celebrity

Viola Davis played one of the most iconic characters on TV. She was told she was “too ugly” for the role.

This article deals with domestic violence and alcoholism and may be triggering for some readers.

Viola Davis has made a powerful name for herself: an incredibly successful actor, activist and producer, who has also been named one of the 100 most influential people in the world courtesy of Time Magazine.

She is also the first African-American actor to achieve the 'Triple Crown of Acting', receiving an Academy Award, a Primetime Emmy Award and two Tony Awards. 

But in her upcoming book, Finding Me: A Memoir, Davis reveals she faced scrutiny over her looks after being cast in one of her most iconic roles.

The experience is detailed in a recent New York Times profile, in which Davis addresses many incidents of racism and colourism throughout her career, but says she has a lasting memory of what she went through after being cast as passionate and unpredictable law professor Annalise Keating in How to Get Away With Murder. 

Davis says that after getting the part, a friend came to her after overhearing other actors - some of whom were Black - saying she "wasn't pretty enough to pull it off."

"Davis couldn’t shake all the racial criticisms she had heard over her career. She was 47 and terrified. She took the job anyway," NYT reporters Jazmine Hughes writes in the profile. 

And in doing so, she cemented Annalise Keating as one of the most iconic television characters of recent times - and won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.

Amid Davis' life in the spotlight, she initially kept her personal life relatively private: that is until recently.

Watch: Viola Davis' Oscars speech. Post continues below.


Video via ABC.

Viola Davis was born in 1965 to parents Dan and Mae Alice in South Carolina, America. 

Dan had left school after the second grade and was illiterate until he was fifteen, and Mae Alice had quit school after the eighth grade. 

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Davis is the fifth of the six children, delivered by her grandmother "in a one-room sharecropper's shack on a former slave plantation farm".

Although Davis says she never doubted the familial love around her, things were tough at home. 

Her family experienced significant poverty, and after relocating to Rhode Island in a bid to find work, Davis, her siblings and parents found refuge in various dilapidated buildings. 

In a profile with the New Yorker, Davis said the most notorious 'family home' they lived in was 128 Washington Street: a partly boarded-up condemned building, in which they lived rent-free for a time, without clean water, soap, heat or electricity. 

Not to mention, the building was also heavily rat-infested. 

Davis and her sisters would huddle on a top bunk bed, and wrap bedsheets or old rags around their necks to protect themselves from being bitten by rats in their sleep. 

Their small collection of toys and dolls would have their faces eaten off by the rats. 

And at night and feeling afraid, they would go to sleep listening to the sounds of the rodents eating/killing the pigeons in the attic. When Davis was eight, she and her sisters won a local skit contest: the prize being a softball kit with a red plastic bat, which back at home, came in handy for pummeling the rats. 

"When my sister and I have a nightmare, we say it was about 128," Davis said to Glamour.

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Davis only has one photo from her childhood, an image of her in kindergarten. 

Sharing it to Instagram, Davis wrote in the caption: "I have this expression on my face: it's not a smile, it's not a frown. I was the kind of poor where I knew right away I had less than everyone around me." 

Speaking about the image on The View talk show, Davis said:

"That's a little girl who wanted to get out. She had drive. That little girl was hungry: hungry for food, hungry for success, hungry for dreams."

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Sadly amid the poverty, there was also violence in the home. 

Davis' father Dan was an alcoholic who was an experienced boxer, the two of which didn't go well hand in hand.

"Every Thursday, when he got paid, he came home drunk. He once ripped the door off the refrigerator. He beat Mae Alice on a regular basis. There was no peace in my household. After a beating, Mum would come into our room, go into a closet, and hide in the back all night and just cry," she shared.

Davis's father died of pancreatic cancer in 2006, and in her memoir Davis, recalls how her parents' relationship changed in later years. 

"My dad changed," she explains. "My mom said he apologized to her every single day. Every single day, he rubbed her feet. Forgiveness is not pretty. Sometimes people don't understand that life is not a Thursday-night lineup on ABC. It is messy. He did hurt me then, but love and forgiveness can operate on the same plane as anger."

And that allowed Davis herself to find some forgiveness.

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"I wanted to love my dad," she told People magazine. "And here's the thing: My dad loved me. I saw it. I felt it. I received it, and I took it. For me, that's a much better gift and less of a burden than going through my entire life carrying that big, heavy weight of who he used to be and what he used to do. That's my choice. That's my legacy: forgiving my dad."

***

School was also challenging for Davis.

"I messed up all the time. Detention every day. Nasty back talk with teachers. I pushed a teacher once. I wanted attention really bad. I felt I just didn't fit in."

There was also little money for laundry and cleaning supplies, and considering Davis wet the bed until she was fourteen, teachers began to lecture her and her sisters about hygiene. 

"We'd go to school smelling, I reeked of urine. But it wasn't an option to out ourselves. We just sat there with our heads down. I was always so hungry and ashamed, I couldn't tap into my potential. I couldn't get at the business of being me."

Listen to The Quicky: Period poverty. Post continues after audio.


There was always a fear of the monthly welfare check resulting in the children being taken away.

"When I say we had nothing, I mean zero."

Groceries would be bought just before the welfare official arrived, but afterwards the food would quickly disappear.

"It was like, if you don't eat it now, it'll be gone, and you're going to be hungry for the next... Lord, who knows how long," she said to Glamour.

But somehow amid the hardship, Davis found her passion. 

In high school, she enrolled in an acting class that helped prepare low-income students for higher education. Davis then earned a scholarship to study theatre at Rhode Island College, and later a scholarship to Juilliard School in New York City. 

Image: Getty. 

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In her profile with the New Yorker, Davis compared her student days to cough syrup: unpleasant but useful. 

Three years after graduating from Juilliard in 1993, Davis earned her first Tony Award nomination. By 2001 she was winning Tonys on Broadway.

In 2017, Davis made history by being the first ever black actor to win "the triple crown of acting".

That year, she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Fences. She won an Emmy in 2015 for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for How to Get Away with Murder. Davis has also won two Tony Awards, one for the theatre production of Fences and the other for King Hedley II.

Image: Getty. 

Coming full circle in her Oscars acceptance speech, Davis thanked her parents. 

"The people who taught me good or bad, how to fail, how to love, how to hold an award, how to lose: my parents. I'm so thankful that God chose you to bring me into this world."

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Along with acting, Davis has been using her platform to tackle food poverty in America, raising well over $4.5 million for food charities.

"This is the richest country in the world. There's no reason kids should be going to school hungry. Food is something that everyone should have. It just is."

In 2003, Davis married her husband, actor/producer Julius Tennon. 

"After my first date with Julius, my life got better in every way. Anxiety went away, fear went away. He just made my life better," she said in an interview with Black Love.

In 2016, Davis and Tennon decided to renew their vows to each other in an intimate Californian ceremony.

"There’s no better way to feel what life is truly about than the birth of a child and getting married to someone you love—really love," Davis told InStyle. "It's a reminder. A wake up. My career is about success but my marriage and my life is about significance."

Image: Getty. 

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In 2011, the couple adopted their daughter Genesis. Davis is also a stepmother to Tennon's two children from previous relationships.

Regarding their decision to adopt, Davis shared: "I always tell Genesis she was born from my heart, not my belly. There are so many ways to mother rather than to carry a child in your body. So many children need parents, and so many of us want to mother."

Now that Genesis is ten and living a privileged lifestyle thanks to her parents' success, Davis says it is always in the back of her mind how best to try and raise her child. 

"My number one fear is my daughter will grow up feeling entitled," Davis said to PEOPLE.

"I never had a house: Genesis has a house. I do shop at Target, I buy all her clothes at Target or H&M. And maybe, if I'm feeling really good, Nordstrom Rack."

Speaking about their parenting styles, Davis said her husband is stricter out of the two of them.

"Julius is really tough. He has two beautiful children and seven grandkids. I came into a relationship where he already had children and grandchildren and raised his kids on his own, so he's tough — he toes the line, but in a very loving way. He holds her accountable. Me, not so much: I'm the softie."

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Despite all the accolades since, Davis says it has taken seven years of therapy, the support of her husband and the adoption of Genesis to "fully accept her life in all of its success, failure, beauty and mess".

She shared: "One thing that is missing from the vision boards is what happens when you don't get what you want. Your ability to adapt to failure, and navigate your way out of it, absolutely 100 percent makes you who you are."

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Because of her childhood, Davis isn't one for flashy things.

She doesn't enjoy manicures or pedicures. She's not into cars. 

Rather, all she wanted was a fabulous house to call her own, clean sheets on the bed, a spiral staircase and to be able to take a shower when she wants. 

"The big 'Aha!' moment is that the trauma never goes away. I consider myself a hero. I don't have a cape, I don't have a golden lasso. I had a call to live life bigger than myself and I found the elixir." 

Image: Getty. 

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

If this post brought up any issues for you, you can contact Drug Aware, Australia's 24hr alcohol and drug support line. You can reach them on (08) 9442 5000 or 1800 198 024.

Feature Image: Getty/Instagram/ @violadavis.

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