Viola Davis never set out to perfectly embody Ma Rainey as she was, nor did she particularly concern herself over meeting anyone’s expectations of how she would play the part. “I wanted to create a character on my own terms,” she tells ET. “I did not want to filter it through the white gaze or through any idea that people would have about someone who is larger, Black, a singer, a woman.”
“Usually those characters are just big and funny. Big, Black and funny,” Davis puts it plainly. “I wanted more than that. I wanted autonomy.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the actress’ second adaptation of an August Wilson stage show, following her Oscar-winning turn in 2016’s Fences. (Denzel Washington, who co-starred in and directed the latter, serves as an executive producer on Ma Rainey.) Davis stars as the legendary singer, known as the Mother of the Blues, during a recording session of the titular song in 1920s Chicago.
The role demanded a transformation, beginning internally and spreading outward. Few photos of the real Ma are in circulation, but to capture her appearance, Davis was fitted with padding, her makeup greased on and teeth gilded. “They say she always looked like she was dripping in sweat, all the time,” Davis adds, so that, too, became part of the look. The blood and tears are Davis’ but, “The sweat is from my makeup artist.”
For those in collaboration with her, no one expected anything less than this level of dedication on Davis’ part. “As soon as she says yes, she’s on the journey,” director George C. Wolfe says of her signing on, “and she’s bringing every single thing she has.” It was his job, then, to create an atmosphere that allowed Davis and her castmates to take risks and feel they had permission to fail. “Pressure to be perfect can stop real, authentic, brilliant work from happening.”
For Ma’s bandmates — a troupe of musicians played by Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Glynn Turman and the late Chadwick Boseman — that was evident from the moment they stepped on set. “The thing that is so apparent,” Turman says, “is Viola doesn’t run away from anything.”
“She runs to it,” Domingo chimes in.
“She is daring. She takes chances. She runs right into the flame like a first responder,” Turman explains. “It was not a Hollywood dance around the subject and make sure we come out cute on the other side kind of thing. This was just raw power all the way. And to watch her layer those on? Oh boy, what a performer. What a performer.”
At the end of the day, everything Davis put into Ma was about more than creating a character. It was about achieving the sort of experience that inspired her to get into this business in the first place. “You have very few of those experiences that you think you’re going to have,” she reflects with a laugh. “But every once in a while, something comes along and it’s exactly what you dreamed it would be. It’s like the most wonderful stew with the best ingredients, so then the process and the outcome are going to be nothing less than magnificent.”