Viola Davis Is A Real, Raw, 21st-Century Leading Lady
January 21, 2016
Article taken from ELLE.
She’s turned what could have been a nighttime soap caricature into a platform. Her boldest experiment yet: How to get away with staying real—raw, sexual, conflicted—on 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. It’s late on the Sunday afternoon before Halloween, and the problem of Genesis’s costume remains unsolved. A few days later, on the set of How to Get Away With Murder, Davis tells me that after three trips to Party City, the kid finally put her foot down. She didn’t 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 wouldn’t want to be Viola Davis? The Tony Award–winning, twice Oscar-nominated (Doubt; The Help) actor has been burrowing deep into our psyches for nearly two decades. (Of her monologue in Doubt, costar Meryl Streep recalls: “I think Viola gave him that performance not once, but 16 times in a row, from every angle. I would’ve shot the director if he had put me through that wringer.”) Now—lucky us—she does it week after week as Annalise Keating on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder. “It’s hard not to be inspired by her,” says executive producer Shonda Rhimes. “The level of work, the game she’s 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 she’s 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 it’s all in the perception of what a leading lady is,” she tells me now. “The ‘sexy leading lady’ looks like…what? You fill in the blank. That’s the line. When you look at the 66-year history of the Emmys and you see that I’m 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 don’t 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.”
Sex—messy, complex sex—is among the slices of womanhood that Davis, 50, was determined to examine via Annalise. “We’ve been fed a whole slew of lies about women,” she says. By TV standards, “if you are anywhere above a size 2, you’re not having sex. You don’t have sexual thoughts. You may not even have a vagina. And if you’re of a certain age, you’re off the table.” Later on set, she points out the wall that Annalise’s 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 like that?” she says with another laugh.
Davis’s friend and sometime costar, actress Octavia Spencer, insists Annalise’s “sensuality is all Viola.” But there’s 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 she’s revealed in private moments to be a traumatized woman who has yet to process her past—a 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.
Annalise’s early life echoes Davis’s 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 in The 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 Tyson’s 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, on Murder. “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.”