Actress Viola Davis has faced many obstacles in her life. She grew up so desperately poor that she rummaged in rubbish bins for food and tied her plaits with the plastic clips used to seal loaves of bread.
When she started acting, the only jobs she got were bit parts as policewomen or nurses – later it was as the leading lady’s best friend Delia, as in Eat Pray Love. At 28, her hair fell out due to the stress-related condition alopecia and by the time she got to her 30s, she was wondering if she should change careers.
Now that she’s finally getting recognised for her talent and being nominated for awards, even the compliments are backhanded. A New York Times article about her leading role as Annalise Keating on the hit legal drama How to Get Away with Murder described her as “sexual and even sexy, in a slightly menacing way”.
It also pointed out that she is older, darker-skinned and less classically beautiful than either Kerry Washington or Halle Berry, two other African-American actresses who’ve had leading parts in TV series (Scandal for Kerry, Extant for Halle). But Viola has had the last laugh. When she received a recent SAG award for outstanding performance by an actress for her work on her hit TV2 show, she gave a powerful acceptance speech that earned her acclaim.
The actress said she wanted to thank the team behind her hit show “for thinking that a sexualised, messy, mysterious woman could be a 49-year-old dark-skinned African-American woman who looks like me”.
Viola is gaining a reputation not only for her acting skills – she’s been nominated for two Oscars – but for talking about the dearth of decent roles for black actresses. “I have been given a lot of roles that are downtrodden, mammy-ish,” she says. She knows speaking out could affect her career.
Talking bluntly is “only complicated for people of colour”, she says. But she adds that she feels responsible to do what she can to make things better. Viola, who is best known for playing maid Aibileen Clark in The Help, says she’s still finding it hard to adjust to her celebrity status.
She he even struggled when Shonda Rhimes, the producer of How to Get Away with Murder, asked her to compile a list of items that would make life on set easier.
“She said, ‘Viola, you’ve got to be taken care of. This show rests on your shoulders. Write a list of what you need.’” But even with suggestions from her actor-husband Julius Tennon, she couldn’t think what to write. Her difficulty asking for things stems from a childhood in which her family was so poor, she knew she had no hope of ever getting anything she wanted.
“I lived in a condemned building that was infested with rats and had no plumbing,” says Viola, who is one of six children. When she developed alopecia and lost half her hair, she began to wear wigs, which has helped Viola to play different characters. Although her locks have returned, she still wears wigs, including on How to Get Away with Murder, but says she just wants to be herself.
“I have spent so much of my life not feeling comfortable in my skin. I am just so not there any more.”