Born in South Carolina, Viola Davis grew up in Rhode Island, where she began acting—first in high school, and then at Rhode Island College. After attending the Juilliard School of Performing Arts, Davis made her Broadway debut in 1996 in Seven Guitars. She has won Tony Awards for her performances in King Hedley II (2001) and a revival of August Wilson's Fences (2010), which co-starred Denzel Washington. Her film work includes Doubt (2008), for which she received an Oscar nomination, The Help (2011), Ender's Game (2013) and Get on Up (2014). In 2015, she became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her work on the television series How to Get Away with Murder. She reprised her role playing Rose Maxson in the 2016 film adaptation of Fences, directed and co-starring Denzel Washington, for which she received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2017.
Growing up poor in Rhode Island, Viola Davis found an oasis from her family's financial woes in watching movies. Her father worked at racetracks, often as a horse groomer. She discovered a love of acting early in high school. At Rhode Island College, Davis earned her degree in theater in 1988. From there, she soon continued her studies at the famed Juilliard School of Performing Arts in New York City.
Before long, Davis began to establish a name for herself in the New York theater world. She made her Broadway debut in August Wilson's tragic comedy Seven Guitars in 1996. In the play, Davis starred as Vera, a woman who takes back the boyfriend who wronged her. She again worked with Wilson on his 2001 drama King Hedley II, for which she won her first Tony Award.
TV and Film Projects
On the small screen, Davis tried her hand at series television with the medical drama City of Angeles, in 2000. She also made several guest appearances on other shows as well; one of her most notable performances was as a serial killer on Law & Order. It is one of her favorite roles, despite some negative reactions in the African-American community. "I've had backlash playing a serial killer ... Anthony Hopkins didn't, but I did. I have to follow my heart at the end of the day," she later told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
After a few feature film parts, Davis caught the attention of critics with her small role in 2002's Antwone Fisher. She made the most out of her one scene in the film, in which she barely speaks. Her turn as the mother of a troubled navy sailor (Derek Luke) brought her critical praise and an Independent Spirit Award nomination.
In 2008, Davis's career reached new heights with her nuanced performance in Doubt. She, once again, made a tremendous impression with a small supporting role, and showed she could hold her own against some of Hollywood's greatest talents. In the film, Davis played the mother of a boy who may have been sexually assaulted by a priest (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) at his Catholic school. She delivered an especially strong performance, as her character clashes with the school's principal (Meryl Streep) over her son and the alleged crime. For her work, Davis received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress.
Returning to the stage, Davis gave another show-stopping performance in Fences in 2010. She co-starred with Denzel Washington in this revival of the August Wilson play, portraying the wife in a long-married couple whose relationship is falling apart. The pair had great chemistry together, creating a believable and compelling portrait of a struggling marriage undone by infidelity. Both Davis and Washington won Tony Awards for their work on the production.
In 2011, Davis co-starred with Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain and Bryce Dallas Howard in the film adaptation of the best-selling book The Help by Kathryn Stockett. This 1960s drama shows the racial divide between white housewives and their African-American servants in a Southern town.
In the film, Davis plays Ailbileen, a maid who is interviewed by a young white writer named Skeeter for a book about the lives of "the help." The experiences of her character are familiar to Davis. "The women in this story were like my mother, my grandmother," she explained to Variety. "Women born and raised in the Deep South, working in tobacco and cotton fields, taking care of their kids and other people's kids, cleaning homes."
Davis worked with the director and screenwriter Tate Taylor to refine her character, making sure that her responses and actions were believable. Because racial tensions were so high during the time that the film is set in, she believed her character would have been afraid of saying too much to anyone. Davis played Aibileen with great restraint and won extensive praise for her work on the film.
Emmy & Oscar Wins
As an African-American actress, Davis continues to look for more meaningful roles and perhaps start up some projects of her own. "It is a time when Black women now have no choice but to take matters in their own hands and create images for ourselves ... It's up to us to look for the material, it's up to us to produce it ourselves, it's up to us to choose the stories."
Over the next few years, Davis took on some interesting parts. She appeared in the 2013 science fiction movie Ender's Game and played singer James Brown's mother in the 2014 biopic Get on Up.
Davis then tackled an important television project. She stars in How to Get Away with Murder as Professor Annalise Keating. The often edgy mystery drama series is the brainchild of Shonda Rhimes of Grey's Anatomy and Scandal fame. In 2015, Davis won an Emmy for her role and made history, becoming the first African-American performer to win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. The emotional Davis cited the experiences of Harriet Tubman and honored the work done by others, including fellow black actresses, to bring forth a more diverse creative industry.
"The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes, people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black," she said in her speech. "And to the Taraji P. Hensons, the Kerry Washingtons, the Halle Berrys, the Nicole Beharies, the Meagan Goods, to Gabrielle Union: Thank you for taking us over that line. Thank you to the Television Academy."
In the same year of her historic Emmy win Davis appeared in the thriller Blackhat with Chris Hemsworth and the drama Lila & Eve with Jennifer Lopez. In 2016, she appeared in the drama Courtroom, the action film Suicide Squad and she received a Golden Globe award for reprising her role as Rose Maxson in the film adaptation of Fences, co-starring Denzel Washington. After receiving the award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, Davis dedicated the honor to her father, who she said was “born in 1936, groomed horses, had a fifth-grade education, didn’t know how to read until he was 15 . . . [but] he had a story and it deserved to be told, and August Wilson told it.”
In 2017, Davis received her first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Fences. In her powerful acceptance speech, Davis spoke about portraying "ordinary people" and their human experience. “You know, there is one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered and that’s the graveyard,” she said. “People ask me all the time — what kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola? And I say exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories — the stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition, people who fell in love and lost.”
“I became an artist and thank God I did,” she continued “because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.”
Davis lives in Los Angeles with her husband, actor Julius Tennon. The couple adopted a daughter, Genesis, in 2011.
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