She broke out as a desperate mother in the drama Doubt, went on to slay audiences in the crowd pleaser The Help, and took home the first lead actress Emmy ever awarded to an African-American woman for her ravaged turn as a functioning alcoholic lawyer in How to Get Away With Murder.
Now Viola Davis is the odds-on favorite to take home an Oscar for Fences, playing the long-suffering wife of Denzel Washington (who also directed), with both reprising the roles from the 2010 Broadway production. She and her husband, Julius Tennon, run their production company, JuVee, and have stories in development. They’re raising a daughter, Genesis, 6. Which, not to sound hokey, remains Davis’s most treasured role.
“Before she goes to school, I ask her to tell Mommy the two most important parts of you. Your heart and your head. That’s where your value lies,” says Davis.
She’s an outspoken advocate for women, and for disadvantaged children, through the Hunger Is campaign. Davis grew up poor in Rhode Island, studied drama at Rhode Island College and the Juilliard School, and is open about the hardships of her upbringing and the lengths she went to to fill that empty belly. But it’s only recently, she says, that she felt a total ownership of herself and everything she represents.
“I’m 51 years old. So it took 51 years,” she says, partially joking. “I feel like it’s not always here. I have moments, because I’m human, that you can hurt me. I have good days and bad days and in-between days. I got to a place of self-acceptance because I had no choice. I cornered myself. I got to the point where I was tired of beating myself up. I could not trade myself in for anyone else. I have to tell you, one of the beautiful things, is to be able to speak all over the country. There’s something beautiful that happens when you share your story. The more you share it, the more you heal. The more you share it, the less shame you have.”
And Davis has even become more comfortable doing that whole red carpet thing that so many of her peers dread or resent, or mock. It’s part of the job, is her outlook, and she’s delivered, stunning in scarlet Donna Karan, white Max Mara, and a seafoam Monique Lhuillier.
“Right now, I see the red carpet as a challenge in remaining my authentic self and trying the best I can to enjoy it and get through it. It’s pretty daunting. If I feel like I have to alter who I am, that makes me uncomfortable. That doesn’t work for me,” she says.
Try as she might, she can’t cocoon herself from awards prognostications. They’re everywhere, and Davis, who’s active on social media, isn’t immune to all that chatter.
“I did four or five hours of interviews the other day. How can you shield yourself? But what I have underneath me is 30 years of training, of being in the business. Thirty years of being the journeyman actor. It’s not like I got on the bus, came to Los Angeles, and said I wanted to be a star. As soon as this period is over, I go back to work. At some point, the flowers and bottles of champagne, all of that is going to be over,” she says.
But not quite yet. Fences, adapted from August Wilson’s play, is being praised by critics for its authenticity, its nuanced performances, and its honest take on the travails of a long and bumpy marriage, of hopes squashed and unfulfilled. Davis calls the project “perfect” and “an actor’s dream.”
She and Washington share moments of quiet adoration, moments of resentment, like any married couple.
“Part of it is seamless because I feel comfortable with Denzel. I feel comfortable to try things and risk things. The other part is just craft. It’s crafting a marriage. It’s easy to craft it when everything is on the page. It’s the banter, the humor, the love but also the conflict. That’s a marriage,” says Davis.
Davis has no intention to slow down. Not even close. “I want to do everything and anything. Anything that’s good,” she says.