It’s Oscar weekend 2018, so it’s no surprise that we’ve been seeing a lot of Viola Davis. The three-time Academy Award nominee, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 2016’s Fences‚ is a regular on the awards circuit and is often called the “black Meryl Streep”—to which she rightly responds, “[then] pay me what I’m worth.”
Indeed, it’s Davis’ frank, fearless and unfailing honesty—in her acting roles, her rising visibility as an advocate for equal rights and pay, and her willingness to talk about her own experiences of poverty and sexual abuse—that has so endeared her to us.
So it’s no surprise that Davis didn’t hold back when speaking to digital magazine Porter Edit about the game-changing opportunity that came with playing Annalise Keating, the character that elevated her from supporting film roles into a leading—and sexually liberated—lady of television drama:
I’m 52 and darker than a paper bag. Women who look like me are relegated to the back of the bus, auditioning for crackheads and mammas and the person with a hand on her hip who is always described as ‘sassy’ or ‘soulful’. I’ve had a 30-year career and I have rarely gotten roles that are fleshed out, even a little bit. I mean, you wouldn’t think [these characters] have a vagina. Annalise Keating has changed the game. I don’t even care if she doesn’t make sense. I love that she’s unrestricted, that every week I actually have to fight [showrunner] Peter Nowalk not to have another love scene. When does that ever happen?
That liberation has also been a revelation for Davis, who had to tap into a previously unexplored aspect of her tremendous talent to be free enough to play a woman in touch with her own sexuality and desire. Part of that process was realizing that sexiness doesn’t only come in one package:
... because very rarely in my career – and in my life – have I been allowed to explore that part of myself, to be given permission to know that is an aspect of my humanity, that I desire and am desired. I always felt in playing sexuality you have to look a certain way, to be a certain size, to walk a certain way. Until I realized that what makes people lean in is when they see themselves. There’s no way I am going to believe that all women who are sexualized are size zero or two, all have straight hair, all look like sex kittens every time they go to bed and want sex from their man, all are heterosexual. I am mirroring women. I always say it is not my job to be sexy, it’s my job to be sexual. That’s the difference.
Davis goes on to discuss the wage gap in Hollywood, referencing the recent move by actress Jessica Chastain to ensure that she and her Oscar-winning co-star Octavia Spencer would make equal pay on their next film together. Says Davis: “Caucasian women have to stand in solidarity with us. And they have to understand we are not in the same boat.”
And as both a Hollywood heavyweight and a survivor of sexual abuse, when asked if the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements would have gained momentum if brought forward by women of color, she is emphatically clear:
No. Recy Taylor came forward in 1944 when she was gang raped by six men in Alabama. Tarana Burke was the founder of the #MeToo movement in 2006. There are plenty of black women who have come forward. I don’t think people feel we deserve the same empathy. Or investment. We are not as valued.
Davis has plenty more to say on the hypocrisy of Hollywood and how she navigates it as a black woman. You can read her entire interview online at Porter Edit, alongside a gorgeous—and very sexy—editorial.