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Viola Davis (right), Rosie Perez (middle) and Maggie Gyllenhaal in a scene from Won’t Back Down.
Kerry Hayes/Walden Media

After discovering her love of the stage at an early age, Davis — whose parents and five siblings moved from South Carolina to Rhode Island when she was a baby — took advantage of as many government-sponsored educational opportunities as possible. She went on to study theater at Rhode Island College and Juilliard before beginning a career focused more on the stage than on the screen. Her first Tony was awarded for her work in 2001’s King Hedley II. The second arrived in 2010, courtesy of her role in Denzel Washington’s revival of Fences. The New York Times called Davis’ performance as Troy’s wife, Rose, “magnificent.”

Today, Davis’ goal of creating something that will last beyond her lifetime affects her work as well as her personal life. In addition to regularly visiting Central Falls High School, the actress is a longtime supporter of the Segue Institute for Learning, a charter? school founded by a childhood friend in the same Rhode Island town. She gave a shout?out to the students there during her 2012 SAG Awards speech, and Meryl Streep ?(Davis’ Doubt co-star) later donated $10,000 to the school when it was struggling to buy a new building.

“Every one of my friends is an educator — and a passionate educator — so I know that world really, really well,” Davis says. “The character that I play in Won’t Back Down is a passionate educator who’s lost her passion.”

The film is loosely based on the controversial “parent trigger laws” gaining momentum in states like California. The laws would allow parents to replace teachers and administrators deemed ineffective in very low-performing schools.

In Won’t Back Down, a dyslexic child’s mother, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is desperate for her daughter to get a better education. She enlists Davis’ character, Nona Alberts, a mother and a teacher, to help take over the school. Alberts’ initial reluctance makes her another complex, conflicted role for Davis, whose performance in The Help as Aibileen Clark — a domestic worker in the Jim Crow South who is initially afraid to speak out about the horrid discrimination she endures — earned her a best-actress Academy Award nomination.

Davis’ first Oscar nod came after an eight-minute performance as the mother of a child who may have been molested by a priest in 2008’s Doubt. Her masterly portrayal of the emotions of a woman battling a lifetime of hardships — many of which never appeared explicitly in the script — became as buzzed-about in 2008 as her performance in The Help was this year.

“I feel like people want to see a character come full circle, or some human event has to happen for me to identify it as really good acting,” she explains. “And some of the time, I’m given characters that don’t have a strong narrative. They just don’t. And I have to create a person out of that.”