Viola Davis joined Variety and Kering at the Cannes Film Festival for a powerful Women In Motion conversation in which she revealed a director once called her by his maid’s name. The Oscar and Emmy-winning actor was talking about Hollywood’s perception of Black actors and how the amount of roles she can play remains limited due to her skin color, even at her A-list stature.
“I had a director who did that to me. He said, ‘Louise!’ I knew him for 10 years and he called me Louise and I find out that it’s because his maid’s name is Louise,” Davis said. “I was maybe around 30 at the time, so it was a while ago. But what you have to realize is that those micro-aggressions happen all the time.”
Davis won an Emmy for her leading role in “How to Get Away With Murder,” which was one of the only series fronted by a dark-skinned Black woman on television during its six-season run. “How to Get Away With Murder” from Shonda Rhimes broke down barriers for representation on network TV, but Davis admitted the show didn’t necessarily open the door for more TV opportunities for women who look like her.
“I know that when I left ‘How to Get Away With Murder’ that I don’t see a lot of dark skin women in lead roles on TV and not even in streaming services,” Davis said, in conversation at Cannes with Variety‘s chief correspondent Elizabeth Wagmeister. “And that ties into ideology and ethos and mentality, and that’s speaking in the abstract. Why aren’t you hiring a dark skin woman when she walks in the room and you say she blows you away? Create space and storytelling for her so when she thrives she’s not thriving despite of her circumstance but thriving because of her circumstance.”
Davis stressed that opportunities in Hollywood are still limited. Through her production company JuVee Productions, which she founded with her husband Julius Tennon, Davis is trying to expand the scope of the stories being told in Hollywood (see her upcoming warrior epic “The Woman King” as an example).
“If I wanted to play a mother whose family lives in a low income neighborhood and my son was a gang member who died in a drive by shooting, I could get that made,” Davis said. “If I played a woman who was looking to recreate herself by flying to Nice and sleeping with five men at the age of 56 — looking like me, I’m going to have a hard time pushing that one, even as Viola Davis.”
Davis once played a supporting role in the Julia Roberts starrer “Eat Pray Love,” but it sounds like making a version of that story with her in the lead role wouldn’t be of interest in Hollywood. The actor said the reason is that “people can’t reconcile the Blackness with the spiritual awakening and the sexuality. It’s too much for them.”
While speaking about being rejected for roles in the past, Davis said a lot of the times she was passed over because of her race or because Hollywood talent did not find her “pretty enough.” The latter reason “really gets on my damn nerves,” Davis said. “It breaks my heart and it makes me angry.”
“A lot of it is based in race. It really is,” Davis added of being rejected. “Let’s be honest. If I had my same features and I were five shades lighter, it would just be a little bit different. And if I had blonde hair, blue eyes and even a wide nose, it would be even a little bit different than what it is now. We could talk about colorism, we could talk about race. It pisses me off, and it has broken my heart — on a number of projects, which I won’t name.”
Watch Davis’ full conversation at Kering’s Women In Motion talk with Variety in the video below: