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As star and producer of the new drama The Unforgivable, Sandra Bullock was an integral part of the film's casting process and happily admits that she and her fellow producers chased after Viola Davis for a small but pivotal role in the film.
"When you ask someone of Viola's stature to do something that could ostensibly feel like a cameo, it is because the only person who can do that and have that impact is Viola," Bullock tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "And then you're stuck with Viola in your head and you think 'We will never get her.'"
But they did. In the film, directed by Nora Fingscheidt and based on the 2009 British miniseries Unforgiven, Bullock, 57, plays Ruth Slater, a convicted murderer released from prison after serving 20 years. Davis, 56, plays Liz Ingram, a woman now living in Ruth's childhood home with her husband and two sons. Bullock and Davis' big scene together is teased in the trailer, in which Liz confronts Ruth about her privilege, shouting "You are not a victim!"
Without giving anything away, the two Oscar-winning women, who first met and worked together on 2011's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, discussed the impact of working on and filming that particular scene in a collaborative way.
"I feel the catharsis in any scene is the truth of it," says Davis. "The deeper you dive and the more honestly you dive, then the catharsis is that you left it all on the floor. And that was the beauty of this. But here's the thing, this job came during the pandemic, during [protests over the killings of] George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, all of that had exploded. All of a sudden these conversations started to be had which weren't taking place before. So this was a huge opportunity to bring my whole self to the role, my Black self, my female self, every part of me, to this role. And I believe that it benefited the material. That's what all of those big things were about. And the beauty of it is, I will say it, is the bravery of Sandra, the bravery that she was not afraid of that because a lot of times Hollywood, they don't want that aspect."
Davis calls Bullock "the ultimate collaborator."
"This is the first time that I was able to really work with someone who is collaborative to this extent," she says. "And that is a character trait that no one talks about with artists. And I'll tell you what the character trait is. It's courage. It's courage to have those hard conversations in the room. And I thought we had some of those."
"One thousand percent. God, yes," agrees Bullock. "I go back to, why do you chase after Viola Davis [for the role]?' The filmmakers, the writers, the director, and Viola's costar — me — wanted to have that conversation she's talking about. No person of color would've gotten out of jail after 20 years for killing an officer. And you were talking to a white woman whose son is Black and in all my whiteness, I cannot protect him the second he leaves my house. When he's no longer the cutest baby in the world to anyone else other than me, what do you do for your child? Viola has lived through it. Her mother has lived through it. Her grandmother has lived through it. The emotion [of that scene], you feel as a human being."
For much more on Sandra Bullock and Viola Davis, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday
And how do both artists — who are also mothers (Bullock is mom to son Louis, 11, and daughter Laila, 4, and Davis to daughter Genesis, 11) — move forward in the world carrying that weight?
"It's a larger conversation, I could go on for hours," says Davis. "But people need to have those hard conversations and come to some understanding. One thing with our profession that happens is every time an artist of color does anything, they are asked every single question about race. 'Are things moving forward?' 'What happened with Black Lives Matter?' But no one ever asks white artists those questions. Now, Sandra has African American children. She's in a movie with me, but for the most part, white directors, white studio heads, white actors, they're never asked those questions. People who are in the position of power never get put to task."
Bullock says she is not afraid to be taken to task and wants to continue having tough conversations.
"In the movie, you see that one person can have a butterfly effect on so many people's lives, positively, negatively. We see it over centuries and generations," says the actress. "But it's not Viola's job to educate. [People of color] have carried that pain. So how about we as a community take on the education, ask the questions, learn, read, understand? I'm sorry tomorrow for what I didn't know yesterday. I'm not afraid to be taken to task, I'm not afraid to have my privilege pointed out, but I'm going to keep having the conversation and not being scared. I'm not afraid to have a conversation."
The Unforgivable, which also stars Rob Morgan, Vincent D'Onofrio and Jon Bernthal, is now playing in theaters and available to stream on Netflix Dec. 10.