SAG Awards: Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer on acting, injustice and awards-season frenzy
Why, yes, Viola Davis does find it strange and exciting that she beat out veteran actress Meryl Streep (the woman who gets nominated for just about everything) to take the SAG award for female actor in a leading role for her turn in "The Help." “I feel pretty overwhelmed with my name being called,” Davis said backstage Sunday night when the cast answered questions about the film's best ensemble win.
Earlier, of course, Davis had taken the stage to accept her award for her portrayal of Southern domestic Aibileen Clark in “The Help," the big-screen adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel. "I just don’t see the ‘best’ thing going on," Davis said. "It’s hard. Every time I start a new job, I feel like I start with a clean slate. … I feel like everyone is going to find out what a hack I am. And it’s strange to triumph over Meryl Streep."
But Cicely Tyson, Davis’ “Help” co-star, wasn’t the least surprised by her win or that of Octavia Spencer, who took the statuette in the supporting female actor category.
“I’m not surprised that Viola and Octavia were awarded for the unbelievable work that was done in the film,” Tyson said. “I had a dream — and I told Viola about it — that she and Octavia did win. So it wasn’t a surprise to me. What surprised me is that the two of them were black. That’s unusual … what I saw tonight was extreme promise and hope.”
But for Davis, the role was accompanied not only by acclaim but also some criticism. “During the course of promoting the movie, I found myself having to defend my choice in playing a maid,” she said. “I’ve had to find my voice. I had to find my voice as a woman of color, as an artist. And I never thought I would be put in a position like that. I’m usually in the background of movies. All of a sudden, I was being put to the test, being pushed against the wall. It kind of made me feel what Aibileen felt.”
For her part, Spencer seemed to take pride in the characters and spirit of “The Help.” “I’m thrilled that [the film is] shining a light on women who haven’t been given a voice in our history,” Spencer said.
She also said the experience of playing Southern maid Minny Jackson was a profound one that made her realize “To be silent is to be passive.” While responding to questions backstage, Spencer both voiced her support for gay rights, comparing the issue to past civil rights struggles by women and African Americans, and took on societal standards of beauty.
“It’s our society that has told [women] and continues to tell them when you reach a certain age you’re no longer valuable, that when you reach a certain weight, you’re no longer valuable,” Spencer said. “We have to start standing up for ourselves and saying, 'This is who I am.' ”
The outspoken actress has been on a roll this season, having won awards for her performance at the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards and now the SAG Awards. Spencer was honored to be recognized by her fellow actors. “It’s beyond profound,” she said backstage, “because its your peers saying you are the best that you can be tonight.”
Asked by a reporter if she was excited by the chance to continue her success and win an Academy Award in a few weeks, Spencer demurred and praised her competition.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say to you I would love to win an Oscar,” Spencer said. “But we have a group of brilliantly talented actresses, and it’s not a foregone conclusion that because I’ve won these [awards] then I’ll win [the Oscar]. I would never be that presumptuous. I mean, Melissa McCarthy, Jessica Chastain, Janet McTeer are in that category. Pretty brilliant.”
— Yvonne Villarreal and Oliver Gettell
Photo: Octavia Spencer, left, and Viola Davis backstage at the Screen Actors Guild. Credit: Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images.