The romantic drama Beautiful Creatures tells the story of 17-year-old Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), whose world is shaken up with the arrival of Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), the niece of Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), the reclusive owner of gothic Ravenwood Manor. Immediately drawn to each other, it becomes apparent that Lena is a Caster with powers beyond her control, and the two are faced with a curse that will claim her for either the Light or the Dark on her 16th birthday.
At the film’s press day, actress Viola Davis – who plays Amma, a Seer with her own reservations about a union between Ethan and Lena – talked about why she wanted to be in this film, how she personally feels about past lives, how being from the South herself helped inform her character, what she discovered about her own family from the research she did for the role, working with her young co-stars, and filming scenes with Jeremy Irons. She also talked about her roles in Prisoners, which she’s filming now with Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, and Ender’s Game, which she recently did with Harrison Ford. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
VIOLA DAVIS: It was attractive to me because, at first, I thought that she was just a regular woman, and then you peeled away the scars, and her being the keeper of this library, and her being able to channel spirits, and I liked that depth of character without beating someone over the head with it. It was that mysterious part of her. I like creating a rich inner life of a character because I sometimes feel like everybody wants to see everything played out on screen, in a way that’s very dramatic. I like an interesting inner life. I think it’s harder to play. I think it’s more challenging. That was the case with Amma. I loved it.
Was it liberating not to have to wear a wig for this character?
DAVIS: Yes, absolutely! The other day, I had to do a video thing and because I’m wearing my hair in this movie I’m doing now (Prisoners), I got a color job that fried my hair, so I was letting it rest. I braided it and put on a wig, for the first time in awhile, and I was like, “Ah!” Listen, I love my wigs. My daughter goes to my drawer and says, “Mommy, you wanna wear your wig?” But suddenly, it felt odd, in a way. Suddenly, it felt like I wasn’t being who I was. I’m still going to wear my wig, but I just think it’s interesting, at this time period, for me to just use it as an enhancement and not a crutch. That’s as much as I can say about it.
You’ve played a lot of historic roles, and you play a Seer in this film. How do you feel, personally, about past lives?
DAVIS: I used to totally believe in it. I remember, when I was young, I saw The Reincarnation of Peter Proud with Michael Sarrazin, and I was like, “Oh, my god!” There was also the movie with Anthony Hopkins, Audrey Rose. I remember thinking, “Oh, my god, you could be here, and then another person from the past could come in.” Of course, I always made it evil like, “They could choke you to death in your sleep.” I was a kid, at the time. But now, it’s much more in the psychotherapy realm, in terms of the past and who your parents were, and passing on character traits, bad habits and good habits, and a good mind-set, whether it be self-esteem or confidence. For me, the past dictates your present. You become the person you are, based on what you know and what’s been passed on to you, in terms of character traits. Now that I’m of a certain age, that’s how I see it now. I don’t see it as so much me channeling the spirits of my ancestors, but channeling mind-sets.
DAVIS: Well, I was born on the Singleton Plantation in St. Matthews, South Carolina. Literally, when you drive up, you drive down the long pathway and see the big house, then you drive further down and you see the one room church, and then you drive further down and that’s where you see the sharecropper’s hut, or the slave quarters, but the sharecroppers would live with the outhouse, and that’s where I was born. That was my grandmother’s house. So, for me, I had to imagine what we, African Americans, would be doing during the Civil War. I had a whole image of that, and a physical image of that. I just wondered, “Who were we, other than slaves?” I had a physical image and I understood the whole Gullah part of it. Amma spoke Gullah, and I wanted to go even further back than that because the movie is so much about the past, and Amma channels so many ancestors from the past. I’ve done a lot of research, in terms where we came from and where we landed, and the African slave trade and all that. I thought it would be interesting if the characters I channeled came from the distant past, from Yoruba and Nigeria. I thought about where they could have landed and what their lives were like, once they got to the United States. I know about the plowed fields, the cotton and the pecan trees, so that helped shape her character. Even if you didn’t see so much of it, it informed me, in a way.
The South has a negative reputation for some people, but there’s a lot of wonderful things about it, as well. What’s your interpretation and take on the South, and how it really is a character in both this film and The Help?
DAVIS: Yeah, it is a character, in and of itself. It was a character, in and of itself, in The Help, with the heat and the history. I think the history is so palpable in the South, and I think it’s because there’s something that the South still holds on to, more so than other states. They hold onto the past. You go down to the South and you still see the plowed fields. At Singleton Plantation, where I was born, you still see the big house and the little church. I actually looked it up online and saw my aunt, who still works on the plantation. You drive down the pathway and you still see the sharecropper homes. It has a way of holding onto the past. And then, there’s the heat and the food. It informs who you are, how you carry yourself, how you speak, how you think, and the roles that people play. It’s very different. It’s so different that when you walk back there, people know that you’re from out of town.
DAVIS: My sister is smarter than me, and she did most of the research. Yeah, I did. I’m so glad you asked that question. I discovered a memoir from a slave, whose first name was John, and he was on Singleton Plantation. I read most of it. I had to read it online, but it was stories about him growing up on Singleton Plantation, and it was great. That’s where I was born. It was his escape to freedom, how he was treated, and how he was beaten. He was a groom. He worked with horses, and my father worked with horses. And then, I began to make a connection. It was written in the 1800s. So, I learned a lot there. I loved that!
How was it to work with the Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert on this?
DAVIS: They were great! I love them! They are so confident. They are so unapologetic for who they are, which I was not at that age. I was an amoeba. I really was. I was so shy. I was too shy to even wear lipstick. That goes to show you where I was, in my life. And I love the fact that it’s a love story within this whole idea of feeling like their past dictates their future and that they have no say in it. And the fact that this young man finds this girl, even though she’s being ostracized, and he sees her. I think that’s how love happens. That’s how my husband fell in love with me. He just saw me, even through all my complaining and my bad credit. I love that about the love story. I love love. I love weddings. I’m probably going to have another one – my third – with the same husband. I think it happens very rarely, in a lifetime, that you fall in love and it’s real, and it’s a shame when it’s forgotten or lost. That’s how I feel. I love marriage, too.
How was it to do the scenes you had with Jeremy Irons?
DAVIS: Oh, they were great! He’s intense. But, I had the same feelings about him that I had about Meryl Streep. I felt like, “Oh, my god, I’m going to be working with Meryl Streep. She’s going to be telling all these stories about how she put the character together in Sophie’s Choice, and she’s going to be speaking in a really grand voice, and all the attention is going to be placed on her. It’s going to be all about her, but I don’t care because I love her. It’s Meryl Streep!” And she’s nothing like that. It’s the same thing with Jeremy Irons. He’s a total hippie. He’s this grand, talented man, and he counters it with great humility, and he’s very casual and loose. So, it was a joy to work with him in the swamps.
DAVIS: I’m working on Prisoners with Denis Villeneuve. He’s out of Quebec. He’s the French director who did Incendies. He’s fantastic. I’m working with Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Melissa Leo, Maria Bello, and Terrence Howard is playing my husband. It’s a great story. It’s about these two young girls go missing – my young girl and Maria Bello and Hugh Jackman’s young girl – and it’s about us searching for who took them and taking justice into our own hands. When does it become right or wrong? We’re exploring the humanity of the good side of justice and the bad side of justice. It’s beautiful because I think it’s just so relevant, in this day and age of child abductions, killings, sexual assaults and everything. You feel the rage. Even if it’s not your child, you feel that sense of wanting to get vindication. So, what lengths would you go to? This movie explores that, and it’s good. I think it’s going to be good. I really do. It’s a wonderful script.
You also recently did Ender’s Game, right?
DAVIS: I did Ender’s Game. People are really excited about that one. Harrison Ford. And I would stare at him all the time and my husband said, “You gotta stop doing that! You gotta just talk to people! I talk to people! You don’t talk to anybody!” And I said, “I know, but it’s Harrison Ford!” And he said, “I don’t care! Just talk to him!” But, I would just stare at him. He said, “How you doing, Viola? You know, I would have flown you out here with your daughter, when your daughter was sick. You could have just asked me.” And I thought, “I could have?!” And then, he’d tell really racy jokes, and I would think, “Harrison Ford is telling me a joke!” And then, I’d forget to laugh! He’s awesome! And Gavin Hood, who did what I would put in the top three greatest foreign films of all time, Tsotsi, which means “thug” in Afrikaans, is the director. He’s tough and he’s specific, and I think that it’s going to be great. What a moving story. And once again, it’s relevant. It’s about training these young kids to be soldiers and to kill, and what are the after effects of that? It’s wonderful.
Beautiful Creatures opens in theaters on February 14th.