Viola Davis On Surviving a Hungry, Impoverished Childhood: 'It's My Way of Healing'

by Jessica Roy 4:18 PM PDT, March 31, 2015
Playing Viola Davis On Surviving a Hungry, Impoverished Childhood: 'It's My Way of Healing'

One in five children in America lives in a household without enough food. Viola Davis was once one of them.

The movie and TV superstar has an incredible resume: She's been nominated for two Academy Awards and three Golden Globes and has taken home trophies from the SAG Awards, the Tonys, the People's Choice Awards, the NAACP Image Awards, and many others. Her starring turn in How To Get Away With Murder drove one of the biggest breakout hits of the year.

But as a young girl growing up in Central Falls, Rhode Island, Davis lived in extreme poverty. Her house had no plumbing, no phone, and was infested with rats. She's been candid about how she was so hungry she resorted to stealing food or diving for scraps in maggot-filled dumpsters.

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As a child, the hunger would impact her basic ability to function. "I would go to school at 8 a.m., and by 8:15 I was sleepy, I couldn't wake up," Davis tells ET. "I remember I fell asleep during my SATs!"

But an "a-ha" moment that gave her something to work toward.

"I saw the [TV movie] The Autobiography of Miss. Jane Pittman with Cicely Tyson, so in the midst of all of that poverty, a dream was born," she says. "Your dreams have to be bigger than your circumstances."

Now, Davis is sitting down with ET's Nischelle Turner to discuss how her childhood inspired her to get involved for the second year in a row with Hunger Is, a joint initiative between The Safeway Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation.

In their first year, the campaign raised $4.6 million and was able to give grants to 198 community charities that help hungry kids. Their stated goal is to completely eradicate childhood hunger.

"I like that word, 'eradicate,'" Davis says.

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The How to Get Away With Murder star first spoke about her difficult childhood last year the Variety Women in Power Luncheon.

"Although my childhood was filled with many happy memories, it was also spent in abject poverty," she said at the time. "I sacrificed a childhood for food and grew up in immense shame,"

She reveals to ET that it had been difficult to be around impoverished children when she was filming the PSA for Hunger Is.

"It was very emotional for me, being with kids, because it was like looking at myself," Davis admits. "And also it was when I first partnered with Safeway and Entertainment Industry Foundation, so it was really the first time I opened my mouth to share my story, and so it brought me back to that child that I was."

But she says sharing her story has also been therapeutic.

"It's my way of healing that little child that always follows me with a little ponytail, that was diving through dumpsters, it's my way of hushing her a little bit, putting a smile on her face," Davis says. "I think it's the least I can do as I'm walking down the red carpet."

Davis says ultimately, if her involvement with Hunger Is helps kids in need, her own struggles will have been worth it.

"All the hunger I went through, and the poverty, has brought me here today to speak for the Safeway and Entertainment Industry Foundation," she says. "It is a beautiful thing to live a life bigger than oneself."


To contribute to the Hunger Is campaign, visit a Safeway or Albertson's store during the month of April and donate at the register. They are also looking for volunteers for their program.

You can also make a donation online here. Visit to learn more.