This Sunday the new L’Oréal Paris spokeswoman will vie for her second Emmy, a repeat nomination for her role on How to Get Away With Murder—what the actor has called “the ride of my career.”
Viola Davis has a way of holding a room. No airs, no ego—there’s nothing inflated about her because she can’t possibly deflate. At least that’s the feeling she cast on a recent afternoon, inside a sunlit hotel suite floating above the Times Square scrum. One needs a kind of regal fortitude to take on her slate of upcoming roles, including the blues pioneer Ma Rainey and Michelle Obama. Davis is solid, anchored. The velvet voice is just window dressing.
But let me tell you, as the Los Angeles actor unspooled her morning routine in a drawn-out coo, she could have sold a Jacuzzi, steam shower, and massage chair to someone living in a sliver of a Brooklyn apartment. “I’m a spa–bathroom girl. I’m not a closet–clothes girl,” she says, qualifying her indulgences. “I spend all of my time in my bathroom.”
Since the early days of her career, definitions of movie-star glamour have evolved. “We’re moving into a new era,” she says. Her appointment as a L’Oréal global ambassador—”at 54, being dark-skinned, being someone who is very specific in terms of how I look”—itself marks a shift. The days of mismatched foundation on set are thankfully over for her. “I’m on the big-‘fro idea—I’ve stayed on that for the last couple of years,” she says, referring to the airborne curls that have lately defined her silhouette on the red carpet, and might accompany her again on Sunday. In the meantime, Davis talks about Cicely Tyson as an inspiration, her “heaven-sent” wellness gadget, and the anticipation of playing the former first lady.
Vanity Fair: You’re nominated for another Emmy this year. How do you prepare for the day? Are there mental jitters, or are you cool as a cucumber?
Viola Davis: It depends on if I even think I’m going to win—because it gets to you. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the internet or whatever. The nerves are higher when you feel like you could win. But still I always follow my routine. Usually with a day like the Emmys, the glam squad comes at 11. I’m an early riser. First thing, I get in the Jacuzzi with my husband, and we melt. We have a ton of water and we melt and we talk. We work out. I have something that I call a heaven-sent gift, which is a Kahuna massage chair. It has about 20 different settings—my favorite is the deep-tissue massage—and it massages from the tips of your toes to the top of your head. I’ll get in there anywhere from 10 minutes to 60 minutes. I fall asleep and drool, mouth gaping open. And then I get in my steam shower. Now that’s a woman-of-privilege preparation! But I love the steam shower because I like detoxing my skin. When I walk out I feel like [big inhale, big exhale]. And then I run around with my daughter, Genesis.
Do you get a facial as well, or is that enough to prep your skin?
I would like to sell you a bill of goods and say I do, but I do my own facials. I have my routine stuff: I do overnight masks and red-carpet facial kits. [I like] that honey balm from L’Oréal and the eye stuff. I do all that every day. Every once in a while I’ll get an idea [for hair and makeup], but for the most part with my glam squad, I like people who I can give myself over to. Whatever they come up with is going to be better than I could ever imagine.
For so long what qualified as Hollywood glamour was narrowly defined. How are you seeing things shift on the red carpet? I think about Tracee Ellis Ross’s turbans or the time that Zendaya wore locs.
You mention two really great examples of it. As the world is changing, I think that people want to be more authentic. They don’t want to assimilate anymore. They don’t want to be filtered. Here’s the thing about a red carpet that people don’t know, unless you’ve been on it: You’re trying to find a balance between belonging there—not feeling like a square peg in a round hole—but at the same time being your authentic self. I think that’s the key to Zendaya and Tracee Ellis Ross. They’re feeling like, Okay, I’m going to get on this red carpet, and I’m going to make all those photographers click, click, click away, but I’m going to be me. As we’re moving into all of it—the #MeToo era, the diversity–inclusivity era, the LGBTQ community—people don’t want to be in a box anymore. With Billy Porter, certainly you see that. A lot of natural hairstyles, too, with black women. We don’t want the culture to define us in that way.
You’ve spoken about how Hollywood has dictated the storytelling for people of color. What about the beauty industry?
The beauty industry has absolutely historically done that. They’ve literally been at the forefront of that—putting images out there where women of color have been excluded. But I think that we’re seeing a shift now. It’s just more diverse, and so beauty, art, TV, entertainment—everything has to reflect that. The days of Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island—they’re relics now.
I was backstage at fashion label Pyer Moss’s show earlier this month, with an all-black cast, and the narrative was very much about reclaiming the cultural contributions of people of color. By having the storytellers change, the story changes.
Absolutely. We have to realize that we are our history. There’s a reason why we have been excluded in the narratives for so long. Historically we have been negated; we have been told that we are less than. Now we are fighting for our space. We’re not waiting for other people to get it.
Growing up, did you have any particularly frustrating experiences at the makeup counter?
I have so many makeup-counter memories. They’re just too numerous to name. Getting a job in another city and forgetting foundation—especially foundation—and not being able to find anything at any drugstore. I remember doing plays, or even some TV shows, where there has been a makeup artist who absolutely said they knew how to put makeup on me, and we’ve had to cancel makeup consultations. We’ve had to redo my hair. For a lot of the [hair and makeup artists], especially back in the day, that just wasn’t their past.
What about icons who helped shape your conception of beauty?
Melba Moore, who I was like, Oh, my God, this is beauty. And Ms. Tyson. Ms. Cicely Tyson. I mean, her short hair, those beautiful lips, and the earrings and the bone structure. I thought that she was just beautiful. And [the makeup] was never too caked on. I still felt like I saw her natural beauty underneath everything that she wore.
What sorts of beauty lessons were you exposed to at home?
It’s a hard one because my mom never really wore makeup. There was some lipstick, and she wore wigs—and they were beautiful wigs, by the way. And she always loved to show her legs. She had awesome legs, so she wore sort of miniskirts and heels, and she would go to the Salvation Army to get really flamboyant faux-fur coats. And my aunt Joyce. She was a larger-size woman, and oh, my God, me and my sisters thought she was beautiful. She always wore the latest styles: the flare-leg pants and big hooped earrings, the Afro back in the day, and the shimmery makeup on her cheeks. She never felt restricted by her size. She dressed very beautifully.
News of the future Michelle Obama project is buzzing for you. Is there a different set of nerves to step into a character who’s a public figure—and who also might watch?
I haven’t really started because I’m still doing my TV show. But I have all those fears, and the reason why I have all those fears is because people feel like Michelle Obama belongs to them. They’re going to scrutinize it in a way that they wouldn’t scrutinize [other performances]. I just finished Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Ma Rainey was the mother of the blues—but most people don’t know who she is, so they’re not going to scrutinize it as much, even though I did enormous research. I do want to honor [Obama]. I would never make her feel uncomfortable with anything. But as an actor, the ultimate goal is just to take a risk, and to dare to fail. You’ve got to do it. If that is the scariest thing that I’m facing, at least I know, at 54, that I’ll survive it. What’s more important is that I honor her essence, the character of what she exudes. There’s not one woman that has not felt inspired by her.
You mentioned the research you did for Ma Rainey. What sort of physical and mental transformations did that role entail?
Well, I wore a fat suit for Ma Rainey, which I thought was extraordinary. It’s something called the ‘given circumstances’ in acting: What did she look like? What did her teeth look like? How big was she? What did her hair look like? Was she gay or straight, bisexual? And whatever it says she is, is who she is. If they say she wore a horsehair wig, then she wore a horsehair wig.
How did it feel to slip into a different body?
Fantastic. I loved it. There’s a sense of confidence with her because she owned her sexuality—she was a bisexual woman—and she was a leader. She had her own band that she paid, and she was an entrepreneur in 1927, Jim Crow America. And there’s a certain confidence that comes in being a performer in front of people. You have to own a room. I am a stage actor, of course, but that was a whole different sort of confidence that I had to embody, just coming onstage and being that flamboyant with the makeup and the hair. Transformation is exciting in acting. It’s great being in somebody else’s skin—it just is. Walking through life as an actor, I feel like I notice everything about people. I see people as beautiful. The things that you probably would look away from—someone’s nose dripping, or someone feeling really geeky and awkward, or someone having bad skin, or someone crying and having a breakdown and putting themselves together with their compact—all of that I find interesting. Everything that makes us human, I love.