling actor. If success comes early, it can mess with you. As rough as my early days were, I wouldn’t change five seconds. I’m always grateful to work.
VD: And we understand it’s not always like this. We represent a tiny percentage of the profession.
EF: It’s not about talent, either. There are so many talented people who weren’t at the right place or whatever it takes to make this happen.
PG: Do you worry about longevity? Do you ever give yourself “finger face-lifts” in the mirror, thinking, would that extend my career?
EF: I’ve never gotten a single job because of the way I look or my age. It’s never had anything to do with it. I’m going to age, so the characters I hope to play will be older. There’s a huge part of our world that’s over 50.
Ms. Falco accepting an Emmy in 2010 for her work on “Nurse Jackie.” Credit Kevin Winter/Getty Images
VD: I am a character actor.
EF: Thank God for that.
PG: You are sober, Edie. Was Nurse Jackie’s raging addiction a big draw?
EF: The first script about Jackie had nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. And when it came up, I fought it. This was supposed to be a comedy, and there’s nothing funny about addiction. But as they worked material in, I said, “As long as it’s accurate to what I know.” And the producers honored that.
PG: Before “Nurse Jackie,” I’d never heard of high-functioning addicts.
EF: They’re everywhere, slowly killing themselves.
VD: We have a lot of secrets as people.
PG: How well did you know your character, Annalise?
VD: When it comes to women of color, especially women of darker hue, there’s a limit to the pathology that people are willing to explore. That’s why we play caretakers, judges. You don’t see their personal lives. Their vaginas are cut out, so you don’t know if they’re sleeping with anyone. And if they are, they’re hookers. It’s very specific. But I didn’t want to limit Annalise’s humanity. I like that she’s a mess. But the foundation of who she is, I give to [creator] Pete Nowalk. She comes from sexual abuse and she’s had to work harder than everyone else to get where she is.
PG: Tell me about the “paper bag test.” Were you aware of that at Juilliard?
VD: Absolutely, it’s historical. Hold up a paper bag to your face. If your skin is lighter than that, you’re all the good things: smarter, prettier, more successful. If you’re darker, you’re ugly. That’s been working its way through our race for hundreds of years. I’m dark-skinned. You can’t compare me to Taraji [P. Henson], Kerry Washington or Halle Berry, the other black women on TV. I wanted to play a fully realized, dark-skinned woman, and just doing that alone could be revolutionary.
PG: There’s been lots of talk about unequal numbers of roles for women and their pay. Have you been stung by that?
EF: I don’t know why I don’t feel it personally. I’m tempted to judge myself harshly for it. But I can’t get past the gratitude of doing something I love. It doesn’t mean there aren’t steps to take to make things better. Maybe it’s a poverty mentality thing? I walk past seven homeless people on the way home, and I’m going to complain that I’m not getting paid as much as a man? I’m going to get my butt kicked for saying that.
VD: You’re being honest.
PG: Is it fair to say you took your stand in your moving Emmy speech, Viola — those beautiful lines of Harriet Tubman?
VD: I don’t want people to confuse lack of opportunity with lack of talent. There are great actors out there who will never have the chance to show what they can do. Being the first black woman to win in the category, I was thinking of the Mary Alices of the world, women I know are great actors, but who haven’t been given the chance. The idea that they could pass, go to the grave thinking they weren’t good enough, that killed me.
PG: Do you consider producing content for yourselves?
EF: It’s a piece of the business I don’t understand. I also don’t have an interest in it. Send me the script. I love doing my job, which is: You come up with the story, and I will take it and filter it through my experience and perform that person. As of now, I’m pleased that there’s still exciting stuff coming my way.
VD: I’ve got to seize this moment because not a lot out there is written for someone like me. And I need to do something with this leg of the race I’m running. So I created a production company with my husband. We’ve got a Harriet Tubman project at HBO. And a Barbara Jordan project that Tony Kushner is writing.
EF: Wow, wow.
VD: Necessity is the mother of invention.
EF: There you go.
By Philip Galanes Dec. 11, 2015