Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t recognize Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, at least not right away. While Davis has been gracing the stage and the screen for 30 years, you’ve never seen her looking quite like this. Underneath Ma’s gold teeth, heavy make-up, and flamboyant costumes, Davis is almost completely unrecognizable. It’s the biggest physical transformation in Davis’ career, and makes her a dead ringer for the real-life Ma Rainey, whose portrait can be seen during the film’s end credits.
For Davis, changing her look to that degree wasn’t easy. “I grew up with a lot of big women that I thought were the most beautiful women in the world,” Davis tells IndieWire. With help from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom costume director Ann Roth, Davis made sure that those women, like Davis’ aunt Joyce, were represented on screen. Davis gained a bunch of weight for the role, but topped out at around 200 pounds. A foam suit based on Aretha Franklin’s measurements was used to add the rest.
But Davis couldn’t just look the part. She had to move like Ma Rainey, too. “She’s unapologetic, and that extends to her body and the way that she dresses. And trust me — as Viola, in my life, I don’t do that,” Davis tells the New York Times. Still, once she was in costume, Davis found the entire experience freeing. “I reveled in her, I swished my hips every day. There was such joy in that freedom of expression,” Davis says. “I felt very sexy with that fat suit.”
That confidence makes its way to the screen, and helps make Davis’ Rainey an unforgettable character. When she’s around, there’s no doubt who’s in charge. She owns the room simply by being there.