• Image about Viola Davis
Viola with Central Falls High School theater students
Ken Jancef

To do so for her part in Doubt, she wrote a 50-page biography of her character. For Won’t Back Down, she looked to her family.

“Deloris absolutely was my prototype for Nona,” Davis says of her teacher sister. “[She was] someone who came out of the gate and wanted to change the world with her teaching and was stopped cold, like we all are for any number of reasons.”

Deloris Grant’s career was interrupted in 2010, when Central Falls High School was identified as one of the first schools eligible for overhaul under President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative. While the initiative was designed to offer various reform packages to schools like Grant’s, the superintendent announced she was firing all the teachers after her first plan wasn’t accepted. A spate of controversy ensued before the ax fell on Grant and her colleagues. Although the teachers were hired back, the overhaul dealt a major blow.

“She is a passionate, excellent teacher, very much like Nona,” Davis says. “Really goes above and beyond the call of duty as a teacher. Visits the students at home, takes the students on trips that she pays for herself. I mean really goes the extra mile. And she was fired. And after that, she questioned her path as a teacher. She said that was the one thing she knew she was great at in her life. And all of a sudden, that was taken away from her.”

Although she couldn’t share the script with her sister, Davis says, “I did have her write long monologues of how she felt being a teacher, especially before she got fired and afterwards.”

Speaking from her school in Rhode Island during a free period, Grant, a lifelong actor herself, recalls helping her sister research the role.

“Viola said, ‘Deloris, what would make you want to stop teaching, give it all up?’ ” Grant recounts, her cadence almost identical to her sister’s. “I remember saying the only thing is if the children didn’t believe in me anymore. Because I think teaching is about the relationship you have with the students.”

Acting, adds Grant, is also about engaging with and relating to others. And that’s something she says her sister has always excelled at.

“She understands people. She’s emotionally sensitive to people. And I think that makes you a good actor,” Grant explains.