When she was 8 years old she would get chased like a dogs hunting prey by white kids who would throw rocks, bricks, batteries and anything else their eyes spied on and screamed racial hatred at her.
And when reaching home her mother would warn her not to come back crying or else she’d woop her ass. It was the first lesson for Viola Davis to know how to defend herself even if she had to be threatened by her mother to do so.
Memories for her were immortal. They had the power of giving her joy and perspective in hard times while at the same time could strangle her. A way of defining a person that’s based more in other people’s tucked up perceptions than truth.
As an actress who started working in steady gigs, Broadway shows, gained multiple industry awards Viola still felt like that little, terrified third grade black girl. A woman who never stopped running.
Feeling ugly, feeling unwanted she wanted so badly to fit into the world that at the age of 28 she realised that her journey and everything she was doing with her life was about healing that eight year old girl.
Viola has always been an introvert and extremely shy. She became a keen observer of the world around her. At a young age when needing to stand up to her dad from stopping killing her mum she knew that her life would be a fight. And she realised this: she had it in her.
At one point Viola experienced the true power of artistry when she gave her first performance – a skit, with her sisters in a contest. She was only young, around 9 years of age, and whoever won was to get a profile in the paper and a prize. Her and her sisters decided they were going to win that damn contest.
The skit was called ‘the life saver show’ based on a game show and they had a measly budget of $2.50, but that didn’t stop them from puling strings and seeing what they could get for free from various family members, friends and acquaintances.
They rehearsed intensely and approached the skit like it was Shakespeare. If a line didn’t work her sister would stop the rehearsal and tell Viola to do it differently then Viola would work on something better.
When the day came to perform the skit Viola had massive stage fright. She could barely perform in front of her sisters and her stomach would be in knots. She would just freeze. But her sisters threatened her not to flake out or else.
Before stepping on stage they did their little chant of ‘we’re gonna win! We’re gonna win!’
After the performance the skit gave them a standing ovation and they did end up winning. The applause was intoxicating for viola and the adoration gave her an instant protection and smoke screen to hide the fact that she was simply scared all the time and felt like an outsider.
Growing up as a teenager was no easy ride. Viola would live in extreme conditions of poverty where no hot water was available and having to wash up in ice cold water with rarely any soap in the dead of winter didn’t help much. While hauling bags of laundry a mile or two in freezing temperatures was no picnic either.
Most times her mother had no money to buy food and viola and her sisters would mooch off the families of friends and dumpsters, rummaging through garbage for food. They would befriend kids who’s mothers cooked three meals a day and go to their homes when they could. Sometimes Viola had to shoplift food, slipping a brownie down her pants. The experience of going to bed hungry is something that neither her or her sister will ever forget.
What dignity Viola could hold onto was retained. It was a team effort between her and her sisters. That preserved her. They were a girl posse, fighting, clawing their way out of the invisibility of poverty and a world where they didn’t fit in. The world was their enemy and they were survivors.
Viola wanted to be a great actor. She wanted to talk like an actor and train like one. The process and artistry of piecing together a human being completely different from you was the equivalent of being otherworldly. It also had the power to heal the broken. All that was inside her that she couldn’t work out in her life, she could channel it all in her work and no one would be the wiser. All of it was a perfect alchemy for healing, acceptance and worthiness.
When she was fourteen she found an acting coach a mentor, by the name of Ron Stetson, who for six week in the summer where she would live on a college campus and take classes, gave her two huge gifts that changed her life.
The first happened during their first day in acting class. Has asked all the students in attendance how many wanted to be actors. And all hands went up.
‘You know you have to work fucking hard every fucking day’ he said. ‘Every day’ he repeated. ‘You can go on an audition every frisking day for six weeks and never ever get a job. You know that right?
As hands began to lower down Viola’s was still raised ‘And you’re going to get rejected time and time and time again’ Ron continued.
Viola was the only one now who had her hand up. But Ron kept going at her ‘You’re going to get egg on your face. You’re going to fail. Your family is not going to understand what you do and neither will most people.’
Viola still kept her hand up, staring at him. When your electricity and heat are cut off, and you don’t have enough to eat, you’re not afraid when someone says life is going to be hard. The fear factor was minimised for her. She already knew fear. Her dreams were bigger than the fear.
The second gift Ron gave Viola happened at a party in Ron’s house. At some point during a conversation there was a reference to Viola and her sister not being pretty and Ron interjected ‘ ‘Wait! You both don’t think you’re pretty? Why?’ He asked. They looked at each other completely embarrassed and laughed. Both sisters went on to say that most of the people where they lived were white and they just… they were lost for words.
‘You both are fucking beautiful!’ Ron said ‘I always thought that. You don’t see it?’ He asked.
It was a life changing experience for Viola when she realised that she was finally being seen, valued and adored. Being beautiful opened up another space in Viola’s world where she actually could be anyone or anything she wanted to be.
Ron gave her the first ingredient she needed to be an artist, the power to create. The power of alchemy, that magical process of transformation and creation to believe at any given time she could be the somebody she always wanted to be.
Viola also experienced something even more special: a sacred space where they could all share without shame or fear. A space where they could share their deepest, darkest secrets and they would be received with love and empathy. Ron encouraged her not to hold it in, and he loved it when the class did anything bold, odd or unique.
When she got accepted to college Viola focused on acting classes: character study, voice and articulation, creative classes, dramatic criticism, the history of theatre. Every aspect of theatre. The other academic classes not so much.
This is what made her happy. What brought her joy. She took the plunge and auditioned and got two roles in Main Stage Productions. These were small roles but nonetheless she was nominated for one of them for an Irene Ryan Award which was the top acting award in college.
She went on to create a one woman show that she performed for years. It had seventeen different characters. She even performed an improvisation piece where she created a comic piece based on words that the audience just spontaneously threw at her.
She was so adamant on walking into audition rooms and prove her training and technique that she had talent to make them forget that she’s black. No matter how nervous she was at auditions she used it as fuel to really attack her monologues.
When she was onstage she could ingest the applause and embrace the audiences words of praise for her performance but it gave her temporary self love from the outside and it would soon wear off.
After graduating she worked in a factory making boxes then moved to doing telemarketing work being screamed at through the phone. It was great training for an actress because it’s the height of humiliation, the height of rejection. She also got a job passing out flyers in Times Square.
She took further acting courses including Circle in the square where she was taught under the tutelage of some great acting teachers. It was no holds barred type of learning, courageous scene study, acting study, voice, movement, everything. It was comprehensive, a training program where one couldn’t emotionally hide.
When auditioning to get into Juilliard School Viola didn’t realise how competitive the school is and how serious their requirements were. The acceptance rate at Juilliard School was 4.9%. For every 100 applicants, only 5 were admitted. This meant the school is extremely selective.
She felt pretty confident she was going to get into the school because she didn’t know better. She felt she had power in her acting. And had a feeling that she was good. The longer she was in theatre settings, the more confident she became.
The audition process is auditioning in front of three to four main teachers and if you’re good it’s on to the next level and do the audition again. Then you go to the next level and you do it again until the entire faculty has seen you.
Viola managed to arrange one audition in front of all the teachers of the departments. One of the heads apparently was a complete asshole but on the whole they came back saying ‘there are things you have to work on. But we see your gift as an actor, your emotional wealth.’
And, she got accepted.
During her training and performing at Juilliard an agent popped by to see Viola perform in one of her plays and decided he wanted to meet up with her. The meeting was one of synergy, kismet, a perfect moment. Sometimes actors meet an agent and the vibe is what can you do for me? You’re a big agent. Just get me auditions for a job. Get me a lot of money. But this was someone who saw her, saw her talent, saw her possibilities.
Agent and actor are like marriage. The agent has to ‘get’ you. She was dark skinned, not a size two, not considered ‘beautiful’. And viola felt that the agent she’s chosen would be the driving force in her career, her advocate.
Graduating from Juilliard with an agent in tow Viola would go to auditions, get a callback, and then someone else would get it. Or she wouldn’t get the audition at all because she was too young, too old, too dark, not sexy. In the meantime her life kept moving. Rent was due, phone bill was due, subway fare, food, student loans.
The aha moment kicked in when she realised what life is like being an artist. The other thing that hit her was the power and life force of the one-two punch of colourism and sexism. Almost every role she auditioned for were drug addicted mothers. All the rest were soap operas where she would be sitting in the audition waiting room with good looking models.
Before the streaming services studios weren’t churning out great roles for Black actors, at least not Black actresses her shade.
Most of the actors Viola went to school with whether at Juilliard, Rhode Island College, Circle in the square theatre are not in the business of acting anymore.
It’s an eenie, meenie, miny, mo game of luck, relationships, chance, how long you’ve been out there, and sometimes talent.
She was 28 and waking up to reality. Waking up to being an adult and taking care of herself but also navigating feeling fulfilled in her craft. They were diametrically opposed.
She continued to audition and live off chicken wings each day and a quart of white rice at Chinese restaurants.
Her entire life had been struggle and survival. She’d been on her own since age seventeen. The fact that it was hard was nothing new, but the biggest struggle was keeping hope and a belief in herself. Then, finding an artistic community for support while fighting her ass off to stay alive. Acting was her choice, maybe a masochistic choice.
At one point Viola went back to her rep school and acted in two plays at the Gutherie theatre.
During one of those performances she got a call from her agent about auditioning for a play called ‘Seven Guitars.’ She felt connected to the part when studying for the audition. A TV/Film audition will maybe have a page or two whereas a theatre audition could be nine, ten or even more. This leaves very little room for memorisation but this was one of those rare occasions when she was off the book. The words for her character were a part of her.
After the audition Viola told her agent she thought she had a great audition even though she had a tendency to downplay auditions since most of the time she never got the part. But this one was different. The next day when she found she got the part she cried yet it was the first really big job in her career where she would get paid for and she was over the moon.
She would travel all over the country to perform in the role as Vera in the play and by the time they got to LA everyone came to see the show including the stars. They ended the show on Broadway and for her opening on Broadway it was everything she’d ever dreamed it could be.
This led to Viola getting a Tony nomination and then winning the award. Subsequently because of that feat she started getting approached to play small roles in various TV and film projects including The Shrink is in, Pentagon Wars, Out of Sight and eventually the TV hospital drama ‘City of Angels.’
After years of playing authoritarian cops, FBI agents, ambiguous lawyers, drug addicts, it was hard to play just a woman. And when a lead roll came by in the shape of ‘How to get away with murder’ everything changed.
Viola felt a great deal of fear to play the leading lady role on network TV. Many in the industry were saying that there’s no way that show is going to work with Viola Davis in the lead. There’s no way it’s going to work, she’s not pretty enough, she’s not feminine enough – she doesn’t turn me on.
It was ingrained thinking by the black society at the time. When she got the role she had mixed feelings of whether she deserved it. Until she remembered the teachings of Sanford Meisner, who said the most important question an actor can ask is ‘Why?’ Why can’t I be sexualised? Why can’t I be vulnerable? Why can’t I have a husband and a boyfriend? Why can’t I be a leading lady? As she kept on asking these questions she eventually reached a dead end that led to the question – why not?
An actor’s work is to be an observer of life. Her job wasn’t to study other actors, because that is not studying life. If we are an audience, it wasn’t her job to give us fantasy. It was her job to give us ourselves. In people there is an infinite box of different types, different situations, different behaviours. They are complicated and vast as the galaxy itself.
She let herself feel the fear, face the pain of her eight year old ugly girl self but she didn’t let it rule her. She used it as fuel, because she understood that she needed to bring everything she is into a character. To bring memory, triumphs, pain and insecurity. That is what makes a character human.
Viola became a mouthpiece for all the women who looked like her. She had no weapons to slay those naysayers, to change culture itself. Her art was the best healing tool to resolve her past, the best weapon that she had to conquer her present and her gift to the future.