I didn't walk into my interview with Viola Davis expecting to be inspired.
How could I, when we were meeting up on her lunch break in a nondescript green room in Los Angeles? A publicist hovered nearby, ready to whisk her back to the set of ABC's newest Shonda Rhimes–produced hit, How to Get Away With Murder, in which the revered actress stars as badass law professor and criminal defense attorney Annalise Keating — shockingly, Davis's first high-profile lead role, at age 49. But Viola Davis knows a little bit more than the average actress about defying expectations. As she spun stories of her life growing up in extreme poverty and the experiences and revelations that have gotten her to this point, I felt — there's no other way to put this — lifted. I also discovered she has a sideline gig as a keynote and motivational speaker, donating much of her fees to charities like Hunger Is and Upward Bound.
It's easy to understand why she’s such an in-demand speaker. Even in casual conversation, Davis's sentences crescendo with repetition, emotive hand gestures, and the crisp enunciation of her Juilliard training, her voice a low, rousing timbre that seems designed to galvanize an audience to jump up and chase their dreams. Below, a few lessons on how to live a more fulfilled life, garnered from a couple hours in Viola Davis's presence.
Step 1: Know What Really Matters
Davis was at her father's bedside when he passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2006. "When you see a parent pass, and you literally are there and you're sitting at that deathbed, man, and you have to tell them to go, it defines life for what it really is," she says, her voice trembling. "Because you have to make promises and they have to be honest: I'll take of Mom, I will, Daddy. I'll take care of all the grandkids as much as I can."
Right after her father's death, Davis weathered the writers' strike and a failed TV pilot. "I didn't have a career that I was going out there and I could make 50 million choices," she says. Davis believes that her career luck changed when she changed her personal value system. "My aha moment after he passed was seeing what was really meaningful and important about life," she says. "And as I keep articulating about Annalise — I don't want to just be a lawyer. She's an opportunity to show a woman that's much more than that. As an actor, every opportunity, every role, everything that I do is an opportunity to have someone have a human experience with my work. I don't just want it to be about a cute wardrobe and a high paycheck."
Step 2: Speak Your Mind
The Times published Alessandra Stanley's infamous essay calling Shonda Rhimes "an angry black woman" (and Davis a "less classically beautiful" actress than Scandal's Kerry Washington) a week before How to Get Away With Murder's premiere. When I asked Davis for a response, she didn't holding back on how offended she was. Among her many salient points:
• Regarding the adjectives we use to describe women of color — scary, angry, unattractive, etc., — she says, "We need to use the same adjectives as we use for any woman. Which could be dangerous, too, but I'll accept that. Any day."
• The adjectives Stanley used were inaccurate. "Shonda is not an 'angry black woman.' I don't think that Annalise is just an 'angry black woman.' There is a depth to Shonda that can't be minimized by using just the word angry, and we use that too often to describe women of color because we don't want to look any deeper. I see Shonda as quirky, I see her as intelligent, I see her as beautiful, I see her as feminine, I see her as a businesswoman in the juggernaut of television and a mother of three children, and a woman living in 2014. I wouldn't reduce her to 'angry black woman.' Or her characters, for that matter."
• She disagrees with Stanley's assertion that Rhimes's black characters "struggle with everything except their own identities, so unconcerned about race that it is barely ever mentioned." Annalise has a racial identity, says Davis, and the character struggles with it. "The problem is in reducing it to just that," says Davis. "Listen, I'm a black woman of a certain age, of a certain hue. I'm married to a white man in the show. Of course I get that. But then, what else? What else do you have to say about it that goes beyond that? There seems to be a lead-in to just talk about that, and to not talk about any other story point other than the races of the actors."
Step 3: Go for What You Want
Prior to signing on to Murder, Davis recalls that, "My manager called me and said, 'You're always talking about women of color not being messy enough, not being mysterious, being more sexual. Well, this is a role for you where you'll get a chance to do all of that.' There's a famous saying that says, 'potential has a shelf life.' And it does. I didn't want to end up in my grave, and my legacy being, 'Oh, you never could see what she could fully do. She always had more in her, but you could never see it because she didn't have the opportunities.' This was my opportunity to show what I can do."
Step 4: Seek Advice
Davis asked Grey's Anatomy's Ellen Pompeo, Scandal's Kerry Washington, and The Good Wife's Julianna Margulies for practical tips on, she says, "how they navigate their lives and their stamina" being the female leads of television shows. She also took to heart the time when Whoopi Goldberg got upset with her for downplaying her 2008 Oscar nomination, which she earned for a single 11-minute scene in Doubt. "I went to The View," says Davis, "and I just said, 'Man, I got this Oscar nomination, and it's just so nerve-wracking because it was just one scene.' And she said, 'You stop that right now. You earned it.'"
Step 5: Set a Streep-ly Tone
Playing a protective mother opposite Meryl Streep in Doubt, Davis says, "I was terrified." But Streep went out of her way to be a team player. "You could sense it was calculated, but still very organic," says Davis. "She would always say, 'Is there something I could do to help you in this scene?' If she sensed that maybe there was something I wanted to speak up about but maybe I didn't have the clout to do it, she would do it for me. She had my back. She made it a point even in between scenes to make sure I sat with her and talked to her and shared a lot of chocolate. She eats a lot of chocolate. Dark German chocolate."
Now that Davis is in a lead role, "I always talk to all the crew. I always make it pleasant," she says. "I always nurture a relationship that makes people feel like they're important, like they're a part of the collaboration. I feel that way about the young actors on set. I don't talk to them like I'm the mentor; I talk to them like they're my peers. And I learned that from Meryl Streep."
Step 6: Learn From Your Past
"Acting came from growing up in dysfunction. I mean, a lot of great times, but a lot of dysfunction," says Davis, who grew up poor as the second youngest of six in the only black family in Central Falls, Rhode Island. "Not being able to eat, a lot of violence in the family," she says. "Poverty does that to you. When it's hard to take care of your family, it's hard to make a living, it tears at your dignity. I was very shameful growing up. I lived in a condemned building that was infested with rats, had no plumbing, didn't have a phone, nothing."
But her background also gave her a leg up as an actress. "I learned that I had a facility to really be authentic with characters, because I was very shy and very quiet so I could observe life and observe people. So I could integrate that into my work. The more authentic I was, the more therapeutic it was for me to get out all of the pain and angst."
Step 7: Try Even When the Odds Are Against You
When an 8-year-old Davis and her siblings decided to enter into a skit contest in the local park in Central Falls, there was, she says, "an understanding that we wouldn't win." Still, they went all out. "We rehearsed!" she says. "We had run-throughs, we had rewrites, we had a wardrobe budget!" — of $2. "It was fantastic." They acted out a fictional game show featuring all their favorite characters from '80s TV shows like Sanford and Son and Room 222. Davis played "the Ooh-Wee Kid" from That's My Mama. "Ted Lange had a character who would come into the barbershop, and he was the town gossip, and he would have his hat on — his 'tam,' as they would call it — and he would spin around and say, 'Ooh-wee, ooh-wee, I got it! And I'm here to report it!' We thought it was so funny." What sticks with Davis most, though, how exhilarated she felt when the audience started clapping. "When you feel like you're living on the periphery," she says, "there's something about hearing the applause, because it's validation."
Step 8: Pass No Judgment
Recently, one of Davis's sisters called her up with concerning news about her mother. "I love my mom so much. But she talks to my dad like he's still there," says Davis. "My sister was like, 'I think there's something wrong with her.' So I called my mom and said, 'Mom, Delores says you're still talking to Dad.' She said, 'Yeah, I do. I know he's dead, but he's still with me. So I talk to him just to get me through things.' And I said, 'That makes sense.' It's beautiful."
Step 9: Adapt, Adapt, Adapt
When she left Rhode Island to attend Juilliard in Manhattan, she says, "I didn't know anyone and had to learn how to take the subway by myself. I never got care packages or money from my family. They didn't have those resources. I had to adapt. I had to adapt after Juilliard because I was a professional actor traveling across the country doing regional theater. Living in Minneapolis for six months and then coming back to my apartment for a week and then leaving again, that nomadic lifestyle I have been doing for the last 26 years." It's only a short leap from that to living out of a suitcase, hopping from Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur for Michael Mann's cyberterrorism thriller, Blackhat, which she shot with Chris Hemsworth earlier this year. Or, similarly, adapting to being on set before dawn as the lead of a network television show.
Step 10: Show Yourself
When Davis was 28, she lost half her hair to alopecia areata. "I woke up one day and it looked like I had a Mohawk. Big splash of bald on the top of my head," she says. "I was like, What is this? Until I found out it was stress related. That's how I internalized it. I don't do that anymore. My favorite saying in the world is, 'The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.' I am telling you, I have spent so much of my life not feeling comfortable in my skin. I am just so not there anymore."
After that alopecia, she wore a wig everywhere. "I wore a wig in the Jacuzzi. I had a wig I wore around the house. I had a wig that I wore to events. I had a wig that I wore when I worked out. I never showed my natural hair. It was a crutch, not an enhancement … I was so desperate for people to think that I was beautiful. I had to be liberated from that [feeling] to a certain extent." So at the 2012 Oscars, she exposed her "natural hair." She still has her wigs; she wears them on Murder, she wears them to photo shoots, she wears them when she doesn't have time to pick out her hair and get rid of her grays, but she no longer wears them in her everyday life. What matters, she says, is that "it's an option … when it used to never be an option. I had something to hide."
Step 11: Recognize When You're Ready
Even though Davis didn't have experience carrying a TV show, she felt up to the challenge. She explains: "A lot of journeyman actors — character actors like myself — feel that your past doesn't count for anything. That your professional life started with the role that got you the most attention. It didn't. It took years of work, years of craft, years of just being beaten down and the rejection, but [also] the joy of working and staying in the line. At some point, if you're fortunate and if you're blessed, the role finds you and you're prepared for it. Preparation meets opportunity."
Step 12: Embrace Fear
"Nobody tells you about failure," Davis argues. "People always talk about winning, vision boards, getting what you want. People also don't talk about fear. It's always keeping fear at bay. Squelching it. Throwing it away. I've embraced fear and failure as a part of my success. I understand that it's part of the grand continuum of life. I've been through it all. Breakups, heartache, and I've lost a parent already. So now I get it at this age, I get that that is it. That life literally is what you make it."
Step 13: Learn to Let Go
"I had a dream the other night that I was this older woman," Davis says. "I was walking around in a dress that didn't fit and gray hair and I was in front of the camera and they were saying 'action' and I was going, oh my God, this is what I look like? But any kind of dream of fear and death is growth. I faced it, I looked at myself, I saw it, it was kind of horrifying. Then I woke up and I went on set, and I didn't carry that with me. So, I think that that's part of living a life bigger than yourself. It's being released from the fear, fear of failure, fear of death, all of those things — so that you can dive."
Step 14: Get a Jacuzzi
"My Jacuzzi!" says Davis, laughing. "Every time Octavia [Spencer] calls me, she says, 'Girl, you're in the Jacuzzi, I can hear it in the background. Bloob bloob bloob bloob.'" Davis has two: One is a giant tub she had installed in her bathroom; the other is in her backyard and has two waterfalls. The morning we met, she'd taken a soak with her husband. "We just sit there, we have our water, he had a green shake, we had great conversation," she says. She tries to do the same every morning. "I like to be peaceful before I start my day. I think there's enough going on in my head and my spirit that sometimes I want it to be clean. I want to start with a clean slate before it's filled up with the world's stuff."