Viola Davis & Julius Tennon: How to Get Away with Diversity

September 11, 2020
Viola Davis and her husband Julius Tennon kicked off this year’s Toronto International Film Festival with a spirited conversation about their mission to offer more roles for a diversity of creatives, within their own JuVee production company.

“We want to serve the people who are voiceless. We didn’t want them to just be an image serving a white-centric narrative. We really wanted autonomy for people on the periphery and that became its own sort of fight. Us actors are usually on the outskirts, serving the white character all the time,” says the actress who ran the company with her husband from their own house for the first six years, moving four years ago to their own LA offices where they now have a first-look deal with Amazon.

Meanwhile, Davis teased fans about her own hotly anticipated upcoming musical drama, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by George C Wolfe.

Faced with a decision to put on weight and grow to the character’s desired 300lbs, the actress admits she fell short of that weighty goal.

Instead, she packed on the pounds till the scales tipped 200lbs, before letting a fat suit do the rest of the work.

“I tried to gain as much weight as I could and I got up there. I got close to 200lbs, but I needed to get over the hump,” says Davis.

Turning to award-winning costume designer, Ann Roth, she recalls their conversation. “Ann asked me which body I wanted to look like.

“And I grew up with a lot of big women that I thought were the most beautiful women in the world. I didn’t know that I was not supposed to see that as beauty until I came to Hollywood.

“But, for me, it was always Aretha Franklin. I told Ann, ‘I want that body’. So, Ann got Aretha’s measurements and she made a fat suit based on Aretha Franklin and that became Ma Rainey’s fat suit.

“And can I just tell you? I felt very sexy in that fat suit.”

So thrilled was she with her larger self, she even called her husband from the Ma Rainey set.

“This woman calls me and says, ‘Honey, you’ve gotta look at this! My fat suit!’ She told me she was so proud of that suit,” laughs Tennon.

Based on August Wilson’s play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, set in 1920s Chicago, sees Davis as the titular Ma Rainey, an ambitious horn player who bucks against white management.

Produced by Denzel Washington, the film also co-stars the late Chadwick Boseman, serving as a poignant final performance.

The first African-American actress to achieve the “Triple Crown of Acting”, having won an Oscar, an Emmy and two Tony Awards, Davis’ roles include The Help, Doubt and Widows as well as hit TV drama How To Get Away with Murder.

Admittedly, she and Tennon first formed JuVee Productions as a vehicle for the actress.

“After The Help, it became very apparent that I was going to continue to have the same kind of roles available for me, so it became very obvious that we had to find those emerging artists and find that emerging material,” says Davis, 55, widely recognised for her advocacy and support of human rights and equal rights for women and women of colour.

But, shortly after JuVee’s inception, its goals changed. “We soon decided we wanted to be the voice of the voiceless; to give opportunity to those who are under-served and not getting represented and being unable to get work in the industry,” adds Tennon.

“I’ve been doing this for 33 years professionally – 41 years in total – so I know the industry. Having worked that long, it becomes very apparent what will happen and what won’t happen.

“The national unemployment rate is probably 15% now, but the unemployment rate for acting is close to 95%. So that whole idea of taking control is a very abstract notion… there’s still a huge part of the work where you’re always fighting for autonomy and fighting for those projects where you are on the same playing field as your white counterparts,” says Davis.

Not that JuVee excludes white actors. “We have stayed steadfast to our mission statement because this is about a broad spectrum of humanity and that’s about all of us. We’re not excluding our white counterparts. We have narratives where white actors are in lead roles but the other characters of colour aren’t tropes or stereotypes. We want these people to just be people and that’s a fight,” says Tennon.

One of few actors to have enjoyed a busy 2020, earlier this year Davis served as an executive producer and appeared in the documentary film, Giving Voice. Premiering at this year’s Sundance, the doco follows six students entering the August Wilson monologue competition for a chance to compete on Broadway.

Co-starring with Sandra Bullock, she is currently filming Nora Fingscheidt’s unnamed drama about a woman released from prison after serving a sentence for a violent crime, while next year sees her reprise her role as Amanda Waller in The Suicide Squad, set for release in August 2021.

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