VIOLA DAVIS IS one of the finest actors around today—a chameleon who wears her raw vulnerability on her sleeve and draws an audience for whatever character she plays. She has gone toe-to-toe with Meryl Streep in Doubt (2008), and shown that she can hold her own and be noticed. Her latest film Widows (2018) is a tale of how four women, in debt because their dead husbands were involved in crime, take charge of their lives. At New York’s Juilliard School, considered one of the world’s best colleges for performing arts, Davis resented its Eurocentric aesthetics and remembers her student days as unpleasant but useful—like a cough syrup.
Do you find strength in numbers?
There’s a famous saying that if you share your story in a group of people who have empathy, shame can’t exist (depending on the group). You know, sometimes I’ll read an interview that I did, I know what I said but I don’t know how it was heard. When I’m around women, it’s easier to explain myself. I find myself overexplaining myself to men; and it’s even harder for a woman of colour to explain yourself to a group of Caucasians, because my experiences are so specific—and that’s a larger argument. It’s like wearing my natural hair in a film. That may sound like it’s nothing because people wear their hair all the time, but very often Black women wear waves or wigs or anything that will assimilate them into a culture where beauty standards are rooted in White culture. So when you are playing the romantic interest in a movie, you have got to change your hair; it’s a big thing with Black actresses in Hollywood, especially if you have a darker skin.
Did you ever have to fight back because you were underestimated?
My entire life has been about that—I’ve been underestimated because of where I grew up in Central Falls [US]. I remember one person said, ‘I think that Central Falls is the armpit of Rhode Island.’ I have always followed my passion, I haven’t followed any one’s definition of me. I have never thought within myself that I couldn’t do it. I think that’s the gift of imagination, you can do anything you want to and be anything you want to. That is why I fell in love with theatre, because I said, ‘Well, I could be that and I know people don’t see me like that.’ I have always danced to the rhythm of my own beat.
Hollywood seems to be making up for its lack of diversity. Do you think this the trend will sustain?
I no longer live my life thinking ‘Is this for now or is it going to pass?’ I don’t ask myself what is Hollywood going to give me: that part of me has died; she’s gone, she’s in a graveyard; and the part that has been born is that I am going to take it, the power is within me to create the change; and for me it’s not really a change, it’s just stepping into what I should have already. You are seeing a list of Black actors and other ethnicities create their own production companies. My husband says that a closed mouth doesn’t get fed, so now we are opening our mouths instead of letting people put us into boxes. I think we are in a very important point in history because we are stepping into our own power.
You have expanded your horizions, including writing a children’s book (Corduroy Takes a Bow) recently.
I did Corduroy for my daughter only because it was a book that I read to her when we first adopted her. I would read eight books a night to her while I was rocking her, and that was a book that stuck. It stuck because Corduroy the bear was very curious—I love curious characters because I was kind of encouraged and punished for being curious. I also love that the main character is African-American, she’s just a part of the story and not beating you over the head with it. Every time I tell my daughter a story at night, a story that I make up, she says, ‘Mommy, put me in the story.’ That is why I dedicated the book to her and I said to her, ‘You are always going to be in the story.’ I started writing when I was eight or nine. All my stories were apocalyptic—everyone was blown up and I was the only one left on earth, it was like mass destruction. I think I was working something out and I thought I was a very good writer and that was my passion. I said I was going to be a writer, and the library saved my life.