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Viola Davis on Hollywood: ‘You either have to be a Black version of a white ideal, or you have to be white’

Viola Davis on Hollywood: ‘You either have to be a Black version of a white ideal, or you have to be white’

by Diana Evans

17 April 2022 at 10:00:00 pm

She rose from poverty to become the first Black person to win acting’s triple crown. Now she is playing Michelle Obama and opening up about her tough path to the top.

by Diana Evans

Many of us had existential thoughts during lockdown, and assuaged them with new hobbies. We did thousand-piece puzzles. We crocheted and knitted. We learned new songs on our guitars, baked overzealously, and connected with our plantlife. For Viola Davis, knocking around in her $5m mansion in Toluca Lake, Los Angeles, it was writing, though the nature of it was less assuagement than staring into the coalface of an existential crisis. Who am I? What is my life supposed to mean? If this isn’t it – the Oscar winning, the formidable trail of accolades, the palatial bathrooms and saltwater pool – then what is?

“I lost my mind during the pandemic,” she tells me from her bedroom, dressed pre-photoshoot in a grey sweatshirt and loose woollen hat. “I just wandered around this house like Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” She laughs about it (she has a deep laugh and a deep, mighty voice inherited from her grandmother), but the memoir resulting from the time spent writing is anything but light. She has a story to tell, a gripping, emotive, at times spine-tingling story, with pathos and pain, triumph and redemption, setting a new benchmark for the celebrity confessional. Finding Me is a page-turner, written with narrative knowhow and stylistic competence.

Over a matter of months – interrupted by the filming of The First Lady, in which she plays Michelle Obama, and The Woman King, a historical drama set in the Kingdom of Dahomey (now southern Benin) in west Africa, both projects from her company JuVee Productions – she grappled on the page with the spectre of her poverty-stricken childhood and her subsequent thorny rise to the top, a place that turned out to be less comfortable than imagined.

Viola Davis as Michelle Obama and O-T Fagbenle as Barack Obama in her new series, The First Lady
Viola Davis as Michelle Obama and O-T Fagbenle as Barack Obama in her new series, The First Lady. Photograph: Jackson Lee Davis/Showtime

“Whenever you’re still, whenever you’re quiet, whenever you put everything down, then everything in your life comes into full focus. It comes at you like a jackhammer,” she says of the big, Covid-induced pause. But it was not only the pandemic that led her to the blank screen. The crisis was already in process. “I think it’s been happening ever since my status started to rise,” she says. “When it first rises, it’s nothing but excitement, nothing but an understanding that this is a culmination of your hard work, your talent. You just feel like God has blessed you – I still feel that.

“And then it moves along: what no one tells you about being ‘on top’ is the minutiae of it, the cost of it, the pressure of it, the responsibility, and finally the disillusionment. You feel like you’ve found something you love to do and you’ve made it, your life’s all sewn up – and then you hit it, and it’s just a level of emptiness, of wondering what your life means, and then you crash and burn. I had to go back to the source and revisit my life, revisit my stories, to sort of catapult me into something so I could find home – find me. I’d been lost in it all.”

In 2016, with her Academy Award win for best supporting actress for her role in Fences, based on an August Wilson play, Viola Davis became the first African American to achieve the triple crown of an Oscar, Tony and Emmy for acting (the Tony was for a Broadway role in Wilson’s King Hedley II; the Emmy for the TV legal thriller How to Get Away With Murder). She is the most nominated Black woman in the history of the Academy Awards (she received nominations for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, another Wilson adaptation, as well as The Help and Doubt) and has been ranked in the top 10 of the New York Times’ list of the greatest actors of the 21st century. Her execution of her roles is both exacting and magnanimous, ever astute, possessing a haunting integrity that makes each character seem profoundly known, tangible and self-possessed.

The consummate humble artist, she deems fame and glory secondary to the work; she is modest about her trophies, and dismissive of efforts by her actor husband of almost 19 years, Julius Tennon, and their adopted daughter, Genesis, to splash them around the house. “If it were up to me all the awards would be in the garage,” she says. “I mean, it’s just not my style – it’s a bit too much. Listen, it’s not that I haven’t looked at the Oscar or whatever and thought: wow, that’s pretty awesome. I’m very grateful, but, you know, you can’t live there. Soon as you get it, you walk off the stage, you’re an Oscar winner, but then it’s like, and now what? And then you gotta go on to the next job, and start all over again with that impostor syndrome.”

The memoir begins with a spunky eight-year-old Viola, a “sassy mess” with torn socks and too-big shoes who every day is chased home from school by a group of racist boys throwing rocks, bricks, tree branches and pine cones. In order to help her defend herself, her mother, Mae Alice Davis, who worked as a maid and factory worker and was active in the civil rights movement, gives her a shiny blue crochet needle to stab them with and tells her to walk, not run. They are the only African-American family in the densely populated, drug-stained town of Central Falls, Rhode Island, having relocated there from South Carolina. They live in a condemned building, often with no hot water, gas or electricity, and the rats are so bad and bold that they eat the faces of Viola’s dolls and jump on to her bed at night searching for food. She never goes into the kitchen because of them. She wets the bed until she is 14; limited to soapless cold-water wipe-downs, she and her four sisters regularly attend school reeking.

Plus there are fires – they become “experienced fire escape climbers”, and there is one occasion when Viola’s mother performs a superhuman leap to rescue her when she is too afraid to jump – yet this firetrap remains their home for another two years. “No one cares about the conditions in which the unwanted live,” Davis writes. “You’re invisible, a blame factor that allows the more advantaged to be let off the hook from your misery.”

Part of the legacy of that time is that Davis refuses to grant her daughter’s wish for a pet rat. Again she laughs with her characteristic humour and affability, while at the same time being gravely serious about the impact on her identity of being raised, not just poor, but “po”, an extremity beyond. “I have an understanding of poverty that probably a lot of people don’t, so I don’t romanticise it,” she says. “I know what deprivation feels like, and the most important thing that it gave me is compassion. There is something about knowing the road, and having it hard, and being baptised by fire, that you begin to really have a true awareness of what it means for people who live in poverty, and how difficult or impossible it is to get out. It’s made me see the other side of life, as opposed to just sitting at a cocktail party talking about poverty the same way – I mean, I don’t know, the same way you would talk about a Picasso painting. I have a front row seat.”

In addition to the “dumpster-diving”, food stamps and persistent hunger, there was her father’s alcoholism and violence to contend with, rendering the family home a “war zone”. Dan Davis was a racetrack horse groomer as well as being “pretty good” on the guitar and harmonica. Davis writes fondly of going to the stables with him, of his fierce protection of his family and his enthusiasm around festive periods; he was big on Valentine’s Day and every year put up a Christmas tree. But she is candid in the memoir about his frequent beatings of his children and, most particularly, his wife. Viola and her older sister Deloris would escape the trauma of “our mom being beaten and screaming in pain” by acting out role-plays of being “rich, white Beverly Hills matrons, with big jewels and little chihuahuas”.

Davis on stage in Los Angeles in Intimate Apparel in 2001
Davis on stage in Intimate Apparel in 2001. Photograph: Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Her mother still bears the scars of the abuse, which might involve being stabbed in the leg or neck with a pencil, or being chased through the neighbourhood bloodied and fleeing for her life, leaving a trail of blood leading up to the front door. Davis writes: “Sometimes her head or arm would be split open. She would have a swollen face, split lip. I was always afraid when he picked anything up like a piece of wood because he would hit her as hard as he could and keep beating. Sometimes all night.”

Dan Davis died of pancreatic cancer in 2006, having softened later in life into an adoring, apologetic husband and shelterer of struggling relatives, fellow addicts among them. He is the memoir’s great story of redemption, depicted bedridden in his kitchen near the end of his life, weighing 86lb and calling for Mae Alice, asking repeatedly for forgiveness, a state of prostration and submission that Davis believes not everyone is capable of. “I give him big props for that,” she says. She herself is forgiving, exposing her father as abuser and perpetrator, while acknowledging his imprisonment in a system of historic racial and economic oppression that maimed him.

“I think that at some point, I had to make a choice – to see my father as just a demon or monster, or to see him as a man, as a man who’s fighting who knows what kind of secrets, what kind of abuse, what kind of trauma. This is how we worked it out. Do I want to love my dad and have a relationship with him, or not? And I chose to want my father. And I think he chose us too.” Would she have published his portrayal in Finding Me if he were still alive? She says resolutely that she would.

At Juilliard, it was like, Your voice is too deep, you’re too hard. You have to be light, but light like a 90lb white girl, you can’t be your light
Davis is equally frank about the ubiquity of sexual abuse in her home and neighbourhood while growing up, with her and her sisters being subjected to offences from a relative, as well as random perverts and paedophiles lurking in shops and other people’s houses. On the set of How to Get Away With Murder, she worked with her longtime idol and original inspiration for wanting to be an actor, Cicely Tyson, and recalls her saying during a discussion about sexual assault: “It happened to all the women, that’s our curse. It happened to my mother. It happened to her mother.”

Part of Davis’s intention in addressing it in the memoir is to work against any tendency to downplay sexual abuse as anything but a crime and, in exposing the truth of what she saw and experienced, to give others permission and courage to do the same. “I’m 56,” she says, “and most of the women I have met in my life – and I’ve met a lot of people – have been sexually abused. You can tell through their behaviour, in the partners they choose, in the way they communicate, the way they hold themselves. It’s almost like the secret that slowly bleeds out, even when you’re trying to hold it back and you’re putting Band-Aids on it. “Secrets are destructive. They’re a side-effect of shame and trauma, and they make the abuser and the oppressor very happy. And really, not to sound egotistical or god-like, but I do feel like I have a job on this planet, in this life, to make people feel less alone.”

Viola Davis wearing a long orange gown with a cape
Dress, Monique Lhuillier. Shoes, Kat Maconie. Earrings seen in main image, We Dream In Color. Styling: Elizabeth Stewart. Photograph: Mary Rozzi/The Guardian

Unlike many female actors, Davis has not fallen prey to the culture of sexual abuse in Hollywood that accelerated the #MeToo movement, but she is keen to point out the reality of “deprivation” that characterises the industry, which predators take full advantage of. Around 90% of actors are unemployed, and only 2% earn enough to live on. As a Black woman entering the profession in the 1990s, her chances of success were even slimmer, and she quickly became aware of the double affront of racism and colourism, the scenario that in order to succeed “you either have to be a Black female version of a white ideal, or you have to be white”.

After graduating from Rhode Island College a theatre major, she was accepted into the prestigious Juilliard School, of which she is critical for its crushing white-centrism, its desire to create the “perfect white actor”, “something devoid of joy but steeped in technique”. “There is no set rule to how a character should be played,” she tells me emphatically. “That was my issue with Juilliard. Whatever character I play, I’m not gonna play with the same palette as my white counterparts, because I’m different. My voice is different. Who I am is different. It was like, ‘Your voice is too deep, you’re too hard. So you have to be light, but you have to be light like a 90lb white girl, you can’t be your light.’

“I think that sometimes, everything that you are can crumble under the weight of Eurocentric and white-centric notions. There’s nowhere for someone like me to go – nowhere. I got a wide nose, big lips, dark skin – I mean, where do I go? Look at me – I might as well walk through the doors of Juilliard and walk my ass out!”

Davis was 42 when she landed the role as Mrs Miller in the film adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt, alongside Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, an eight-minute performance entailing two weeks’ work that garnered her first Oscar nomination and marked her passage from stage to screen and Hollywood. She had already received the Tony award for King Hedley II, but had struggled with her TV and film credits. Many of the characters she fit the description for were drug-addicted mothers, and she recalls that the “pretty” or sexualised roles were never given to her, even when the producers were Black. She played a “huge slate” of “best friends to white women”, along with a host of authoritarian cops and FBI agents. Leading parts continued to elude her even after Time magazine named her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012.

Her first TV lead, in How to Get Away With Murder, came from African-American-led production company Shondaland, as defence attorney and law professor Annalise Keating, a liberating role in which she was finally allowed to play the character of an ordinary, complex woman. She accepted the job on the condition that she be allowed to take off her wig in the first season, which she saw as a way of honouring Black women “by showing an image that isn’t palatable to the oppressor”.

A portrait of Viola Davis wearing an orange satin coat against an orange background
Styling: Elizabeth Stewart. Photograph: Mary Rozzi/The Guardian
It is this focus on the human story, beyond the reductive stereotypes, that Davis believes will mark real progression in the fight for greater diversity in the acting industry. We should arrive at a place “where the show is just the human being and the human event. It’s not you being a metaphor for a larger social issue. It’s not you going to a movie theatre and walking out going, ‘What did it mean for that Black man to be in that role? What do you think they were ultimately saying?’ I feel that as soon as we move away from metaphoric land and get into the land where people put their butts in the seat and their only investment is to follow you through your story, that’s when we will have really changed. You don’t have to be crying over your dead son’s body that’s just been killed in a drive-by shooting for your emotions to be valuable.”

And the realising of this utopia is not in the hands of the perennially white male gatekeepers who hold most of the power to bring projects to fruition, but of artists of colour like herself, who are creating material for themselves and people who look like them, artists such as Issa Rae, Michaela Coel, Octavia Spencer, Taraji P Henson, Kerry Washington, Regina King and Gabrielle Union. “They’re waking up to ownership. They’re waking up to agency and autonomy. All of us now are saying, ‘No, we’re not waiting, we’re gonna be the change we wanna see.’”

Davis and Tennon set up JuVee Productions in 2011 for exactly this reason, to create their own roles and narratives with the aim of broadening the public perception of African-American lives. That’s not to say that every role does not still come with its own portion of anxiety. She is “terrified” about what Michelle Obama will think of her portrayal of her in The First Lady. In preparation, she watched the documentary Becoming at least 22 times and listened to more than a hundred of her podcasts (which she adores), as well as spending time with Obama and reading her and her husband’s books. What surprised her most in her research was the simple matter of wellbeing.

Michelle Obama is very different from me: she’s healthy, because she grew up in an environment where she always felt seen, always felt worthy
“Here’s the thing about Michelle Obama, which is very different from me, different from a lot of people: she’s healthy. She’s a healthy human being, because she grew up in an environment where she always felt seen, always felt worthy. Maybe because I’ve been with a lot of artists in my life, a lot of people who’ve been traumatised, including myself, it’s very interesting to portray someone who literally is healthy.”

Her favourite role of all, she says, was playing James Brown’s mother in Get On Up, alongside the late Chadwick Boseman – whose final role was in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. “I enjoyed being in Mississippi. I loved Chadwick, loved Chadwick. It was sort of awesome.”

Despite the obstacles it has placed in her way, Davis describes the acting profession as “a healing wellspring”, allowing her to both meet and escape herself, alongside other balms she has drawn on in her transformative life, such as therapy, friends, teachers and spirit guides, a loving family, and Jacuzzi time with her husband. She is, ultimately, a survivor, while inherently rejecting the stereotypical use of that word in relation to Black women. She has shown us all of herself – the low self-esteem, the fretful overachieving, the fibroids and alopecia, the feeling of never being enough. In finding herself, she points a way, holds a light, for others.

“In order to break generational curses, you have to become aware yourself, accountable yourself, and share your stories to the generation coming behind you,” she says from her vantage point at the top of her game, where she remembers amid the noise to savour the quiet moments. The quiet is where who we are takes place, and she is no longer running away. “I think that’s one of the reasons why we work so hard. It’s motivated by trauma, and it’s motivated by the fact that if we stop, then somehow we’re not worthy. That’s not true. You’re worthy. You were worthy when you were born.”
Diana Evans is the author of Ordinary People, The Wonder and 26a

‘They were trying to shape perfect white actors’: an extract from Finding Me
Viola Davis wearing a blue suit
Suit, Wolk Morais. Jewellery, GBGH. Styling: Elizabeth Stewart. Photograph: Mary Rozzi/The Guardian
Attending Juilliard in the late 80s, it was arduous listening and watching white guest actors perform, white playwrights coming in to speak, white projects, white characters, a European approach to the work, speech, voice, movement. Everyone was geared toward moulding and shaping you into a perfect white actor. The unspoken language was that they set the standard. That they’re better. I’m a dark-skinned Black actress with a deep voice. No matter how much I adhere to the training, when I walk out into the world I will be seen as a dark-skinned Black woman with a deep voice. Hell, when I got out there in the world, I would be called for jobs based on … me. I had to make peace with that. And I admit, there are some classical playwrights that I never want to perform anyway!

Only 30 Black students in a total of 856 at Juilliard were enrolled in all the disciplines: drama, music and dance. We called ourselves the Black Caucus. Every January we had our Martin Luther King celebration, a variety show. To this day, I would say it’s some of the greatest work I’ve ever seen by artists. Very few members of the faculty would even come. We felt racially and individually neutered by a philosophy built on forgetting about ourselves and birthing someone artistically acceptable. Juilliard forced me to understand the power of my Blackness. I spent so much of my childhood defending it, being ridiculed for it. Then in college proving I was good enough. I had compartmentalised me. At Juilliard, I was mad.

The shameful objective of this training was clear – make every aspect of your Blackness disappear. How do I do that? And more importantly, WHY??!!!
I was always assigned the opening speech for the MLK celebration. At the first ceremony at Avery Fisher Hall, I walked out on stage and told a story. It was a story of a slave in the Caribbean. He was always running away. Every time he did, he would be found and beaten. Finally, to stop him once and for all, they decided to kill another slave. The body of the dead slave was put on the runaway slave’s back. They tied it tight. They made him work in the hot sun all day and night with that dead body on his back. They made him sleep and eat with it on his back. The body started decomposing. This big strong man began to lose his appetite. His body became infected by the carcass and he began to waste away and finally died. I asked: “How many Black people in this audience feel like you have a body tied to your back? How many are trying to live and strive in a culture that has weighed us down and is more interested in our demise than our life?”

There was silence. I was speaking my truth. It was a truth fraught with the pain of everything that had ever been dumped on me consciously or unconsciously. Suddenly, like an elephant who is being slayed for its tusk, I was fighting back, fighting for my space. Every year, I would try to squeeze myself into every project and every character. I thought I had to. Corsets and huge European wigs that never fit over my braids. Listening to classmates “ooh” and “aah” over the beautiful costumes, and imagining how awesome life would be back in the 1780s. I kept wanting to scream it. “Shit!!! I’m different than you!! If we went back to 1780, we couldn’t exist in the same world! I’m not white!” The absolute shameful objective of this training was clear– – make every aspect of your Blackness disappear. How the hell do I do that? And more importantly, WHY??!!! None of my counterparts had to perfect Jamaican, southern, urban dialect to be considered excellent. “I am BLACK!!! I’m dark with big lips and a wide nose and thighs. I’m Viola!!”

This is an edited extract from Finding Me by Viola Davis, published on 26 April by Coronet at £20. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply. Viola Davis will be speaking about her memoir at a virtual event with FANE on Sunday 1 May

The First Lady will be available in the US on Showtime from 17 April, and in the UK on Paramount+ this summer

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