COVER STORY: Fellow nominee Taraji P. Henson stood and applauded. Kerry Washington cried. But of all those moved by Viola Davis’ historic win at the Sept. 20 Emmy Awards, perhaps the most appreciative was a former 6-year-old girl who once lost the Miss Center Falls Recreation title.
“I keep expecting to be that little girl who loses the contest,” Davis tells Variety, after just four hours’ sleep at an early morning photo shoot at The Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles. “It’s a mixture of disbelief and joy and acceptance. It’s just beautiful.”
Davis has earned a spot in the Emmy record books — as the first black woman to win for lead actress in a drama — sparking an outpouring of support on social media. The win, along with those of Regina King (supporting actress in a limited series for “American Crime”) and Uzo Aduba (supporting actress in a drama for “Orange Is the New Black”), was a resounding statement on diversity, especially in a year when the Academy Awards faced criticism for the lack thereof.
But, Davis says, the award also struck a far more personal chord.
Davis grew up impoverished; she didn’t even meet her sister, Diane, until she was 5 and Diane was 9, because their parents couldn’t afford to raise them together. When Diane was finally brought to Rhode Island, recalls Davis, she looked at the rundown apartment the family was living in and told her sister, “If this is not what you want in your life, what do you want to do?”
|Photo by Jeff Minton for Variety|
“I remember not having an answer,” recalls Davis. “And for years, I searched.”
At the ceremony, she says, she finally found her golden ticket, a la “Willy Wonka.” “What it meant for me to win the Emmy is I found it,” she says, choking up. “It’s not just the award. It’s what it’s going to mean to young girls — young brown girls, especially. When they saw a physical manifestation of a dream, I felt like I had fulfilled a purpose.”
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Davis will be the first one to tell you her success did not happen overnight. Driven by her passion for acting, she eventually found her way from poverty to Juilliard. Now 50, she’s got a long list of credits — from film to theater to television.
Backstage at the Emmys, she talked openly about her longevity in the business — as well as her struggles with unemployment. “You guys have to realize, I’ve been in this business 35 years, and 27 years professionally,” she told reporters. “I’m the journeyman actor that you saw in one scene here, two scenes there. I’ve been eking out a living doing theater — Broadway, Off Broadway — film supporting roles, that I’m just excited to be a part of the conversation.”
There’s no resting on her laurels for the newly minted Emmy winner: As soon as the photo shoot wrapped, the star of ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder” was already back at work on her hit show, where she was greeted with whoops and hollers by her castmates.
The third building block in ABC’s ratings powerhouse TGIT lineup, “Murder” follows the tumultuous personal and professional life of Davis’ Annalise Keating, a defense lawyer and law professor who dangerously finds herself just as consumed in the lives of her students as she is in her clients’ complex cases.
“I’m an O.G.,” she says, announcing her “original gangsta” cred to the well-wishers who complimented her on her eloquent acceptance speech. “I’ve been doing this for 27 years.”
That speech quoted Underground Railroad founder Harriet Tubman: “In my mind, I see a line,” Davis said. “And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.”
Along with her husband, Julius Tennon, Davis is working on a project about Tubman for HBO — and says when she found that quote, she thought it was progressive and apropos for what proved to be a historic occasion. “We talk about women constantly in 2015,” she says. “It’s that barrier we’re trying to reach and cross. We dream of it. It seeps into your body: See me for who I am. Accept me for who I am. You see the finish line. And you just always seem to fall short.”
Not any more. The win underscores a watershed moment for diversity in television. “Empire,” “Black-ish” and “Scandal” dominate broadcast ratings, and although Davis was competing against “Empire” star Henson for the trophy, the two women make it clear there is no rivalry between them. “We just whispered to each other, ‘Whoever gets it, it’s great, it’s wonderful, and I love you,’ ” Davis told reporters backstage.
ABC particularly has been at the forefront of diversity, and Davis thanked the network’s entertainment chief Paul Lee in her acceptance speech.
Says Lee: “We are thrilled that the Academy recognized Viola’s talent and her enormous contribution to her craft; and, we are honored that she calls ABC her television home. This is a monumental and historic moment for Viola, for ABC and for broadcast television.”
Davis says she now has the luxury of being picky about projects, both in front of and behind the camera. “I’ve learned the power of great narrative,” she says, having worked with accomplished creatives — naming August Wilson, Lloyd Richards, Steven Soderbergh — “and I want to be able to have some semblance of control over that than to just be at the mercy of what’s out there.”
|Photo by Jeff Minton for Variety|
In the pipeline are projects about civil rights activist and congresswoman Barbara Jordan, to be directed by Tony Kushner; and Vee-Jay Records, which preceded Motown. She’s also slated to star alongside Denzel Washington in a televised version of Wilson’s play “Fences.”
“It takes a while to have a sense of power where you can say no,” she says.
What sparks her interest are roles that take her out of her comfort zone, but also show the entire experience of being a woman. “I think women are very complicated human beings,” she says, “and I think there’s an oversimplification of women when you see them on screen.” She’s particularly tired of romantic comedies, where the girls are “kinda quirky” and haven’t dated in a while. “I always to want to say, Who are you really? Do you pop a Xanax every once in a while? Do you not like someone because you’re jealous? Did you have a really bad relationship that you messed up? Do you go to therapy? Are you mean? Anything? I look for something that shows us as the complicated people that we are. And there’s beauty in that.”
That’s what she says she found in Annalise, the role that’s now brought her that impressive hardware. “It’s given me a way to show womanhood and a leading lady in a different way — and given me a place to shine — than I had in film,” she says.
Davis has earned two Oscar nominations for film roles — for 2008’s “Doubt” and 2011’s “The Help” — but she was drawn to “How to Get Away With Murder” because it presented an opportunity to break the rules. “Whatever you perceive network TV to be is not necessarily what it should be,” she says.
Davis credits the creative team at Shondaland — run by uber-producer Shonda Rhimes — with letting her create an iconic character who can let her hair down. Literally. In a now infamous scene from last season, Davis dared to go bare: She removed her wig, peeled off her false eyelashes, and took off her makeup.
“I feel the same way about Shondaland I feel about Africa and Greece,” Davis says. “I feel pretty in both places. Men look at me like I’m a novelty, and women think I’m just cool. I feel absolutely at home immediately. I’m not altering myself to fit in. I’m walking in just as I am. And there are open arms stretched out to greet me.”
One of the biggest of TV’s unwritten rules that she broke was about the structure of the show itself: She asked for — and got — a 15-episode run. She says she wanted to maintain some semblance of a home life, with husband and their 5-year-old daughter, Genesis. “I don’t want to be completely exhausted by my work and not like it anymore.”
Showrunner Pete Nowalk credits Davis as his muse.
“Working with her, I’ve realized how much she’s a storyteller at heart,” he says. “With her performance, she’s telling a story. She wants to tell the best story. For me, it elevates my writing. I will forever be a better writer for working with her.”
Nowalk says he knew he’d met his match when he began working with the Oscar nominee. “I saw the first few episodes and realized how much she was diving in, and that the depths and layers she was bringing to the role would be impactful,” he says. Of the award itself, he marvels simply, “It’s historic in a way I can’t even comprehend.”
And now that she’s an Emmy winner, the show’s stakes have only gotten higher. “Since the beginning, the thing that has kept me up at night is writing material that is worthy of Viola,” Nowalk says. “And that doesn’t change.”
There are showrunners who believe their words are precious, and don’t let their stars alter a word. And then there’s the relationship between Davis and Nowalk. It was Davis’ idea to film that wig scene. It was also the actress’s plan to bring in Cicely Tyson to play her mother, for the raw, revealing episode about the abuse in their past.
And Nowalk promises more inspiration from Davis in the season ahead. Adds the actress, “We’re discovering together.”
Davis notes that viewers can be impatient. “One thing people don’t understand about acting is it’s not a result-oriented art form,” she says. “And that’s probably one of the downfalls of network TV. People want to know what the character is right away. They want to like them. They want to root for them. They want to know exactly who they are in the first five minutes. And that’s not necessarily who we are in life.”
It’s clear Davis enjoys the creative process with Nowalk. And she’s willing to make Annalise — gasp — unlikable.
“When you’re in a TV show that can span who knows how many seasons, you have to always be in the process of not limiting your character, putting them in a box. We’re both brave and bold enough to always push the envelope.”
That’s what makes the character relatable to women, Davis explains. “Her being strong in her professional life and weak somewhat in her personal life — I think a lot of women can relate to that,” she says. “It’s those two masks that we wear all the time.”
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Davis hopes her success inspires those who are struggling.
“I don’t know if I could have handled all this when I was 23,” she says. “For a fact, I could not have.” She lists the struggles she’s faced — the death of her father, rejection, failure, unemployment, making just $120 a week — and then, ultimately, finding joy in her work.
“All of that has brought me to the point of being on the stage with that Emmy with all of that energy coming at me. Being able to handle it, that’s what life gives you.”
That said, she wishes millennials in the profession could be a bit more patient. “Nobody wants to experience anything anymore,” she says. “They have a sense of entitlement. They want their Oscar as soon as they get out of school.”
What they’re missing, she says, is the journey. “I’ve learned so much about myself and what it means to be an actor. By going to the unemployment line, by going to the theater, and doing your two lines. Somewhere in the midst of that, you begin to discover what kind of actor you are and what kind of person you are. And then when success comes, if it comes, you’ve earned it. You can handle it.”
So what would she say to that 6-year-old girl competing in Miss Central Falls? “I was always trying to be like everybody else,” she says. “So now when I look back at her, I’d say, ‘She is fabulous exactly the way she is.’ ”