On set with Viola Davis

"She'd still kill them if she had to"

What was your reaction when you were first approached about playing Amanda Waller in Suicide Squad?

 Were you familiar with the DC comic at all? I knew nothing about Amanda Waller, but, obviously, I’d heard of David Ayer. He invited me to his house to talk about Suicide Squad, but he was tired from a gig he had just finished so I didn’t really get it. I didn’t know anything about this world and, I mean, he was just fighting to stay awake [laughs]. But he was able to tell me a little about it and one of the things I remember him saying was, ‘I don’t want to do a super hero movie where these characters aren’t humanized. I can’t do it, dude.’ He said a lot of dudes [laughs]. He said, ‘I want them to be badass, but I really want to understand where they’re all coming from.’ Then he started asking me questions about my life, and that first meeting was magical in that sense. I appreciated the fact that he wanted to know about me. 

What qualities do you think David brings to this project as a filmmaker, and what was it like working with him for you as an actor? 

 Well, I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I did a lot of theater and have worked in several different genres. I’ve done classical theater, contemporary, avant-garde. And I remember asking myself this question one day: What makes me lean in? What is the common denominator that all of those genres share, whether it’s movies, TV, Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, whatever. And, for me, the common thread of what makes any of them good is that somewhere in there, it’s grounded in truth. The characters feel comfortable saying, ‘I’m a person. Even if I’m in this odd and fantastical world, I’m a person coming from someplace.’ And I think that that’s what David’s brought to it. That’s the elixir. That’s what makes this different. You’re not just seeing these characters flaunting their stuff. They’re meta-humans – you’ve got people living in the sewer who are cannibals, like Killer Croc; you’ve got Harley Quinn – but what draws you in is some human element within them. And the humanity that David really tapped into was the misfit element, which was refreshing. Let me tell you, there’s not one actor who cannot relate to being the misfit because the misfits are usually the kids who get sent to drama class. ‘Okay, you see that kid sitting in the back of the class with half his head shaved off and a tongue ring? Send him to drama’ [laughs]. He tapped into that human element of being a misfit, being left out, being on the periphery, and tapped into the anger of feeling like the outsider. And he allowed us as actors to tap into that in a way that was courageous and bold and, I think, ultimately healing for a lot of people.

Tell me about Amanda Waller and how you found your way into this character? Did she come to you intuitively? Did you look at the comics?

 Well, I did a couple of things. First of all, I consulted with my comic book fanatic friends, and they were very serious with me, ‘You cannot mess this up’ [laughs]. Amanda Waller has changed over the years, and there are a couple of different versions. There’s a contemporary one, and she’s got that kind of Rihanna hairstyle. Then there’s a kind of heavyset one with the big afro. Of course, I like the one with the ‘fro because she was familiar to me. And what I tapped into with the character, once again, was the human story - the fact that she’s from the Cabrini-Green Projects in Chicago. Her husband had been killed, leaving her to raise her two children alone. She went back to school and became this big law enforcement government woman. What was much more difficult for me to tap into was the part of her that had shut down, that was literally sociopathic. I read a book, actually, that Joel Kinnaman [Col. Rick Flag] gave me, called Confessions of a Sociopath [by M.E. Thomas]. It was exactly what it sounds like – the confessions of a sociopath – and I have to say that I had to put it down after a while because I had to sleep at night. It was this one woman’s story; she was a sociopath but was not violent, and the book was really just her explaining her inner life. For me, that was a way into Amanda Waller. It helped me to develop her inner life and to make her specific. Every day that I worked, I had to keep remembering some of the things she said in the book, like, ‘Yeah, we cry, but only for ourselves’; ‘There’s no sense of guilt’; ‘We feel angry when we lose.’ It’s high level narcissism; it’s being highly intelligent, very self-focused, and willing to do anything to get what you want. So, I had to really just focus on shutting down. That’s the only way I knew how to do it. If I was actually sociopathic it wouldn’t have been as hard, but I don’t shut down the part of me that’s falling apart and hurt. I embrace it all, so that was really difficult for me. 

As the boss of this whole operation, Amanda Waller just commands the room, even among the most dangerous people on the planet. Was that challenging to play? 

Yeah, absolutely. That’s what you have to do as an actor. She does own the room. She’s the leader, but me – Viola – I do not feel like the leader every day. It’s very hard for me to walk in and own the room. God has given me a great gift and the gift He’s given me is that people never see that. I don’t know how that happened, but people always feel like I’m a badass – I’m the complete opposite of that. Maybe it’s my voice, my stature, something in my aura that gives them that impression, but it’s just not me. For Amanda, I had to just, like I said, fill it up with some of the ideas I got from that book. And it’s a very interesting book, by the way. One of the things the writer said was that a lot of CEOs of companies are sociopathic; a lot of leaders are sociopathic. So I had to just keep reminding myself of that. 

David brought the cast together for a five-week rehearsal period to work out the dynamic between your characters and bond as a group, but your character is the one holding the Squad’s leash. Can you talk about that experience and how it affected your performance and the cast’s as a whole?

It was about bonding as actors and an ensemble, which is what we do. It’s a collaboration of different artists – that’s the only way we can do what we do. So, it was getting comfortable with that dynamic, trusting each other, giving each other the space to explore. It was all of those things. It was also understanding that I was the outsider. Amanda is probably empowered by it, but I – Viola – didn’t like being the outsider. What David would do is that we’d be going through the scenes and he’d throw something at you, as any great director would. He created these scenarios that would get us out of ourselves and into this whole other world and mentality. He’d say, ‘Do it as if she’s your wife and you came home after being away in the army for five years and she’s with two other dudes and pregnant’ – I’m making this up, but it’s very David Ayer – ‘And you’ve got a gun in your hand and you want a kill a man. And you’ve had a fifth of vodka [laughs]. Okay, now, do the scene. Do it, man’ [laughs]. Hey, it was a blast. I have to say, though, that there were parts of the rehearsal process were really terrifying to me. We had this whole thing where we had to tap into our own angers and our own stories of feeling on the periphery, and tap into the very dark world of psychopaths and killers to understand what that is. I’m sensitive of all those things, so that part was just very uncomfortable for me. But it was good to be given the chance to explore it before jumping into it. 

How do you think Amanda sees the individuals that she throws together to create this ultimate Black Ops team? 

For me, as an actor, I felt she has a different feeling for each and every one of those characters. I really embraced the fact that she’s out of the Cabrini-Green Projects, and if you read up on the Cabrini-Green Projects in Chicago, it was just a very challenged community. So there was something about Killer Croc and Deadshot that would feel familiar to Amanda Waller. It’s an admiration but also a familiarity – they could be family members. So I felt that would be a huge connection for her. As much as Amanda Waller can have feelings, she probably has more feelings towards Killer Croc and Deadshot than any of the others. 

Would you go so far as saying she has a soft for these guys? 

As soft as she can get. She’d still kill them if she had to, but she’d probably take about a half an hour to kill them, as opposed to 45 minutes [laughs].

Do you, Viola, have a soft spot for anyone in the Squad? 
 
There are so many of them that I loved, I have to say. The Joker or … I want to say Harley Quinn because it’s a close second. Actually, look at me, I’m going to totally wimp out and say Deadshot.

Why?

Here’s the thing about Deadshot. Unlike all of the characters, for me, there’s something great about his connection to his daughter. I know he’s an anti-hero, but he’s an anti-hero with a purpose. And I kind of don’t see him as a bad guy and good guy. I see him as a guy just doing what he has to do to create a life for his daughter. That’s the place he’s coming from. 

Maybe it’s because one of the scenes that I loved doing – even though it scared the crap out of me – was when he shoots all these guns. They bring him out of the prison, out of the hole, and he gets to shoot this array of weapons and just enjoys them so much. He’s just grooving on each one he picks up. So I think he sees what he can do as a gift. For me, Deadshot has an element that is different from everyone else, so I would say he is my favorite. And also, I love Will Smith [laughs].

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