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Viola Davis On Her Humble Beginnings And Her Fight To Diversify Hollywood

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 26/02/2016 Leigh Blickley
ATHENA IMAGE © Jeffrey Mayer via Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

Viola Davis was born at her grandmother's house on a plantation in St. Matthews, South Carolina in 19. She moved to Central Falls, Rhode Island, at a young age and grew up in, what she describes as, "abject poverty and dysfunction." 

She relied on inspiration to guide her through childhood into adulthood and reached for the stars as she began her acting career as a teenager. These days, Davis can't even comprehend the level of success she's achieved in her life -- she's simply grateful to have a stocked refrigerator. 

"It's like going over an ocean that's blue and green and you can see clear to the bottom, you can't even believe it, it takes your breath away," Davis told The Huffington Post when asked how she feels looking back on her journey. "It's that same sort of feeling I get when I think of growing up in an apartment that was on the third floor of a building that was rat-infested ... I always just dreamed about having a home with a spiral staircase, or I just thought about having a husband and three meals a day or opening up a refrigerator and seeing food. They were really simple dreams."

Dreams. That's what inspires Viola Davis every day, and it's why she decided to team up with international medical aid organization Direct Relief on The Vaseline Healing Project, aimed at providing dermatological care, Vaseline jelly and medical supplies to help heal the skin of people affected by poverty or emergencies around the world.

"I know from growing up in poverty that what would have opened up my life would be very simple solutions -- soap, food, clean clothes," Davis told HuffPost. "I know the idea of simple solutions to bigger problems could make the difference between people getting back to their lives."

Davis seems to know a thing or two about finding solutions. Not only is she a voice for The Vaseline Healing Project, she is one of the most powerful voices representing women of color in the entertainment industry today. With all of the discussion surrounding #OscarsSoWhite, Davis has stepped forward to share her insight into the diversity issue in Hollywood. 

While appearing on the "Today" show earlier this week, the Juilliard-trained actress said, "I think one of the things people misunderstand [is that] you have to separate opportunity from talent -- that people feel like if the roles aren't there, that means there's no talent out there. That's not true. What's true is, if you create those narratives, then those roles can open up to people who are waiting in line."

She expanded on those comments when she sat down with HuffPost at The London Hotel in New York City on Wednesday. 

"I really fell in love with acting -- the craft of acting. I didn't just want to be a celebrity," Davis explained. "I probably have the same kind of past as a Julianne Moore or a Sigourney Weaver or any of them, but they far surpassed me in terms of their opportunity. And that's the difference. Your work and what you invest in your talent doesn't match the opportunity of the narratives that are out there. So you have to take all that you have and pour it into [playing] the detective in 'Disturbia.'"

(Side note: Davis played one hell of a detective.)

At 50, she has really found her stride, gaining momentum following her incredible, Oscar-nominated portrayal of Mrs. Miller in 2008's "Doubt." She was only in a few minutes of the movie, but stole the spotlight from her more famous co-star -- you know, that actress named Meryl Streep. Of her performance, The Washington Post said, "In one utterly galvanizing scene, she single-handedly defines this riveting movie, emerging as its most arrestingly conflicted character and -- not incidentally in a film that's all about spiritual rigor -- its most compelling and unsettling moral voice." 

Things only got better from there, as Davis nabbed the starring role in 2011's "The Help," playing Aibileen Clark, a maid living in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, who contributes to a young white woman's book about the racism African-American maids face while working in white households. Adapted from Kathryn Stockett's novel of the same name, "The Help" was nominated for four Oscars in 2012 -- Best Picture, Best Actress for Davis and Best Supporting Actress for both Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain. Spencer took home the golden statue for her portrayal of maid Minny Jackson.

"Everything changed with 'The Help' and the Best Actress nomination," Davis told HuffPost of finding roles, continuing, "but you know, this is a three- or four-hour conversation because there is a method to the madness with all the opportunities you get. I've gotten a lot of opportunities. They're not the same as my Caucasian counterparts, but they certainly are a lot."

Since "The Help," Davis has appeared in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," "Prisoners," "Ender's Game" and "Get on Up," among others. She's also set to star as antiheroic government official Amanda Waller in the upcoming DC Comics film "Suicide Squad." 

"I want [my roles] to be different because I see myself as definitely more expansive, probably, than the business sees me. That's why my husband [Julius Tennon] and I developed a production company, because I want to do it all," she said of JuVee Productions, which recently produced "Lila & Eve." "You know, for a long time I apologized for that, for wanting to do it all because that almost seems egotistical to me, like, 'I want it all! I want it all!'" Davis added. "But that's what we tell our kids ... you tell them that it's possible, you have to tell them that."

And in Davis' world, anything is possible. These days, she's starring as Annalise Keating on ABC's hit show "How to Get Away with Murder," which airs in the coveted "TGIT" time slot alongside fellow Shondaland series "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal." The role earned Davis the Emmy award for Best Actress in a Drama Series, making her the first African-American to win in that category. Her speech touched on everything we got into during our discussion. 

"I was very focused and very calm in that moment because I knew exactly what I wanted to say. And what I said is I cannot be who I am if I'm the third girl from the left," she explained. "To distinguish between opportunity and talent is something that people needed to know. No one is writing for us, no one is giving us these jobs. So you can't just wonder why aren't we up there if there's nothing out there for us to be up there for."

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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