Viola Davis thought she was ready. After all, she’s been acting for 34 years, has won a Tony, has been nominated for two Oscars, and had Meryl Streep serve as her personal cheering squad after they did Doubt together in 2008. (“Someone get her a movie!” Streep once shouted at reporters on the red carpet.) But none of that prepared her for having her picture plastered on billboards across the country.
“People are always sending me pictures of the poster that’s everywhere,” Davis says of the ads for How to Get Away With Murder, the latest addition to ABC’s hugely popular, all–Shonda Rhimes–produced Thursday-night lineup, which, shockingly, affords Davis her first starring role in film or television, at age 49. She’s talking to me between bites of a takeout salad in a nondescript Los Angeles greenroom during her only break before being due back on set. “I see responsibility when I see those posters,” she says. “I see pressure. I’m aware that my booty is on the line.”
That pressure has only intensified with even more eyeballs trained on How to Get Away, which premiered September 25 to 14 million viewers, following an essay by New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley in which she called Rhimes an “angry black woman” whose grand achievement is flooding network television with characters wrought in her own image. (Though Stanley, who claimed that her argument was misunderstood, does seem to like the show.) The Times’ public editor declared the piece “astonishingly tone deaf and out of touch,” while Rhimes and cast members from her other hit shows, Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, blasted it on Twitter. Davis says she finds the term “angry” as a descriptor for African-American women to be “very offensive, as is ‘sassy,’ as is ‘soulful.’ We’ve used them enough. It’s time to bury them in the racial-history graveyard,” she says, chuckling. “My feeling about the article is it’s a reflection of how we view women of color, what adjectives we use to describe them—as scary, as angry, as unattractive. I think that people are tired of it.”
As for the part of the article that praised Rhimes for casting Davis, despite her being “older, darker-skinned and less classically beautiful” than Scandal star Kerry Washington, Davis says, “there is no one who would compare Glenn Close to Julianna Margulies, Zooey Deschanel to Lena Dunham. They just wouldn’t. They do that with me and Kerry because we’re both African-Americans and we’re both in Shonda Rhimes shows. But they wouldn’t compare me to [Grey’s Anatomy’s] Ellen Pompeo,” she says, laughing again. “Because Ellen Pompeo is white.”
Even before the controversy, Davis had plenty to worry about. “I have a certain level of fear about How to Get Away,” she says. “Fear of failure.” So much so that she’s had nightmares about being an old, hideous woman unaware of how terrible she looks on-camera. But she also knew upon reading the script that she had to do it. Her character, Annalise Keating, is the kind of role Davis has been wishing for years that someone would write for any actress of color—messy, complicated, deeply human. She didn’t even struggle with the decision to leave film for television, because she’d already had her “come-to-Jesus moment,” as she calls it, a realization that she might have to try a different medium if she wanted to play something other than a self-sacrificing mother (Doubt) or a long-suffering maid (The Help), or any number of other saintly or symbolic roles in support of a more bankable white actress. “I say this with the utmost humility,” says Davis. “I was ready to be the show. I was ready to step into my power as an actress.”
Murder, created by Peter Nowalk (a fact Stanley overlooked), lets her do just that. The snappy legal procedural positions Annalise as an intimidating criminal-law professor and brilliant defense attorney with her own firm, a hot white husband, a hot black lover, many secrets, and a class full of impressionable students hanging on to her every move. It’s a giant load for one actress, and Davis turned to Washington for advice. “Kerry said, ‘You’re going to be tired.’ And she said that on your one day off, they’re gonna schedule a photo shoot,” says Davis. But Washington also told Davis not to sweat it. “She said, ‘Viola, you’re good, you’ve got it. You did theater, you got the theater spirit in you.’ For some reason that clicked. Because you have to trust that you know what you’re doing. You have to trust your experience.”
Davis’s intensely emotive acting springs from that well of experiences, particularly her difficult childhood. The star has decided that Annalise’s back story closely mirrors her own. Davis grew up the second-youngest of six in the only black family in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Her mother, a maid and a factory worker, had an eighth-grade education and started having kids at 15. Her father, a horse trainer, made it through only the fifth grade. Davis’s Dickensian youth, before she left home to study at Juilliard, included wearing scarves at night to ward off rat bites, digging through Dumpsters for food, and enduring constant bullying. There was also, she says, “a lot of violence in the family. Poverty does that to you. I was very shameful growing up. I felt like I was in the hole, and you need something to pull you out of the hole.”
That something was acting. When she was 8, she and her siblings entered a skit contest in a local park. Davis played Ted Lange’s town-gossip character, “the Ooh Wee Kid,” she says, from That’s My Mama. She killed. “There’s something about hearing the applause, because it’s validation,” says Davis. “When you feel like you’re living on the periphery, validation means a lot.”
So does deciding what’s really important. Being on a TV show gives her the stability needed to come home every night to her actor-producer husband Julius Tennon and their 4-year-old daughter, Genesis. And she’s less concerned about her appearance: She used to wear wigs everywhere, from the gym to her beloved Jacuzzi. “I was so desperate for people to think that I was beautiful,” she says, but now she exposes her natural hair. Her perspective fully shifted, she says, after watching her father die in 2006 from pancreatic cancer. “When you see a parent pass, it defines life for what it is,” she says, her voice trembling. “Being concerned about my age, being concerned that I’m going to fail in a TV show—all of those things are very superficial. I don’t want my legacy being, ‘Oh, you never could see what she could fully do. She always had more in her.’ ”
Murder should alleviate her anxieties. Not that Davis will be watching. “Oh my God, never!” she says. “I cannot imagine having people over for, like, cocktails and food and sitting down to watch myself. I am not that ego-driven, No. 1. No. 2, I’m sure I’ll be working that night.”
*This article appears in the October 6, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.