Viola Davis is a force of nature — and we need her help.
At age 46, she stars in "The Help," the much awaited film version of the best selling novel by Kathryn Stockett.
Davis plays Aibileen, a domestic maid in the south who isn't allowed the chance to dream of a better life.
Instead, she raises other people's children, mops their floors and then must eat at a separate table. She doesn't dare use the family powder room. Instead, she has her own water closet.
"My Mom was born in 1943 and lived the life I play in the movie. She was a maid," Davis says on a weekday afternoon in Los Angeles where she's reflecting on the past. "She had a very hard life. No one invested in her potential.
"My Mom was very young when she had me and worked as a domestic and in factories," she says. "It was just terrible because she had gifts. She was capable. But there were no choices for her except basic survival."
In fact, Davis grew up poor in Rhode Island with her mother, her father, who worked as a horse trainer, and three sisters. Money was so tight that often there wasn't dinner and the girls shivered at night.
"You had to shake out your shoes because often a mouse or two had set up shop in there, she recalls.
The question was how to change her fate.
"The scene that kills me in 'The Help' is when Skeeter (Emma Stone), this young white girl, says to my character Aibileen, 'Did you ever dream of being anything else, but a maid?' I just look at her like she's crazy.
"These women weren't allowed to have any dreams. They went to their graves as untapped potential," she says.
"Unless you believe in a dream and then share it with someone else then you can't see it," Davis promises. "And the key is you can see your dreams at any age. You just have to dare yourself to dream big."
"I was given permission to dream – and that changed everything for me," says Davis who was Oscar nominated in 2008 for "Doubt" and won the Tony last year for "Fences."
"One night, my sister Diane said the magic words. She asked me, 'Viola what is your wildest dream?'" Davis recalls. "My mind started racing. I was allowed to be…anything? I thought, 'Maybe I can become …an actress."
FILMING "THE HELP"
Now, she's in demand for choice roles like in "The Help."
Of course, dreams come with a few wake up calls — especially for a midlifer.
Filming "The Help" in Mississippi was a sweaty experience thanks to soaring temps that hovered around 110 degrees. Adding to the misery was the fact that she gained weight to do the role.
"Gaining weight on purpose is not as pleasant as some people might think," she says with a laugh. "I have no problems doing it. I'm middle aged!"
"Usually if I eat a banana, I see on my body the next day," she jokes.
"Actually, I was on Broadway doing 'Fences' and couldn't gain as much weight as I wanted before I did 'The Help.' I had to be satisfied with what I did and remember that as an actress you have to let go and allow a character to surprise you.
"I was going for an image," she says. "Instead, I found this woman's heart."
GETTING OLDER IN HOLLYWOOD
"I'm worried about getting older in the same way anyone worries about it. For me, my worries are unfulfilled dreams or my body not cooperating with me," Davis says.
"I don't worry about not looking young," she insists. "At age 28, I was already a character actress. I've never been the cute girl who now laments, 'I'm losing my looks.'
"I think everyone as they age, especially women, should celebrate morphing into different life stages. We morph into different roles," she says.
"I celebrate that I'm about to morph again. It's exciting," she says.
Viola has even started a production company to help younger actresses.
"Instead of feeling jealous of younger women, I think as women at middle age it's about being a mentor. Why not support younger women and look beyond our individual needs and desires?
"In redefining our roles now as mentors, we can fly, too," she says.
MIDLIFE AND BEYOND
Davis is looking at another Oscar nomination this year for "The Help."
"As a kid, I never grabbed the toilet roll holder and gave my Oscar speech in the mirror. All I knew is I wanted to be an actor."
One wonders what her mentor – her sister Diane – says about her now famous sister? What does her mother think?
"My mom and sister are so excited and overwhelmed by it," she says. "I don't feel like a star around them. I just feel like Viola, the cry baby little sister!"
But don't let her fool you. Davis has an amazing outlook.
And great advice to all midlifers.
"One of the things I'm most proud of at this age is that I've given myself permission to be proud of myself," she says.
"Stop for a moment and think about one reason why you're proud of yourself. Do it right now," she says.
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