Article taken from ELLE.

Shes turned what could have been a nighttime soap caricature into a platform. Her boldest experiment yet: How to get away with staying realraw, sexual, conflictedon network TV.

Viola Davis, laid-back in fawn-colored sweatpants, descends the stairs of her unassuming San Fernando Valley house hand-in-hand with her five-year-old daughter, Genesis, who says hello and places a small plastic roast chicken on the coffee table. Its late on the Sunday afternoon before Halloween, and the problem of Genesiss costume remains unsolved. A few days later, on the set ofHow to Get Away With Murder, Davis tells me that after three trips to Party City, the kid finally put her foot down. She didnt want to be Wonder Woman or Lagoon Girl. She wanted to be Viola Davis. She shows me a photo: Genesis beaming in a long white dress, curly wig, major lashes, a furry shrug, and a victoriously raised gold statue.

And seriously, who wouldnt want to be Viola Davis? The Tony Awardwinning, twice Oscar-nominated (Doubt;The Help) actor has been burrowing deep into our psyches for nearly two decades. (Of her monologue inDoubt, costar Meryl Streep recalls: I think Viola gave him that performance not once, but 16 times in a row, from every angle. I wouldve shot the director if he had put me through that wringer.) Nowlucky usshe does it week after week as Annalise Keating on ABCsHow to Get Away With Murder. Its hardnotto be inspired by her, says executive producer Shonda Rhimes. The level of work, the game shes playing, is so high that everybody wants to rise to it. Creator and showrunner Pete Nowalk says Davis enables audiences to see themselves onscreen in a way that makes them feel connected to other people in the world.

When she became the first African American woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series last September, Davis used her speech to call out the need for more diversity in movies and TV, quoting Harriet Tubman (about whom shes developing an HBO movie) on the imaginary line that divides races and creates arbitrary real-world barriers that live on in stereotypes and toxic messages about what worth looks like. Maybe its all in the perception of what a leading lady is, she tells me now. The sexy leading lady looks likewhat? You fill in the blank. Thats the line. When you look at the 66-year history of the Emmys and you see that Im the first woman of color who has ever won in that category, you want to ask why.

Davis knew right away that she had an opportunity to do something big with Annalise. You see these women all the time on TV. They have the slit up to the thigh and walk like runway models. I dont buy it, Davis says. She thought about how one-dimensionally women were often portrayed: invulnerable, asexual, bulletproof. Acting is not rocket science, but it is an art form, she says. What you are doing is illuminating humanity. She laughs. Or not.

Sexmessy, complex sexis among the slices of womanhood that Davis, 50, was determined to examine via Annalise. Weve been fed a whole slew of lies about women, she says. By TV standards, if you are anywhere above a size 2, youre not having sex. You dont have sexual thoughts. You may not even have a vagina. And if youre of a certain age, youre off the table. Later on set, she points out the wall that Annalises lover, Nate (Billy Brown), slammed her against during a sex scene that required several vigorous takes. The next day, her back and hip were killing her. Who has sex likethat? she says with another laugh.
Daviss friend and sometime costar, actress Octavia Spencer, insists Annalises sensuality is all Viola. But theres a major divide between the dark, intense characters Davis portrays and the smiling, luminous woman she is in person. On the show, the outside world sees Annalise as a powerhouse (albeit a conflicted one), but shes revealed in private moments to be a traumatized woman who has yet to process her pasta duality between the public and private selves that was dramatized in the now-famous scene, which Davis pitched to Rhimes and Nowalk, in which Annalise pulls off her wig, peels off her lashes, and removes her makeup, deconstructing her persona before our eyes. The rampant media coverage of the scene was as revealing as the scene itself: In our culture, being a real, unadorned woman can be a transgressive act.

Annalises early life echoes Daviss childhood. One of five siblings, Davis was born in South Carolina and moved to Central Falls, Rhode Island, when she was a baby. Her father was a horse groom, her mother a welfare-reform activist who worked in a candy factory, but they were so poor that Davis would sometimes steal or scavenge in the garbage for food. (The actress is now actively involved in Hunger Is, a charity focused on eradicating childhood hunger.) In 1988, Davis graduated from Rhode Island College, which had given her a full ride; she then won a scholarship to Juilliard and moved to New York, laser-focused on becoming an actress.

At age eight, Davis saw Cicely Tyson on TV inThe Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. She looked like my mom. She had full lips, dark skin; she was sweating; she had a small Afro. It catapulted me out of my world. Davis was also struck by Tysons performance, transforming from a young woman to a 110-year-old in the film. I thought if I could do something like that with my life, it would be an honorable thing to do, Davis remembers.

Decades later, she had the idea to cast Tyson as her mother, Ophelia, onMurder. I recognized in this woman a deep spiritual soul, consumed by her passion for her work, Tyson says. And the thought of this child, at the age of eight, being so affected by something that she saw [on TV], that it would lead to where she is today, is absolutely amazing. It just says to me that you have to be so careful what you do. You never know who is looking.

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