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Viola Davis Is Living Her Dream

The 'How to Get Away With Murder' star grew up hungry and poor. Now, giving back is her greatest reward

Viola Davis, Portrait, AARP Magazine

Robert Trachtenberg/trunkarchive.com

She's hitting the Big 5-Oh on August 11 and still cannot believe her good fortune. "Turning 50 is making me reflect on my life in a way that's more compassionate and forgiving," she says, her voice deep, rich, inviting. "I'm able to almost accept the old me."

Viola Davis opens her front door wearing a wet swimsuit, a towel wrapped around her chest. "I'm sorry — time got away from me," she says, as her slender 5-year-old daughter, Genesis, comes up behind her. Heading upstairs, Davis promises to be right down, and in just minutes she is, having showered and thrown on a long-sleeved T-shirt and shorts, still rubbing on lotion.

In How to Get Away With Murder, her hit ABC TV series, Davis plays Annalise Keating, a glamorous, tough and promiscuous criminal lawyer who wears spike heels and sleeveless dresses that reveal her toned arms. At home, in a modest (by Hollywood standards) suburban tract of Los Angeles, Davis is barefoot, gentle and relaxed. She settles Genesis at one end of the dining table with a pink toy computer. "I'm going to do this interview, and I expect you to be quiet," she tells her, softly but firmly. The room looks out on a sloping hillside of clay-colored decorative rock, into which are built fountains that cascade into a pool and Jacuzzi. This is Davis' retreat. At night, she likes to unwind out here, soaking in the hot tub beneath palm trees that twinkle with little lights that her husband installed. "There's nothing like it," she says.

She's hitting the Big 5-Oh on August 11 and still cannot believe her good fortune. "Turning 50 is making me reflect on my life in a way that's more compassionate and forgiving," she says, her voice deep, rich, inviting. "I'm able to almost accept the old me."

Her struggle for self-acceptance began when she was in kindergarten and burdened her through college. Looking at photos from that period of her life, she would say, " 'Look how fat I was,' or 'My goodness, look at my hair!' What I saw was dark skin, being poor and all the things that come with poverty — smelling and being unkempt."

What Davis sees now is "how passionate I was, how much I dreamed, and what a good and loyal friend I was."

Viola Davis, Smile

Peggy Sirota/trunkarchive.com

Davis won two Tony awards, and, having moved into television and film, earned two Oscar nominations and an Emmy nod.

The actress is turning 50 with a fulfilling marriage and family life, while at the zenith of her career, having earned both popular and critical acclaim. There was a time in her life when none of that seemed attainable. "Having a house!" she says. "When you grow up poor, you dream of just having a home, and a bed that's clean — that's a sanctuary. Having a really great husband, a child who's healthy and happy and brings me joy — all of that has been my dream."

Until she was 18, Davis lived with her parents, brother and four sisters in a condemned building in Central Falls, Rhode Island, a working-class town where the Davises were one of the very few African American families. Her mother had an eighth-grade education and worked sporadically in factories. Her father groomed racehorses at Narragansett Park. "But grooms don't make money," says Davis. "Definitely not enough to feed a family of eight."

The food stamps they received at the first of each month paid for a grocery run. "But the food soon ran out, and that was it," Davis explains. "Most of the time, the school lunch was the only meal I had. I would befriend kids whose mothers cooked three meals a day and go to their homes when I could." Other times, she rummaged through garbage dumps and stole food from the store, slipping items down the front of her pants — until the day she was caught.

"I was 9," she recalls. "The store owner screamed at me to get out, looking at me like I was nothing, and the shame of that forced me to stop."

In winter, the furnace broke and the pipes sometimes froze, so the family couldn't bathe; at night, they huddled together for warmth, scarves tied around their necks to ward off rat bites. Davis would arrive at school at 8, and by 8:30 she was falling asleep. "If you're hungry," she says, "you can't focus — you have no juice."

(Video) Viola Davis Helps Fight Hunger - AARP the Magazine

They didn't own a car, so when Davis' younger sister was born in a hospital in Providence, Davis and her siblings walked for two hours to see the baby. They then walked two hours back. Wherever they walked, Davis remembers, "people would throw things out of cars and call us the N-word. It was constant."

She and her siblings coped by excelling in school, says Davis. They loved learning and rarely missed a day of class. "We didn't want to end up in the same situation as our parents, worrying where the next meal was coming from," says Davis' sister Deloris Grant, who now teaches drama and Advanced Placement English at Central Falls High School. School was their haven, and they stayed late, participating in sports, music, drama and student government.

From age 7, when she and her sisters first performed in and won a talent show put on by the Central Falls Parks and Recreation Department, Davis was obsessed with becoming an actress. She entered the Upward Bound program, which prepared her for, and later paid all her expenses at, Rhode Island College. As a freshman there, she studied oral interpretation with Elaine Foster Perry, who recalls, "Viola was a talent that doesn't come down the pike very often. I did not want to mess her up." Perry says that Davis already had all the attributes of a great actor, including unusual powers of concentration and empathy. "If tears were needed in a scene, she had them in less than a minute."

What Davis knew even then, as she puts it now: "I'm in the business of creating human beings."

After college, she auditioned for the drama program at Juilliard. There were 2,500 applicants for 14 spots. She performed a monologue from The Color Purple and a Molière piece, and was awarded a full scholarship. Deborah Hecht, one of her professors, notes that Davis didn't have an easy time at Juilliard, but she did have what it takes to make it: amazing talent, of course, and "great passion — strength and fire."

Once out of school, Davis began working in theater. At 29, she played the lead in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, where the actor Richard Jenkins was artistic director. Jenkins says he couldn't teach Davis anything. "She had an awareness most young actors don't have — that her gifts came from within herself. You're all you've got, and you're enough. When she's hurt or angry, it's real. Viola is hurt. She's not playing, and if you are, get out of her way."

Eventually, Davis won two Tony awards, and, having moved into television and film, she worked steadily, usually in supporting roles. In 2009 she began getting wider notice when she received an Oscar nomination for her performance in Doubt. Three years later, she earned a second nomination for her turn as the maid Aibileen Clark in The Help. At the Academy Awards that year, she cast aside her long-held shame about her hair — thick, fuzzy curls that couldn't be tamed — and appeared without a wig, revealing a close-cropped Afro. Yet she still believed that, by Hollywood standards, she was too old and too dark-skinned to play a romantic lead. "No one's going to cast me in a love scene with Bradley Cooper," she once said.

Viola Davis, Julius Tennon, Academy Awards

AP

Viola Davis and husband Julius Tennon glam it up at the Oscars.

That notion was upended when, in 2014, she was offered the starring role in How to Get Away With Murder. Her husband, actor Julius Tennon, says the part gave her the opportunity to "step into her training so people could see all that Viola Davis can do." As Annalise, Davis is brilliant, formidable and seemingly heartless; then, suddenly, she's in tears, or inappropriately running her hands over the arms of a student. Then she's steely again and you can't take your eyes off her.

She prepares intensively for each role, writing a biography of her character, and did so before shooting Murder, even shadowing a female criminal attorney to get a better feel for the role. "But the harder prep," she says, "was knowing who Annalise is inside." She didn't want to play her like the sophisticated, sexually aggressive women so often seen on TV.

She felt Annalise would walk in high heels the way Davis does, clomping and not graceful. "I walk funky," she says, chuckling. And she was certain her character had been sexually abused. "Women who are promiscuous are that way for a reason," Davis offers, "and I wanted to delve into that."

For the first time in her career, she was required to do sex scenes. "They are almost never realistic," she says. After shooting one, she made a pronouncement to her Murder producers: "No more sex on walls! I was sore after that. I'm not 20 anymore, and, anyway, who does that?"

She also embraced Annalise's unlikable side. "I've played warm and fuzzy to the point that it's made me nauseous," she says. "We're not always likable. Sometimes we're mean, and we're mean to the people we love." She puts her fingers together, as if in prayer. "I reserve the right to be a mess and completely unlikable."

Viola Davis, Daughter Genesis, Portrait, AARP Magazine

Jeff Lipsky

Viola Davis holds 5-year-old daughter, Genesis

Her daughter inches over and lays her head against Davis' chest, whispering, "Mommy?" Davis enfolds her in her arms and continues to talk, now about her marriage. "I was 38 when I finally jumped the broom," she says, referring to the African American custom of newlyweds jumping over a broomstick, symbolizing a leap into a new life together. Tennon, a single dad with two kids, hadn't wanted more children when they married, and Davis was OK with that. But as the years passed, she found herself yearning to be a mother. Tennon says he prayed about it — "We have the Lord in our lives," he explains — and recognized that motherhood would make his wife "feel more complete." When they couldn't conceive, they decided to adopt Genesis.

As her family has grown, the marriage has prospered, Davis says. She and Tennon don't feel competitive about their careers. "I didn't fall in love," she offers. "I walked into it, with my eyes wide open. I understood the union of marriage. You sort of die to yourself and you're reborn into this union."

Tennon agrees. "We work as a team — that's how we roll." He offers a low laugh. "A few doors get slammed once in a while. But you can always say, 'I'm sorry.' And we make each other laugh." The pair are business partners, too, founding JuVee Productions to develop projects for Davis. Their first film, Lila and Eve, starring Davis and Jennifer Lopez, was just released in July.

Through it all, Davis has never lost touch with her roots. She says that it wasn't until she was in her 30s that she realized, "I'm not poor anymore." But the little girl who's hungry, who's dreaming of a house and three meals a day, is always with her. "Sometimes that girl is literally sitting in my Jacuzzi, going, 'Wow! Look at the yard! Look at the rabbits in the garden! We have cottontails all over the place.' " Davis doesn't take anything for granted. "As kids, we often didn't have bus fare," she says, "so to have a car today — it's unbelievable to me."

Still, something was missing. And Davis recently figured out what that was: "I've been so focused on my child, my husband and my career that I never thought of the last step, which is giving back." Over a year ago, the Safeway Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation invited her to be the spokesperson for the Hunger Is campaign (hungeris.org), to eradicate childhood hunger. After she gave a speech revealing her own experience growing up hungry, the two nonprofits donated $100,000 to the causes of her choice.

She directed the funds to numerous organizations in her hometown, including Central Falls High School's Thespian Society, so that students could go to New York to see a Broadway play, stay in a five-star hotel and take a class in auditioning. Her sister Deloris says that Davis' first concern in planning the field trip was, "How're they going to eat? Do they have enough money for food?"

For Davis, projects such as the field trip, Hunger Is and creating scholarships for Upward Bound students bring her more joy than acting. "The work of acting is fantastic, but being a celebrity sometimes makes me tense and anxious. Expectations, not meeting expectations, criticism — it really hurts." When filming Doubt with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the three actors shared their common insecurities. "With every new job, you worry that you'll be found out as the hack you are," Davis explains. "This will be the big failure that takes you down." She says that fear is an occupational hazard: "It drives you to perfectionism, which you never achieve anyway."

Because of all that she's endured, and given the many troubled characters she's played, Davis says that people often think of her as tragic. "But I'm a survivor," she says. "There's buoyancy and lightness in me. I'm not angry about my life. I'm not bitter at all."

She glances out the window at her very own water park in her very own backyard. And, with a laugh, she adds, "I'm happy."

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