The acting great shares her thoughts on community, humanity, and where we go from here.
At home in Los Angeles, Viola Davis is riding out the COVID-19 pandemic like everybody else. Also like everybody else, she has good days and bad. Today she’s on Zoom in a simple white shirt, no makeup, and a hair bonnet. Sipping a glass of water, she jokes liberally about the benefits of stronger beverages.
The South Carolina–born, Rhode Island–raised Davis has been an actress for 33 years, graduating from Juilliard in 1993. She started on the New York stage, before her Oscar nominated role in 2008’s Doubt fast-tracked her onscreen career. Davis has, so far, won an Oscar, an Emmy, and two Tonys—the fabled triple crown of acting—and is the first woman of color to do so. The last time she was on a movie set, however, was in the summer of 2019, when she was shooting the film adaptation of August Wilson’s 1984 play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Davis owns the role, slipping into the grandiose persona of the “Mother of the Blues” like a favorite coat and casting off lines like “Where’s my Coke? I need a Coca-Cola” as if she’s been teleported back to 1920s Chicago.
Like all things Davis does — whether she performs or simply speaks — you take a seat. In an interview, she doesn’t lapse into small talk, preferring to use the time and audience for more consequential things. She weaves the Black experience — her own and her community’s —into every reflection. Davis is especially poignant when it comes to her memories of working with her Ma Rainey co-star Chadwick Boseman, in his last performance. She carries on his legacy, as a performer and a producer, by telling stories that have yet to find the light.
Laura Brown: Viola Davis! How are you?
Viola Davis: I’m doing OK. How are you?
LB: Totally fine, but it’s, like, at the end of each day right now, you go, “Yeah, I did it!”
VD: Oh, yes, I know, and I haven’t had a cocktail yet today, but, you know… [laughs] We have a new puppy, Bailey, too. She is so precious and fluffy. She’s healing my broken, cold heart.
LB: There is a word that comes to mind when I think about you: “command.” I just watched Ma Rainey, and you’re playing a character who has nothing but command. What attracted you to the role?
VD: Everything attracted me to Ma Rainey, especially the idea that I didn’t feel I could play her. But she also really reminds me of the women I grew up with, all my aunties and relatives, the people who were bigger in stature whom I saw as so beautiful. They never questioned their worth. They had the full makeup, the earrings, the Afros, the wide-leg pants. In white American culture, the idea of classic beauty and confidence has always been associated with extreme thinness, but not in my culture. In the African-American culture, we are in command of our bodies. There’s an unapologetic way that we approach clothing. Even in the way Ma Rainey’s breasts were hanging out. At first I was like, “Should I pull my dress up and be more modest?” But I had to channel Ma, and she wouldn’t do that. Neither did my relatives.
LB: Coming up in fashion, I’ve always questioned the fetishization of skinny, deprived-looking women. In Black culture, you so often see the opposite and the ownership of it.
VD: Absolutely. I think the whole notion of ownership in womanhood has to deal with how we look. And it’s only until you reach about my age, 55, that you have the powerful understanding that ownership is about owning yourself. It’s owning your failures, owning your insecurities, and understanding that it’s a part of life. A lot of times we have those hiccups in the road, and we spend an awful amount of time — years — trying to sweep them under the rug instead of understanding that they’re a part of the joy.
LB: Do you remember the first time you felt ownership as a performer?
VD: That’s hard because imposter syndrome is a huge part of an artist’s life. With social media, you’re not supposed to say that; you’re supposed to say you’re the boss. But when you’re an artist, you always feel like you can do better. I once did a workshop production of King Lear at the Public Theater — George C. Wolfe [who directed Ma Rainey] was the director. I was playing a lesbian who was pretending to be a man. On the first day of rehearsal, I took my nail polish off, and I said goodbye to Viola and completely submerged myself as a man.
LB: How was it? It must be easier. [laughs]
VD: Oh, I loved it. But it was actually very difficult for me to do. And at the end of those two weeks, when I went back to Viola, the woman, I appreciated her more. I was saying hello to her again, and every aspect of my hair, my eyes, my nails, all the things that I probably didn’t even notice before. Even my thoughts and my feelings.
LB: Whenever I see you at awards shows, whether you are presenting or receiving an award, people stop and listen to you. That…command.
VD: Um, I don’t see the command. [laughs] Other people see it much more than I do. I will say that I think my greatest source of strength is my authenticity. If I try to channel some other being, I get lost. That’s when my anxiety level goes up. Growing up in Central Falls [R.I.] as the only kinky-haired chocolate-brown girl, I always was trying to channel the girls who had the Farrah Fawcett look. It had disastrous results. So the only thing I can do is channel my authenticity. That is really a powerful tool because we spend our entire lives trying to get there. If you are projecting that, that’s what people are attracted to.
LB: You’ve achieved your mainstream movie success as an adult. What are the benefits of success coming when you’re a grown-up?
VD: It was probably easier because I know what I want. I’ve been doing this for 33 years. I know what’s good and what’s bad. If it doesn’t shift people in some way, then it’s not a piece of art. The only way to achieve that as an actor is to study life. You can’t study another performer. What I have learned at my age is the courage to do that. How to Get Away with Murder was a perfect example. I could’ve lost 40 or 50 pounds. I could’ve worn a long, straight weave. But I decided to start with a palette that was me. Physically me. Age-wise me. My wrinkles. All of it. The fact that I had the courage to do that is a testament to how long I’ve been in the business. What I’ve seen, how often I’ve failed. How my heart has been broken time and time again.
LB: Performing is supposed to be an individualistic profession, yet there is such homogeneity in Hollywood.
VD: Here’s the issue with our business. It’s a business of deprivation. And when people are deprived, they get desperate. We are in a profession that has a 95 percent unemployment rate. And only .04 percent of actors are famous. That’s it. If you look at social media, you think, “OK, I want to make a lot of money, so I’m going to be an actor. Look at Viola, look at Reese Witherspoon, look at Kerry Washington.” People don’t realize that represents .04 percent of the profession. More than likely, if you’re going to be an actor, you’re going to take a lot of crappy roles — if you can even find the work. So when you’re desperate and you’re not working, the first thing you do is look at the people who are working and try to do what they do. That’s what all of us are trying to do in culture anyway. We are trying to find a way to fit in, to be noticed, to have a meaningful life. That’s why people try to look young, cute, thin, to have more access to money. Any kind of status symbol so they can be seen and valued. And in our profession, the race is just to work.
LB: Especially now. How did you handle the lockdown?
VD: I didn’t do well at first. I know a lot of people felt great with it. I did feel great, in terms of I don’t like working so much. Nowadays, being a woman is juggling motherhood, being a wife, cooking, and then being the CEO and knowing how to optimize your business. I don’t like working like that. It drives me completely insane. So the time off was wonderful, but I’m an empath. I don’t know how to channel the pain and suffering that other people are going through and say, “But I feel great!” It was very difficult for me to process what was happening.
LB: How are you staying the course, especially for [your 10-year-old daughter] Genesis? There are so many headwinds.
VD: In terms of Black Lives Matter, I am who I always am. What’s happening is what has always been happening. We just decided to wake up. How have I been able to process it? I have days when I fail miserably. And that’s when I need my two or three glasses of wine. But I’m trying not to lose hope in humanity. The only thing I can control in life is what I put into it. That’s the only thing I can do with Genesis. Teach her that you still have to be kind, you still have to be empathetic. That that’s going to be a part of your legacy. You have no idea whose life you can shift. And at the same time, even someone who doesn’t share your belief system could be a friend. That is the complexity of life.
LB: Understanding that is vital, especially leading up to the election.
VD: I think that [lawyer and politician] Barbara Jordan said it best. She said, “What people want is simple. They want an America as good as its promise.” And the bottom line is that it is a system that’s been built on the dehumanization of Black and brown people. Everything from Jim Crow to the Black codes to incarceration to the millions and millions of lives lost in the Middle Passage. The trauma of that still reverberates to this day, and not just with the Black and brown people, but with the so-called oppressors, who are the white people. We all have been affected by the trauma. It’s almost as if we have to relearn how to interact with each other. How to love each other. How to meet each other as equals. That’s very difficult because our caste system is about one-upmanship. An American ideology and ethos that is based on whoever is on top gets the American Dream and whoever is on the bottom, who fails the test, does not. We have to dismantle that. If we are indeed woke and do not want another 2020 or 1965 or 1877 or 1865 to happen again, then we need to slowly begin dismantling this system. And then look into reparations.
LB: [California governor Gavin] Newsom just mandated the “study and development” of proposals for reparations.
VD: Yes, and in North Carolina also. But reconciliation is deeper than even reparations. If my daughter did something to hurt someone, she’s going to have to apologize, make amends. That’s what being a human being is about. Look how disconnected and disassociated we’ve been from each other in the past few months and how we’re understanding the importance of connection.
LB: We crave it, actually. It’s basic humanity.
VD: Absolutely! It’s like [author] Brené Brown says. She says, “I hate self-help.” And you know what? I agree with her. I love self-care, but I don’t like self-help.
LB: We should all be able to start on a level playing field. There was a piece in The New York Times a couple of months ago. It was about a biracial couple—white guy, Black woman—who were selling their house. They got an estimate for their home with both of their belongings on display. They then removed hers and got another estimate. “His” home was valued at $100,000 more. Economic oppression is endemic and is going to take so long to undo.
VD: Absolutely. [Author] James Baldwin said, “We are our history.” And memories last forever. We are living in a system where one out of three women is sexually assaulted by the time she reaches, what, 18? You see the power of those memories and that trauma that follows them through life. Everything from body dysmorphia to depression, suicide, drug addiction. It’s the same thing with history. The side effects reverberate throughout our neighborhoods—especially cities with poor education and housing. It’s prevalent in health care and employment. Here’s my big thing, and people in Hollywood know this: I have great agents; I love them. I love my manager. I love my publicist. But I say this to them all the time, I say, “I want and I expect to get the same filet mignon that white actresses get. Cooked at the exact temperature. You cannot throw me a bone with a really nice little piece of meat still on it and expect that’s good enough for me. I love my collard greens and all of that, and I know we were given the leftovers. I know how to cook that, but I want a filet mignon.”
LB: You want the Wagyu beef!
VD: Yes! [laughs]
LB: There was also a siloing around salary that came to light with Time’s Up. I remember when you said, “People say I’m the Black Meryl Streep. Well, then pay me like her.” How did that clarity come about?
VD: As a woman and as a woman of color, you think, “I’m just like everybody else.” Because that’s what you believe. And it’s only until you reach a certain point, and maybe you have a certain level of expectation, that you realize you are not like everyone else. In Hollywood, actresses don’t share their salary with each other while they’re sitting around drinking a glass of wine. A huge part of that, I’ll say, is ego. Ego because you don’t want people to know that you make less than what they think you make. Another part of it is etiquette. But solidarity is what I talk about. There should be solidarity with everyone. Solidarity with Caucasian women and women of color. [Actress] Michelle Williams, of course, put it beautifully. The differences in pay and the lack of access to opportunities are huge. I fully expect changes. I’m trying to lift my hopes up. Even if it takes a little bit of vodka. If we don’t move forward together, then we don’t move forward.
LB: Since Time’s Up, do you feel real, tangible changes?
VD: When I was growing up, if you were sexually assaulted, nobody talked about it. It became your burden. So absolutely it’s changed, and that gives me great hope and satisfaction. But, and this is a big but, I want those changes for women of color. You look at the Jeffrey Epstein documentary [Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich], which was heartbreaking. You see the [kidnapping survivor] Elizabeth Smart. Horrific stories, but I do not want to give my daughter and any young girls of color the image that the only time you could be saved is if you’re white. There’s a huge adultification of Black women like, “You should know better. You’re overly sexualized anyway. You’re just a prostitute on the street.” But if you’re 13 and a prostitute on the street, you’re being sex trafficked. You need to be saved. I don’t agree with those separate images. The last mile we have to goin the feminist movement includes all women.
LB: To have all women be able to have ownership over how they present, how they perform. Let’s get back to Ma Rainey briefly. Your co-star was Chadwick Boseman, in his last role. I was struck by him, just giving his all in this. You worked with him twice, right?
VD: Yes [in Ma Rainey and Get on Up]. He was a beautiful man and a great artist. It’s like what Issa Rae said: He was ours as African-Americans. He was someone who had a quality that very few have today, whether young or old, which is a total commitment to the art form of acting. Regardless of ego, regardless of any of it. He was with the same agent he had when he started his career. And when you were with him on the set, he absolutely did not want celebrity treatment. He hated that. He really did. We actually had a little discussion about that. He said, “Viola, I don’t mind the work. I don’t mind all the hours. It’s the other stuff that exhausts me.” He hated the celebrity part. I have to say, we all do. Because we have to be a persona that we just don’t know.
LB: How do you wrap your head around that part of it?
VD: There are some people who feel there’s no separation between them as an artist and their public persona. It has helped me to know the difference. I can smile and pose, knowing that it’s just an occupational hazard. But vanity cannot come into your work. Like, at all. In a script, if they say, “Ma Rainey has gold teeth and sweats a lot and weighs 300 pounds,” then that’s who she is. If it says she’s gay, she’s bisexual, then that’s who she is. If you’re going to play her, you have to honor her. That’s the only way to do it.
LB: What are you plotting next?
VD: Well, my husband [Julius Tennon] and I have a production company, JuVee Productions, and we are trying to change the landscape for people who have been marginalized in the business for so long. That could be our legacy. I came from the theater, and I felt like, “Oh, do I just have highbrow taste?” Because I would read scripts and think, “This is not good.” So this is my way of working with emerging artists and writers who write complicated roles for ladies, for people of color, for Asians, for Hispanics. The next project is First Ladies for Showtime. It’s a series that profiles Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, and Michelle Obama. And then we have The Woman King, the story of the Agoji tribe in West Africa, a group of all-female warriors that actually existed in the 19th century. People say all the time, “Oh, there are so many genres that Black people haven’t done.” I feel that. I’ve always wanted a Black female Braveheart. I’ve always wanted to kick somebody’s ass and do an accent.
LB: There’s such a desire for that. When Black Panther came out, it was like, “Hello!”
VD: We have so many different projects across the spectrum. And then, of course, I always have my speaking and my philanthropy. It’s been hard with Central Falls right now. I used to go back there so often, just to pour into the kids there. So I have huge ambition with that. I’m also part of No Kid Hungry, which is addressing food insecurity and food deprivation in this country.
LB: I always like to ask women about ambition. Tell me about yours.
VD: When we speak of ambition as women, it should not just be relegated to work. The power to influence is in the smaller, personal moments. Sometimes with women, we feel like ambition means tough, and that gets mistaken for being mean-spirited.
LB: You can own your shit without being a bitch.
VD: The most important thing you can do is own your story. And then pass that story with all of its failures, all the joy, all the lessons learned, all the mistakes, pass it on to a young girl when you’re giving advice. Don’t filter it and channel it into your best moments. I believe when the last person dies who has a memory of you, that’s when you truly will be dead. So what do you want that memory to be?
LB: A damn good one. Tell me, what does an ideal day look like for you?
VD: My most perfect day is getting into my Jacuzzi when the sun is coming up. Julius and I are doing intermittent fasting right now, but maybe there is some fruit or food there, and we just sit and talk. Then we may work out. I love going grocery shopping. I cook everything. Because I developed a little blood sugar issue, I’ve had to learn how to make everything: apple pie with almond flour, low-carb paella. I make great collard greens. And then we have a movie room, and I pour either brut sparkling wine — I love that — or I make my go-to, which is sparkling water and Tito’s vodka with a twist of lime. Then I have my Enlightened Keto butter pecan ice cream. I could go on and on…
LB: With intermittent fasting, does that mean you’re throwing back everything you can before, like, 8 p.m.?
VD: Yes, I am. But you know what? The last couple of days have not been successful. They really have not. [laughs]
LB: How long have you been married?
VD: We’ve been married for 17 years. And we’ve been with each other for 21 years, when we met on the set of City of Angels, Steven Bochco’s show, in 1999. Julius was anesthesiologist Dr. Holly, and I was nurse Lynnette Peeler. [laughs] And I was like, “He’s sooo cute.” I was eating a bagel, like I always did. I was coming from New York — I ate the bagel.
LB: Me too, lady.
VD: The moment I met my husband, my life got better. Before I met him, I was trying to date, but I didn’t know what I was doing. People told me to go to Barnes & Noble at Columbus Circle [in N.Y.C.] because they said that was the way to pick up dudes. [laughs] I put on some makeup, but it didn’t work for me. Finally, I remember someone said, “Just find someone who loves you, Viola.” And I met my husband. I found someone who loves me. That’s it.