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Viola Davis Finds a Powerful Voice

The Oscar-winning actress has a new movie and a whole lot of confidence

spinner image closeup of viola davis smiling during a photo shoot wearing a red jumpsuit
John Russo/Contour by Getty Images

"I am au naturel,” proclaims actress Viola Davis as she pops up on my computer screen for our Zoom chat. She is indeed sporting a plain white robe, a brown turban and no makeup, no adornments.

"I feel it is my duty as a human citizen to not put out perfectionist images,” she says. “I'm putting out a realistic image. And if that doesn't please people, so be it.”

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It's a sharp departure for a woman who once considered herself to be invisible, and did all she could to be seen as someone other than herself. Davis, the second youngest of six children, was raised in tiny Central Falls, Rhode Island, where her dad, Dan, worked as a horse groomer and her mother, Mae Alice, was a maid and occasional factory worker. The family lived in a partially condemned apartment building; their homelife, says Davis, was stained by alcoholism and violence at the hands of her father. Often attending school hungry, she was ostracized not only because she was a dark-skinned Black girl in what was then a predominantly white community, but because her appearance and hygiene betrayed her dire poverty.

To be seen, she says, she excelled in school and college, and eventually attended the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, where her journey as an actress began—and in recent years has taken off. Appearing in films like The Help, Doubt and Fences, and on the TV hit How to Get Away with Murder, she has already collected an Oscar, an Emmy and two Tonys — becoming the first African American woman to win what is considered the triple crown of acting.

She stars in the Netflix film Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, premiering Nov. 25, and next year she will appear in at least two other big-screen projects. Alongside her husband, Julius Tennon — married 17 years, they have a 10-year-old daughter, Genesis — Davis recently landed an expanded film and television production deal with Amazon.

And in a year many would describe as one of the most difficult in modern times — a global pandemic, national economic decline, racial tension and political divisiveness fueled by a presidential election — Davis, who has more than 10 million followers on her social media accounts, has emerged as a powerful voice not only on the modern-day American Black experience but also on the suffering and poverty that transect racial lines.

Of course she could have gotten made up for her interview today. But for Davis, 55, offering herself plainly is a hard-won achievement, as is the self-confidence she has built, bit by bit, that allows her to expose herself so freely. You can hear that confidence in her voice — not simply deep and melodic but full of intention — both when she is deadly serious and when she is busting out in joyous laughter. It is the voice of someone at the top of her game, and someone who once, at the very beginning, was at the bottom. If only for that reason, perhaps we should listen.

spinner image actor viola davis closeup
Williams + Hirakawa/AUGUST

Q. Do you remember the moment you realized you were somebody?

Anne Lamott, the fabulous writer, says that someone or something would give her a leaf pad, and that leaf pad was enough to carry her to the next leaf pad, and then carry her to the next leaf pad. That's how she moved through her life, through her pain, through everything, until she got to a landing. And that's what it was for me.

Q. In what ways?

It was just a gradual sense of going out there and doing things, and then realizing at 14 that I was pretty good at acting. My drama teacher looked me in the face and said, “Viola, if you can really get this, develop a technique, you can actually make a life out of this. You're actually that good.” It's those little seeds that give you an inkling of who you could become. God moments.

And it's the people who loved me, people who poured into me. Let me tell you something, when someone loves you, and sees more in you than you see in yourself, you cannot put a price on that. That was every single one of my teachers in high school, in the Upward Bound program, in Summer in the City. Those were my leaf pads.

Q. Your mom, Mae Alice, also helped give you voice and ambition.

Yes! She would bring us to these protests. One in particular was at Brown University. The police threw us in the paddy wagon, and I was crying. I was 5 or 6 years old. I was a crybaby! [Laughs.] It was all about welfare reform. She was the only African American in the group. But she and several women, working-poor parents, showed up to fight for reform, so we could have a more self-sufficient way of life. She wanted programs like Head Start in place so that we didn't have to stay on social assistance.

Q. Did they make any headway?

Absolutely. They got a health center built right next door to the Blackstone Valley Community Action Program. We all went to after-school programs there for as long as I can remember — with sewing, crocheting, knitting, nutrition classes. That's all we were allowed to do. My mom said, “Y'all are going to be at those classes every Tuesday through Friday night after school.”

Q. You've said you and your older sister Deloris used to dream of bigger things, that “we were like hunters — even if we didn't really have any interest, we would do it just to get out.” Where did that drive come from?

Well, necessity is the mother of invention. While there were a lot of moments of joy in the house, there was a lot of alcoholism and violence, too. So we had a sense of tragedy and deprivation, along with poverty. What comes with poverty is invisibility. Nobody talks about the poor. We just wanted to be somebody, desperately. And that's what happened.

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You negotiate your worth. You're saying you're more than what your financial situation is. You're more than your square-mile city of Central Falls. You're more than your beautiful parents, who I love more than anything, even my dad. Not a specific dream necessarily, just the drive itself, because that's what gets you out of the bed in the morning. A feeling of, I'm important.

Whether it was me and Deloris pretending to be two rich women in our tea-party games. Whether it was model legislature, Girls State, glee club, art club, drama club. Everything. It was throwing putty against the wall and seeing what stuck.

Q. Who has been your greatest acting inspiration?

Ms. [Cicely] Tyson. She's everything. When I was a kid, I saw The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and Ms. Tyson looked like me. I saw a physical manifestation of a dream. After that, it was Jane Alexander, Meryl Streep, Rosalind Cash, Olivia Cole, Mary Alice. But the ball started with Ms. Tyson.

Q. It's been written that you “languished” on the margins of Hollywood before “vaulting into the public consciousness in the last decade.” Do you remember the moment you felt you made it?

I've never felt like I've languished. I was blessed to be a working actor, and that's what I've felt since my first real role. The unemployment rate in acting is 95 percent. If you are an actor and you have put in your 10 weeks onstage so that when that play is over you can go back to wherever you are and collect unemployment, you are in the 1 percent.

spinner image viola davis film stills from two of her major roles in fences and in how to get away with murder
Viola Davis in "Fences" (left) and in "How to Get Away With Murder."
Paramount Pictures/Photofest; Mitchell Haaseth/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images via Getty Images

Viola's Greatest Hits

• King Hedley II (2001): Tony Award

• Doubt (2008): Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress

• Fences (2010): Tony Award

• The Help (2011): Academy Award nomination for best actress

• How to Get Away With Murder (2014): Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding lead actress in a drama series

• Fences (2016): Academy Award for best supporting actress

Q. How did you feel when you finally vaulted to fame?

That would be after Antwone Fisher [directed by Denzel Washington], in which I did just one scene and got an Independent Spirit Award nomination, and for some reason everybody talked about it. For that role I relied on my memories of the drug addicts I knew from growing up in Central Falls. And then after that it was Steven Soderbergh films. I was offered parts in Solaris and Far From Heaven in the same day, I remember, and I cried.

Q. Your latest film role is as Ma in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, produced by Denzel Washington and based on an August Wilson play. You play a real-life figure who was a blues singer in the 1920s. What drew you to the role?

She was unapologetic about her sexuality, unapologetic in terms of her value as a recording artist and in terms of what she wanted, unapologetic about her blackness. I think today she would actually be considered a liberated woman in every way, a woman before her time — and that sometimes is a really slippery slope. You're fighting a culture that devalues you, although in your heart and in your spirit, you know your worth.

Q. You've had several roles in August Wilson productions, such as Seven Guitars and Fences. What were his goals as a playwright?

To help white audiences understand the Black voice in every decade of the 20th century. You get every decade in his cycle of 10 plays — what was going on in our zeitgeist, in our culture, and how it affected us emotionally, personally. I always compare August to a griot. In African culture a griot is the oldest member of the family, who keeps all the stories, and as the kids come of age he shares those stories with them as a way of them learning about themselves and also sort of a road map to how to live life better.

August knew our voice, our banter, our humor, how we relate to each other, separate from the pain and the pathos. That's important because what's really missing today, and especially now, is that we don't get to know each other. We don't get to sit with each other.

Q. You've talked about feeling a responsibility to speak out about things going on in the world. You do it in your work. You do it personally. What sparked that?

Some of it could be survivor's guilt, having come from poverty. And it's the limitations and the disillusionment of success. After The Help and certainly How to Get Away With Murder, I had arrived. So what do you do? It's like that final line from Willy Wonka: What happens when you get everything you always wanted? And you feel disappointment because it's not what you thought it would be?

I remember burying my dad and being completely outraged when I was closing his casket and noticed that they didn't put shoes on him. I was about to complain until I realized, Viola, he doesn't need shoes. And that realization only comes with age. You realize you don't have the control that you think you do. The problem is that you defined your life as the glass ceiling of making your life a success. And the glass ceiling is not success.

As Denzel always says, “There's no U-Haul on the back of the hearse.” You can't take it with you. It's creating a legacy, leaving something in people.

Q. So what is it you want to leave with people?

To make everyone who comes in contact with me feel they're worthy.

I'm not going to cry, though I feel like I'm going to cry. But I always say that I have one picture of my childhood. Every time I wake up, I look at myself and I'm that little 5-year-old girl — and I'm either healing her or comforting her, or I'm allowing her to have fun. I've tried to fight for it my whole life. Showing that, Look, I have some money in the bank. I have health insurance. We're not on welfare anymore. My clothes are clean. I'm the right age. I put on some makeup so now I look cute.

There are all these tickets into worth. In this culture you're always showing someone your worth. But the only real ticket into worth is that you were born. That's it. Over and out. And I want everyone — anyone who comes into my home, anyone who enters into a friendship with me, anyone who works for me — to feel a sense of value, feel a sense of belonging and not shame, because they're not on top of it all the time. I feel that lack of self-worth is the one thing that leads so many people down a slippery path.

Q. How does the importance of self-worth apply to the state of affairs in our country and the world right now?

That's a four-hour question. But I'll just say there is a strong caste system here. Whether you're Black, white, Hispanic, dark, whatever, there is a status game that operates as soon as you wake up each morning. There are certain people who are valued over others. I can attest to that. Growing up living below the poverty line — you are no one's demographic. No one's fighting for you. And when you do get access to opportunity, the fight continues because you're coming from generations of people who were not given access to opportunity, so you have to learn it on your own.

Do I believe that you can get out of it? Yes. But a lot of people don't, because the world belongs to people who have a ticket into that society. I don't want to get political here, so I won't get into systemic racism and the history of the systems that have gotten us to this place. But I will say that without dismantling all of it, we get nowhere. Nowhere.

Q. These days, what do you see when you look in the mirror, and what do you think makes a woman beautiful as she ages?

Oh, my gosh, once again: worth. When you look in the mirror and see that all your imperfections can be mixed with all the things that you actually do like about yourself — oh, my God! That's everything.

I used to say the imperfections have to go. I would go to bed thinking of how I could change them, and would wake up and go through the whole cycle again. The other day I got on that dang old scale and it did not say what I wanted it to say. I tried to get another scale, but couldn't find it. Then I stopped myself. I said, Viola, what are you doing? My inner therapist — which is the best — said, You're good exactly as you are. In five minutes, I feel good.

spinner image viola davis on the red carpet with her husband julius tennon and their daughter
Viola Davis with her husband, Julius Tennon, and her daughter, Genesis Tennon.
Rich Fury/Getty Images

Q. You've called your husband, Julius Tennon, “the most beautiful man.” What can you share about your relationship?

I just love him. I do. Listen, he gets on my nerves at times — and I know I get on his. With COVID, we're all getting on each other's nerves. But I was just in Vancouver to do a movie with Sandra Bullock, and it took longer because of COVID regulations. Though I had a fantastic time, I started feeling anxiety. And it all went away when I came home to my husband. That's the thing. You realize when you chose your partner well, it's not that you can't live without them — you just don't want to.

Q. Your childhood was so different from your daughter's. Do you talk to her about that?

All the time. I think I reminded her about that today because we only shop at Target. “I'm not spending a lot of money on your clothes, Genesis. You're 10. When you become a teenager, you have to get a job. If you want more expensive clothes, you can spend your money like that then, but Mommy's not doing that. I didn't do that growing up, so we are not doing that."

Growing up, I was bullied and made to feel like an outsider, so I really don't want her to be a mean girl. I emphasize that whole lesson of love and including people and sympathizing with them. And I'm not trying to say that I'm making her grow up passive or milquetoast. But empathy is in short supply today.

Q. Do you believe in God?

I am a God believer. I believe that sometimes you have to give it over to a higher entity, because sometimes I don't have the answers and I'm never going to have them.

Q. Does believing make you hopeful?

Definitely. It does come from my prayers, but it also comes from the fact that in order to stay on my feet and to keep breathing, I have to have hope. I think once you lose hope, you've lost absolutely everything.

Q. You've quoted Thomas Merton about the importance of having purpose in life. What are you living for?

Hmm. I'm living for love. I'm living for my daughter. I'm living for my husband. I live for sharing whatever my wisdom is with others, hopefully to help them live better. And then God will show me when I'm done, when I feel like it's all sewn up, and that's it.

Q: Well, hopefully that won't be for a long, long time.

Oh, yeah. I'm living a long life. I've already decided.

Meg Grant is an entertainment journalist based in Los Angeles.

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