Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis captured her audience at the Kering Women in Motion event at the 75th Cannes Film Festival, both in her daring red suit as well as her empowering and innate answers. A 56-year-old Davis holds an accolade of awards including an Academy Award, two Tony Awards, and is the only current African-American to have achieved the Triple Crown of Acting. Not only a film sensation but a Broadway star, there were few better choices to gain the Kering 2022 Women in MotionAward. A champion for racial diversity in film as well as gender rights, Davis is best known for her roles in The Help and Widows, Fences- as well as ABCs How to Get Away with Murder; in all of which she plays bold and confident characters, a trait which she brought with her at the Kering Q & A that IKON London attended.
It was very cathartic. I started writing the book during the pandemic when all the existential crisis was happening; black lives matter, the LGBTQ community were searching for their voice, and the contentious election. I started questioning what I’m doing here and where my place was. I always say in times of existential crisis, press a rest button.
The book is very raw and honest. You talk about your upbringing, your childhood. How did it affect the woman that you are today?
It has made me a fighter and survivor, and despite the trauma in my childhood and despite the fact I grew up in predominantly white community and didn’t feel pretty, I still kept moving.
I always refer to a quote by Dorothy Bernard “all courage is fear said with prayers”. I’m very good with understanding that I have fear, anxiety, self-doubt. But it doesn’t keep my feet and my spirit from moving forward. I don’t believe that moving forward is the absence of fear, just like I don’t believe that great life is absence of failure and heartbreak and trauma. I think all of it is part of a journey. I think really messed up things happen. But I can say I’ve always felt that I was worth it. I felt that somewhere at the horizon there was the land of Oz and Viola deserved that land of Oz.
Where did [the book idea] come from?
I have absolutely no idea. All I know if that I have it. What I know that I know that I know is that there is something about having your heart broken a lot and it breaks and you hit the rock bottom and you have a choice to wallow in it and stay there, or it gives you clarity of what life is really about. When you get your heart broken a lot in life you start appreciating life. I can tell you right now that appreciate a good meal, full refrigerator, clean sheets, going to a furniture store and buying a new bed. I appreciate soap and water because I never had it. I think that’s what I got from my life. I appreciate things that others take for granted.
Acting is an industry where you heard word No a lot. There is a moment in your life that will stick as a moment of rejection where you were able to see the positive and grow from it.
Seeing a positive from these situations takes time. When you leave this life, you want people to know that you took space in it. If I was so bold, I would say that I do it through acting. And so your work is very important to you and it hurts when people reject you.
Every rejection when I heard that I wasn’t pretty enough for a role really gets on my nerves. It breaks my heart it makes me angry. For many reasons. A lot if is based in race. Let’s be honest if I had the same features and five shades lighter, it would have been a little bit different. It pisses me off. And it’s broken my heart on any number of projects which I won’t name. I got the Oscar nomination for The Help. Then it was over and I thought “Now what.”
I was getting the same type of roles.
So I was getting a few days here and there and I’ve hit my bottom so I realised the only position I could move into that would give me any sense of worth and the only way to reconcile that anger is to find the roles myself. It was -excuse my language- fuck it. There was value to anger. Because with that burst, I feel it represents that moment of change and after that you can’t be the same.
That healthy anger sparks movement. You can’t be complacent afterwards. When I came to LA and all the rejection I got from lead roles because of how I look has pissed me off enough to start the production company with my husband and pick the stories ourselves and take it big as we wanted.it to be.
You were nominated for an Oscar but yet you’ve hit the rock bottom?
It’s the same with everything. There is a famous quote from Jack Nicholson Two Good Men “You don’t want to know the truth”. We want to see people get dressed in pretty dresses. And you see them getting an award and you think they’ve made it and imagine a life for them that you want. That’s the only issue I have with vision boards. People put their vision to a vision board but they don’t appreciate that this vision comes with reality. It’s the minutiae of being there. And reality of being in Hollywood is Where are the roles.
We need to start encouraging the storytelling with people who are on the periphery. Instead of taking to a stage with microphones telling there should be more opportunities. We have to understand what part we are playing in creating the kind of world we want to see. And it metastasises in all aspects of our culture. But now there is still a resistance to that. Maybe it’s because that’s the way we’ve seen to Hollywood all the time. But now we have different life where people are competing for space.
That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. Is my anger of a 8 year old Viola. It’s because I was running away from the world that was spitting me out. That’s how I felt. The culture calling me that Ugly Black N. What it motivated me to do is to get out of that life. What has also motivated me to do is to create a life that didn’t spit anymore Violas out. Just spit them out and told them there is nothing else for them. There is no rope. There is no journey. That you are the leftover. That’s why my husband and I have a production company
Have you seen a change you are doing with your production company?
I always say ‘Yes’ but I don’t really know. I hope is what I will say. But I know since I left How to Get Away with Murder I haven’t seen a lot of black women in leading roles out there. Create a space and time for a black woman who comes to the room and blow you away so that she doesn’t thrive despite of her circumstances but because of them. I see that there is quantity more out there because there are more streaming services. But in terms of storytelling that is expansive as one’s imagination; there are certain genre and stories out there that if you are a producer in a room, you have to fight for those stories.
You have the courage to speak honestly. Little girls at home are looking at you. You’ve played a role of Michelle Obama. I know you can’t speak too much about the film in the works. What did it mean to you to have first black president, first black First Lady?
Hope, everything. It’s a big thing with black women when you don’t think you are beautiful. “Don’t listen to that Viola. Dark skinned women are beautiful too”. But you don’t see any. People recognise me because I’m famous but when I’m in a place where people don’t know who I am, you will be surprised how invisible you become…you feel seen.
With young black girls. I always tell them they are worth it and they are beautiful. First of all because that’s what I see. And that what I know what I know what I know is the birthplace of everything. Its the birthplace of survival and the birthplace of self-love and keeping breath in your lungs. Everyone is always putting a value on you based on your looks or how much you are messed up or not. I always tell people even if you mess up, I don’t care, you are still worth it. You don’t have to do anything for it – not to be a certain height or to a bar for it.
You’ve taken a lot of roles that could have been perceived as a black woman’s tropes but always managed to somehow change the narrative. Was it a conscious choice?
That’s what you do as an actor. When you step into a role, you want to humanise them. And as humans we are not just one thing. Not just all angry. There is a softness and vulnerability. People always ask me those questions – why don’t you choose roles that are not as angry or are prettier. You make do with what you have and what I had was a lot of crappy roles that I has to humanise. So I had to take my acting skills and tried to create a multidimensional character and at least say there is more going on to that character.
As a human being, what would you like to be remembered for?
I want people to feel less alone. We’ve just gone through two years of pandemic when a lot of mental health issues got exposed. It’s really crappy to feel alone and isolated. There is not way to connect with people nowadays. It’s hard to connect with yourself. So if there is anything I can do to feel people more connected. I want for those people who think they are not worth it and feel like there just do A, B and C. I want those people to know that there is nothing wrong about A B and C, It just means you are a life. I would be OK with that even if I didn’t win another award I would be good with that.
For little girls who are watching you, what would be your one message?
Being worthy and they don’t have to do anything to be worthy. I don’t care how you look like or where you came from. Do the best you can to not let world label you. You are beautiful. Be as overly confident as you possible can as self-loving as you possibly can and as Glen n Dolen says, it is your job if you come to a choice whether to disappoint other people or disappoint yourself, choose other people every single time. In fact your role in life is to disappoint as many people as you can to satisfy yourself. At this point, that’s what I would tell them.
Viola Davis’ book is available in paperback and on Amazon.
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