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"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.
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.