Davis says the late actor was an amazing talent with an unwavering work ethic
On Monday, Netflix unveiled several scenes of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom during a private press event that featured a conversation with Viola Davis and the film’s director, George C. Wolfe.
I watched intently as Chadwick Boseman graced the screen in the last project he filmed before his untimely death, taking in his incredibly powerful performance as Levee, tears rolling down my face at the sight of the late actor who died of colon cancer in August.
During the virtual event, Davis revealed what a special place Boseman holds in her heart and how much she respected his work ethic.
“Chadwick is my baby,” she said while reminding viewers she played his mother in Get On Up. She noted how seriously he took his work as an actor and explained that he wasn’t distracted by the glitz and glamour of his profession the way so many stars are.
“Chadwick was just an artist,” she said. “For someone so young, it was incredible to watch that level of not mistaking your presence for the event.”
In the film, executive produced by Denzel Washington and based on the 1984 play by August Wilson, Davis transforms into Ma Rainey, the prolific 1920s jazz singer as she contends with the reality that her best days may be behind her. Davis is no stranger to Wilson’s work – she won a Tony Award for playing Tonya in Wilson’s King Hedley II in 2001, and an Oscar and a Tony for portraying Rose Maxson in Fences onstage and onscreen.
“When you look at Ma Rainey as a narrative, you see our hopes and dreams… mixed with the trauma of our past. People had big visions and big dreams. The past, though, became a huge obstacle in achieving that,” Davis said. “A huge motivating factor with me is feeling like I’m not valued. It either makes me come up like a pit bull or feel like crap.”
Davis says Ma Rainey was unapologetic in every aspect of her life and career and that included her sexuality.
“I loved that fight in her— her unapologetic nature, even with her sexuality.”
In the film, already generating Oscar buzz weeks before its release, Rainey’s lover Dussey May is played by Taylour Paige, best known for “Hit the Floor.”
“I have to get back to her sexuality…I felt that it was my mission to absolutely not make that a negative,” said Davis. “When I read about Ma Rainey, Dussie May was her woman. It’s your job to approach a character without any editorial comment.”
When it came to transforming herself physically for the larger than life role, Davis said she modeled her look after her beloved Aunt Joyce, whom she called “one of the first beautiful women I had ever known” while admitting she enjoyed showing off her character’s curves.
“I wanted a very specific body structure,” she explained. “I wanted that body. There was liberation once I had that padding on, I actually felt freer and very very cute by the way. I was always swishing my hip. I felt like, ‘look at me.”’
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom hits Netflix on Dec. 18.
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