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Kerry Hayes, Associated Press
This film image released by 20th Century Fox shows Maggie Gyllenhaal, right, and Viola Davis in a scene from "Won't Back Down." (AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Kerry Hayes)

Whether it's Sidney Poitier in "To Sir With Love," Richard Dreyfuss in "Mr. Holland's Opus," Michelle Pfeiffer in "Dangerous Minds" or Meryl Streep in "Music of the Heart," it's almost inevitable that great actors are eventually cast as great teachers.

But the notion is somewhat new to Viola Davis. "You're the second person who's said that to me, and I'd never thought about it," admits the 47-year-old star, who earned a best actress Oscar nomination for 2011's "The Help."

"I think the reason why actors are drawn to that is because teachers are heroic. It's a chance to play something maybe larger than life."

In "Won't Back Down," which opened Friday, Davis plays a discouraged teacher who rediscovers her spark for education by joining forces with a working-class mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) fighting to take over a failing inner-city school.

The film, which is inspired by real events, tackles some of the themes covered by "Waiting for Superman," the 2010 documentary about the problems of public schools. And it's already stirring controversy and being slammed by teacher unions, which object to how they're portrayed in the film.

The issues surrounding the story line are complex, but the dramatic conflict of the movie is fairly clear-cut. In this David and Goliath tale from director-co-writer Daniel Barnz, who comes from a family of educators, David is represented by Davis and Gyllenhaal, while Goliath is the inflexible bureaucracy of government and unions.

As someone who's appeared in several movies that touch on hot-button topics, Davis sees the value of tackling controversial subjects. "When you create stories where that's the background, the characters will absolutely be interesting. There's no doubt about it. If you start with that palette, then what will grow out of it is really substantial characters fighting and slaying big dragons, and you always want that as an actor," she said during a recent phone interview.

Davis, however, isn't interested in playing heroes without flaws. In this movie, she's a woman who's struggling with a divorce and raising a son with learning difficulties as well as coping with career burnout.

"I don't think it would be easy to come in and say, 'Hey, let's start a school.' I do think that comes at a cost. I think that's what life is about," she says of her character. But "the more she stepped toward the challenge, the more she began to come to life. When you do meet a challenge, something that you're absolutely afraid of, that is really what happens. It brings you back to life."

Although Davis didn't take home the Oscar for "The Help" earlier this year, she was a winner in every other sense. The Tony-winning stage actress who'd spent more than a decade as a character actress in movies and TV series — and who got a best supporting actress Oscar nod for 2008's "Doubt" — emerged from the Hollywood awards season as a full-fledged movie star.

It wasn't all glamorous gowns and red- carpet walks. While Davis received widespread praise for her performance in "The Help," the box-office hit also was criticized by a group of African-American female historians and others for distorting the experience of African-American maids in the 1960s segregated South.

Her journey with "The Help" led to deeper changes than just a career boost, according to Davis.

"For me, this last year, with kind of feeling like I had to defend my choice as an actor to do 'The Help' and then being blessed in the public eye so much, I felt like I had to find my voice," she says. "I felt like I couldn't be timid any more. I couldn't. Timidity has been my best friend for many years, let me tell you. I've been side by side with timidity, shyness, reserve, lack of self-esteem. But I had to leave that behind. Somehow I had to work through it, to make peace with it."

Davis brings empathy and compassion to her portrayals of private, often emotionally guarded women who reveal themselves to be anything but ordinary. She says she's interested in characters who are going through the motions of life, much like her teacher in "Won't Back Down," and in exploring what it would take to wake them up.

"I do believe many of us catapult ourselves to the grave never having tapped in to what's extraordinary about ourselves," she muses. "We feel if we're not a world-class gymnast or a world-class actor or have the greatest body or have a reality TV show that there's nothing extraordinary about ourselves, which is not the case. I think we take all that potential and we just squelch it. I think it's interesting in all of these characters, what brings them back to life."

Davis has finished filming "Ender's Game" with Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley and "Beautiful Creatures" with Emma Thompson and Jeremy Irons. Her future plans include starring in and producing a biopic about pioneering congresswoman Barbara Jordan.

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For moviegoers, that should be another fascinating trip with Davis to the heart of a very human hero. "I always loved her, throughout my entire life," she says of Jordan. "Her absolutely unwavering passion about what it means to be American and the idea of protecting everybody's rights, it was absolutely real for her. It wasn't just for show. I think you're going to see that in this as well as the fragile parts of her that nobody knows, because she was such a private individual."

It's a role that fits her overall thoughts on playing heroes, whether they're unknown teachers or national leaders. "When you can somehow show what is human about them, so human and fragile about them, and how they're able to navigate their way through that, or not, and take on this heroic status, I think it's such a great dichotomy to work with as an actor."