Viola is on the cover of the new Net-A-Porter Magazine.
When an actress is as straight-talking, insightful and impassioned as VIOLA DAVIS, nothing is out of bounds – as she puts it, authenticity is her rebellion. AJESH PATALAY hears from one of TV’s most candid stars about sexual liberation, the value of women of color, and her #MeToo experiences
There is no shortage of women raising their voices against abuse and injustice right now. But what a woman, and what a voice, is Viola Davis. On January 20, the Oscar-winning actress took to the stage at the Women’s March in LA to speak about rape and trafficking, and how no change is great unless it costs us something. She did the equivalent with words of reaching into our chests and tearing at our heartstrings.
And not for the first time, either. On winning an Emmy in 2015 for her role as law professor Annalise Keating in ABC’s hit series How to Get Away with Murder (the first African American ever to win in the Lead Actress category), Davis didn’t squander the moment with thank yous. Instead, she talked about the lack of opportunity for women of color, quoting her heroine Harriet Tubman, and delivered one of the most rousing speeches of the year: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes – people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black.”
One newspaper called it “a masterclass in delivery”. But they might as well have called it a masterclass in one woman knowing exactly how she feels and not being afraid to say it. Which is how I find her, sitting on a sofa in a house in the Hollywood Hills, talking frankly about everything you’d want her to set the record straight about: #MeToo; ‘Time’s Up’; the gender pay gap; #OscarsSoWhite; and, well, the How to Get Away with Murder/Scandal crossover episode, which brings together the characters of Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington) and Keating for the first time ever. “I don’t know how else to describe it,” Davis says, beaming. “It felt like we were creating history. I mean, to have two really strong, well-written, well-rounded characters in the same room together, who are women of color? It’s black-girl magic at its best.”
Davis knows all too well that roles like Annalise Keating don’t come along often, “especially for a woman who looks like me,” she says. “I’m 52 and darker than a paper bag. Women who look like me are relegated to the back of the bus, auditioning for crackheads and mammas and the person with a hand on her hip who is always described as ‘sassy’ or ‘soulful’. I’ve had a 30-year career and I have rarely gotten roles that are fleshed out, even a little bit. I mean, you wouldn’t think [these characters] have a vagina. Annalise Keating has changed the game. I don’t even care if she doesn’t make sense. I love that she’s unrestricted, that every week I actually have to fight [showrunner] Peter Nowalk not to have another love scene. When does that ever happen?”
Has playing voracious Annalise changed the way she sees herself sexually? “Yes, and it’s been a painful journey,” she says, laughing, presumably because these sex scenes often take place across desks and up against walls. “It costs me something,” she continues, more earnestly, “because very rarely in my career – and in my life – have I been allowed to explore that part of myself, to be given permission to know that is an aspect of my humanity, that I desire and am desired. I always felt in playing sexuality you have to look a certain way, to be a certain size, to walk a certain way. Until I realized that what makes people lean in is when they see themselves. There’s no way I am going to believe that all women who are sexualized are size zero or two, all have straight hair, all look like sex kittens every time they go to bed and want sex from their man, all are heterosexual. I am mirroring women. I always say it is not my job to be sexy, it’s my job to be sexual. That’s the difference.”
She breaks off: “That’s my daughter, by the way.” And there, standing behind me, is a pretty girl in a blue dress. “Say hi, Gigi! I’m doing an interview.” Mother and daughter blow kisses to each other across the room, and then the six-year-old, whose name is actually Genesis, scoots off with her nanny. It’s a side to Davis I’d like to see more of, the doting mother. I’d also like to see more of the off-duty side; the Davis who throws barbecues and drinks tequila and likes hot-tubbing with her actor-producer husband, Julius Tennon. “I’m actually fun,” she cries at one point, as if to free herself from all this serious talk. But we both know she has a lot more to say, including about race.