Viola Davis evokes glamour.
The 56-year-old Oscar-, Emmy- and Tony-winning actor is the first Black woman to win that awards triple crown, so it’s no surprise her name frequently appears alongside meryl streep‘s in any serious conversation about our greatest living actresses. She’s a frequent show-stopper on the red carpet, she was named spokeswoman for beauty brand L’Oréal and plays first lady michelle obama in the new Showtime series “The First Lady.”
But Davis’ raw new memoir “Finding Me” (HarperOne, 304 pp., out now) reveals anything but glamor on her path to flame and glory.
It’s clear from the first page that Davis is going to serve a more intimate, unpolished account than is typical of the average (often ghost-written) celebrity memoir; “Finding Me” reads like Davis is sitting you down for a one-on-one conversation about her life de ella, warts and all.
In the beginning, she recalls how in the third grade “eight or nine white boys in my class made it their daily, end-of-school ritual to chase me like dogs hunting prey.” They would throw things – pinecones, rocks, even bricks – and call her names of her and racial slurs of her. When she ran from them, she felt like she was running for her life from her.
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She writes of an “aha” moment she had decades later talking with costar Will Smith on the set of “Suicide Squad” when the actor asked her, “Viola, who are you?”
What did he mean, she asked?
“Look, I’m always going to be that 15-year-old boy whose girlfriend broke up with him,” Smith told her. “That’s always going to be me. So, who are you?
Davis writes, “There I was, a working actress with steady gigs, Broadway credits, multiple industry awards, and a reputation of bringing professionalism and excellence to any project. Hell, Oprah knew who I was. Yet, sitting there conversing with Will Smith, I was still that little, terrified, third-grade Black girl.”
Here’s what we learned about Davis reading her memoir.
Viola Davis’ childhood was marked by poverty, abuse and rats
Davis was born the fifth of six children on a plantation in St. Matthews, South Carolina, into deep, dysfunctional poverty. When her family de ella relocated to Central Falls, Rhode Island, they moved into a dilapidated home where they frequently went without electricity, gas, hot water or a phone.
No money and the freezing cold meant laundry would often go unwashed for weeks. “That, compounded with the bed-wetting, made for a home with a horrific smell,” Davis writes. And it was infested with rats. “In fact, the rats were so bad, they ate the faces off my dolls.”
Her father was an abusive alcoholic who had frequent affairs. She writes of one memorable encounter when her father took her to a woman’s apartment and she opened the door naked. Things were not better when he stayed home with his family from him, though. Davis writes unsparingly of her father’s physical abuse of her, which he primarily directed at their mother of her. Of one such early incident, Davis writes, “Then he just swung his hand and smashed the glass on the side of my mom’s head and I saw the glass slice the upper side of her face near her de ella eye and blood just squirted out. A lot of blood.”
Her father wasn’t the only abusive member of the Davis house. “My three sisters and I… were often left unsupervised with my brother in our apartment — sexual curiosity would cross the line,” Davis writes. “He would chase us. We would lose. And eventually other inappropriate behavior occurred that had a profound effect.”
For all her trauma, Davis writes with loving forgiveness of her family: they “did the best they could with what they were given.”
“There is an emotional abandonment that comes with poverty and being Black,” Davis writes. “The weight of generational trauma and having to fight for your basic needs doesn’t leave room for anything else. You just believe you’re the leftovers.”
Cicely Tyson showed Davis the way, racism tried to keep her down
So how was Davis able to overcome so much trauma in a system rigged against her to become one of our most celebrated living actors?
It began with Cicely Tyson. Davis recalls something magical happened when a woman as Black as her appeared on her TV one night: Tyson in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”
“She had a long neck and was beautiful, dark-skinned, glistening with sweat, high cheekbones, thick, full lips, and a clean, short Afro,” Davis writes. “It was like a hand reached for mine and I finally saw my way out.”
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Tyson lit the spark and Davis did the work, but a handful of teachers and mentors played key roles making sure she succeeded. When she was a teenager, she began taking acting classes through the federally funded education program Upward Bound, and there she met her first important acting coach, Ron Stetson.
One day, Stetson overheard Davis and her sister mention that they weren’t pretty.
“Wait! You both don’t think you’re pretty?” I have asked. “You both are (expletive) beautiful! I always thought that. You don’t see it?”
It was something Davis had needed to hear her whole life.
“It’s that life-changing thing that happens when you’re seen, valued, and adored,” Davis writes. “When you are a dark-skin girl, no one simply adores you.”
That validation of her Black beauty came at a crucial time but was hard to find elsewhere. When she got into acting school at prestigious Juilliard in New York, she was only one of 30 Black students out of 856 total.
“It was arduous listening and watching white guest actors perform, white playwrights coming in to speak, white projects, white characters, a European approach to the work, speech, voice, movement,” Davis writes. “Everyone was geared toward molding and shaping you into a perfect white actor.”
All that classical training and little practical application for Davis as she auditioned for parts in Hollywood.
“Almost every role I auditioned for were drug-addicted mothers,” Davis writes. “Not a lot of filmmakers are looking for trained Black actors to play drug addicts. Those actors are told that they’re not Black enough.”
“I did a huge slate of what I call ‘best friends to white women’ roles,” Davis writes, referencing her roles opposite Diane Lane in “Nights in Rodanthe” and Julia Roberts in “Eat Pray Love.” Even after her Oscar nominations for “Doubt” and “The Help,” she wasn’t getting offered desirable leading roles – not until Shonda Rhimes cast her in the career-changing, Emmy-winning lead role of ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder.”
“As Black women, we are complicated. We are feminine. We are sexual. We are beautiful. We’re pretty. There are people out there who desire us. We are serving,” Davis writes. “So that’s why I’m very aware of what my presence means.”
Even Davis was starstruck by George Clooney and Meryl Streep
For all her star power, Davis is not immune to getting starstruck herself – like the time George Clooney invited her to stay at his palatial Italian villa.
“George was and is the nicest human being,” Davis writes. The two had starred together in the 2002 film “Solaris”; Later, at the premiere of her film “Far From Heaven,” she mentioned to Clooney that she and her partner Julius Tennon had just been married. “Listen, when you guys are ready, come to my villa in Italy. You can stay for free and I’ll send someone to pick you up from the airport,” Clooney told her.
She was shy, but she couldn’t not take Clooney up on the offer. When she and her husband flew into Milan, Clooney sent a car to pick them up for one of the most magical vacations of her life, dining on gourmet meals while overlooking Lake Como. “I felt like I was in ‘The Great Gatsby,’ Davis writes.
She was even less chill when she was cast alongside Meryl Streep in the 2008 film “Doubt,” for which they’d both be nominated for Oscars. She was in full freak-out mode before their first rehearsal together.
“I got two yellow cans of homeopathic stress relief tablets from the health food store and downed one can in less than an hour. I was that nervous, terrified,” Davis writes. “She simply is seen as the best, and acting opposite her de ella agitates the biggest beast that lives within every actor… the impostor syndrome.”
But Davis found in Streep a kindred artistic spirit committed to the craft – and a new friend.
“Eventually, we had the best conversations. About life, about her children, and about the work. It was perfection,” Davis writes. “In between scenes, she’d share a chocolate with me. We ate a lot of chocolate.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism